Divisiveness is shaking the country apart, warns Welby

26 September 2019

PA

Boris Johnson makes a statement to the House of Commons on Wednesday evening

Boris Johnson makes a statement to the House of Commons on Wednesday evening

DIVISIONS are shaking the country apart, the Archbishop of Canterbury said on Wednesday, after bishops returned to the House of Lords.

Archbishop Welby told peers that the divisions “are shaking us apart in all our great institutions, whether it is Parliament or the courts . . . causing serious damage to our economy”.

The debate followed the Supreme Court’s ruling on Tuesday that the Prime Minister’s prorogation of Parliament was unlawful and void.

Archbishop Welby was speaking before the Prime Minister made his Commons statement. When Boris Johnson finally faced MPs, he was uncontrite, portraying the court judgment as part of a ploy by those opposed to Brexit.

Mr Johnson hardly referred to the Supreme Court, instead choosing to set Parliament against “the people”. “The people outside this House understand what is happening. . . The Leader of the Opposition and his party don’t trust the people. . .

“Instead of deciding to let the voters decide, they ran for the courts. . . It is absolutely no disrespect to the judiciary to say I think the court was wrong.”

The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, described the performance as: “ten minutes of bluster from a dangerous Prime Minister who thinks he is above the law but in truth is not fit for the office he holds”.

Over in the Lords, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said that he was shocked to hear reports of the Prime Minister’s statement.

“We need humility, repentance when necessary and an approach that listens carefully to the views of others rather than simply ‘Attack, attack, attack’. . .

“In one sense I am simply adding to the mood of the House as a whole, but I come at it from a very different point of view: I am not part of a political party and I have no axe to grind. I simply want to reflect that this was terrible. It was shocking. It is not worthy. I am sorry.”

Archbishop Welby decribed the suggestion, attributed to Jacob Rees Mogg MP, that the court ruling constituted a coup d’état as “a slightly unlikely idea”.

He went on: “We are hearing in our debates the incapacity of Parliament not only to make a decision but to find any way through the deadlock. The divisions are so deep that we cannot expect, I fear . . . that cross-party work could bring a decision on what we do. But can we not at least ask the Government to look for alternative means of setting a path to making a decision?”

The Archbishop has been associated with a plan for a forum made up of non-politicians from across society (News, 30 August).

The Prime Minister was also criticised for repeatedly refusing to moderate his language.

Paula Sherriff, Labour MP for Dewsbury, invoked Jo Cox MP, murdered by a right-wing extremist just before the 2016 Referendum (News, 24 June 2016). She told the Commons: “We stand here under the shield of our departed friend, with many of us subjected to death threats and abuse every single day. They often quote his [Mr Johnson’s] words: ‘surrender act’, ‘betrayal’, ‘traitor’, and I for one am sick of it. We must moderate our language, and it has to come from the Prime Minister first. He should be absolutely ashamed of himself.”

Mr Johnson retorted: “I have to say I have never heard such humbug in all my life.” He said that the best way to honour the Ms Cox’s memory was to “get Brexit done”.

Ms Cox’s widower, Brendan Cox, later criticised Mr Johnson’s “sloppy language”. He said: “I was genuinely shocked by the willingness to descend to vitriol, because I think it does long-lasting harm. To have this debate descend into this bear pit of polarisation, I think it’s dangerous for our country.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Archbishop Welby had asked Lord Callanan, representing the Government: “Would the noble Lord agree with me that Parliament, justifiably or not, has seen its reputation sink very low over the last few months, and one of the ways of dealing with that is transparency?

“Would he, therefore . . ., undertake that the Government will be transparent in the spirit and not merely the letter of the law about the actions they take over the next few weeks in connection with an extension?”

Lord Callanan replied: “We always endeavour to be as transparent as possible with regard to these matters, while, of course, still preserving the confidentiality of the negotiations.”

The Church Times approached several bishops for a comment on the Supreme Court ruling.

The Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Revd David Urquhart, who convenes the Lords Spiritual, said that the court’s ruling had “not been surprising. . . I trust that the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary will be respected and upheld at this critical moment in our democracy.”

Although Opposition MPs, including Mr Corbyn, called for Mr Johnson’s resignation, they stopped short of initiating a vote of confidence. This was to avoid the risk of relinquishing the political timetable to the Prime Minister, who could use the delay caused by a General Election to push through a no-deal Brexit.

This ploy allowed the Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox QC, to berate Parliament, calling it a “disgrace”. He argued: “This Parliament is a dead Parliament. It should no longer sit. It has no moral right to sit on these green benches.”

In response, the Labour MP Barry Sheerman remarked that the Attorney General, who had provided legal support for the prorogation, had shown no shame, “no shame at all. . . For a man like this, a party like this, a leader like this, this Prime Minister, to talk about morals, and morality, is a disgrace.”


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