POLITICS must not be reduced to “raw majority power unleashed” that normalises law-breaking, the Archbishop of Canterbury has warned. The UK “will suffer great harm” and peace between the home nations will be compromised, he told the House of Lords on Monday.
Archbishop Welby was contributing to a debate on the Internal Markets Bill which was given its second reading in the Lords. The Bill, which sets up internal arrangements for trading after the Brexit transition period ends, has been heavily criticised for breaking international law, something that the Government has admitted, and reversing the devolution of power in the UK.
“What we are above all called to do in this country, deeply embedded in our Christian culture and history, is to act justly and honestly,” the Archbishop told peers. “We cannot do so if we openly speak of breaking a treaty under international law reached at properly on which peace in part of the UK relies.”
He spoke in support of an amendment, tabled by Lord Judge, “that this House regrets that Part 5 of the Bill contains provisions which, if enacted, would undermine the rule of law and damage the reputation of the United Kingdom.”
Lord Judge was successful, and the Bill — as amended — was eventually passed by a cross-party majority of 226 on Tuesday afternoon, after two days of debate.
Concerning his amendment, Lord Judge said: “We hope that, one day, all the countries in the world that do not have respect for the rule of law will have it. Yet here we are, about to tear it into tatters. Our contribution to happier days around the world will be diminished. . .
“I know that I am not alone in finding it offensive that we are asked by a Minister in Parliament to seek Parliament’s authorisation to allow him to break the law deliberately and knowingly. Saying that it will be done only in a very specific and limited way is a total obfuscation.”
In a letter to The Financial Times on Monday, all five Anglican Primates of the UK and Ireland warned the Government that its Bill would set a “disastrous precedent” and “further undermine trust and goodwill” between the home nations if it was passed unamended.
The letter was frequently referred to in the debate, including by the Conservative peer Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, who expressed his disappointment, saying of the Primates: “Those who wish to break up Britain will be much encouraged by their efforts.” Its points were applauded by other speakers, however, as a “brave intervention”.
Archbishop Welby defended the letter, which he said followed “the lead of those who have spent their lives seeking peace in Ireland. Peace is surely something of which religious leaders should speak. . . This country has different characteristics and needs in its regions and nations. They must be reflected in all our relationships if the Union is to survive.
“There is no watertight door in relationships between economics and constitutional issues. They overflow from one into the other.”
He called for amendments which would “ensure that the process of peace and reconciliation is pursued, and that powers exercised under this Bill when it becomes law involve consultation amidst the immense complexities of Northern Ireland. I hope we may act on a cross-party basis.
“Politics, if it is to draw out the best of us, must be more than just the exercise of binaries, of raw majority power unleashed. . . Our reputation as a nation, our profoundly good and powerful influence and example which I know from experience around the world, will suffer great harm if law-breaking is pursued, greater harm than this Bill seeks to prevent.
“In the Church of England, my Lords, we are all too clearly aware of the shame that comes with failing morally. Let us not make that same mistake at national level. This House exists to amend and improve legislation, not to derail it, and that must be our urgent aim now.”
He continued: “The UK negotiated the Northern Ireland Protocol with the EU to ‘protect the 1998 Agreement in all its dimensions’. One year on, in this Bill, the UK Government is not only preparing to break the Protocol, but also to breach a fundamental tenet of the Agreement: namely by limiting the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights in Northern Ireland law.
“If carefully negotiated terms are not honoured and laws can be ‘legally’ broken, on what foundations does our democracy stand? We urge lawmakers to consider this Bill in the light of values and principles we would wish to characterise relationships across these islands long after the transition period.”
Despite his criticisms of the Bill, Archbishop Welby told peers that it was their responsibility to amend and improve the Bill, not to “derail” it.
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, in his speech, also questioned how ministers could be trusted, “given the underlying ethic of this Bill — and it is absolutely right for archbishops to ask questions of such matters”.
He went on: “Integrity and morality matter at the level of international relations and agreements — unless, of course, we are now agreeing to reduce all our relations and transactions to some sort of utilitarian pragmatism. . .
“A decision to prefer short-term pragmatism over long-term ethics will lead to a future in which a question mark will hang over any statement by those whose word and adherence to the rule of law cannot be trusted. More is at stake here than economics.”
No other bishops spoke in the debate, to which more than 100 peers contributed over several hours, though the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, posted on Twitter on Tuesday afternoon that he had been “pleased to vote in favour of Lord Judge’s amendment”.
The turnout for the debate was one of the highest recorded in the history of the Lords, and the vote had the largest majorities in about 20 years, it was reported.
Archbishop Welby posted on Twitter on Wednesday: “As expected there’s been lots of ‘clergy should stay out of politics’ since yesterday. Christians and people of all faiths take part in the national debate. This is democracy and freedom. I have seen the opposite. Treasure what we have.”