‘Toxic’ public debate is corrupting common life, says Bishop of Leeds

17 May 2019

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, speaks during the debate last week

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, speaks during the debate last week

THE use of violent language is a “danger to our democracy” and “corrupts the nature of our common life”, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, has said.

Speaking in a House of Lords debate, “Conduct of Debate in Public Life”, last week, Bishop Baines said: “If the conduct of debate in public life has become toxic, it is only because it has been in the interests of some people to allow it to be so.”

The debate came a fortnight before the European Parliament elections, which will take place next Thursday, and are expected to manifest divisions over Brexit afresh.

Bishop Baines said: “Jo Cox MP was murdered only ten miles from where I live, and I was there within the hour. Her attacker shouted slogans about ‘Britain first’ while killing her. Do we think this is just unfortunate, or do we admit the link between language, motivation, and action?

“What is going on here? Was the violent bile there already, and did the referendum of 2016 simply open a valve, or has the lack of any legal or political restraint sanctioned or legitimised the sort of language we hear and read now? This is not about hand-wringing wimpishness about robust debate; rather, it now sees MPs fearing for their safety.”

He spoke of the Labour MP Jess Phillips, who has faced abuse online and threats of sexual assault. Last week, a police investigation was launched into Carl Benjamin, UKIP’s candidate for South West England, who sent a tweet to Ms Phillips in 2016 saying, “I wouldn’t even rape you.”

Bishop Baines argued: “People are voicing violence that would have been deemed unacceptable three or four years ago, but which now is normal. This poses a danger to our democracy and corrupts the nature of our common life. It is not neutral and it is not trivial.”

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He urged members of the Lords and other politicians to “put our own house in order and lead by example”. This could be “by promoting a greater sense of responsibility among institutional and political figures who influence the public discourse, by making people who use such speech publicly accountable, and by offering counter-narratives that ensure that our children hear something good and witness a discourse that is respectful”.

The Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, also spoke in the same debate. He said that one reason for the “flourishing of destructive and harmful conduct and debate” was that “these things are rushing in to fill a vacuum”.

He went on: “Might part of this vacuum be the absence of, or at least the difficulty in articulating, a coherent, inclusive, overarching, and compelling national narrative which helps us to understand who and what we are, what our place is in the world, and how we might shape our common life for now and for the future in ways that are both visionary and realistic?”

Bishop Langstaff argued that a narrative needed to be found that applied to all of the UK, because it was “sadly not as sure of its unity and identity as we might wish”. He said: “The story needs to enable us to have a proper pride in who we are and what we stand for, and give us the language and desire to affirm that positively and confidently, not least in the face of those who would attack it.”

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