National Life and Shared Values and Public Policy Priorities

This was the title of a debate initiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the House of Lords on 2 December.

The Church Times reported that he called for “a more beautiful and better common narrative”, that would enable Britain to “play a powerful, hopeful, and confident role in the world”, and resist “the turn inward that will leave us alone in the darkness, despairing and vulnerable”.

In the five-hour debate that ensued, peers discussed questions of universality and relativism — values change as society evolves, contributors suggested — in their attempts to respond to the Archbishop’s motion (to “Take note of the shared values underpinning our national life and their role in shaping public policy priorities”). Dostoevsky, Thomas Aquinas, and Walt Whitman were quoted.

The report also said that “other peers regretted the ways in which the Church failed to reflect their values. Baroness Berridge pointed to the lack of non-white bishops, and the fact that practising Christians were more likely to have a university-level qualification than the population at large.”

Here’s what I said in full:

The most reverend Primate has given us a huge topic. I noticed, as I read his speeches, that he often weeps: I do not but I thought I would choose the two issues that make me want to. These shared values will be inculcated in institutions that operationalise policy, so I will comment briefly on the two I feel I am part of: the Church and this House.

Migration to the United Kingdom has changed aspects of our population over the last 70 years, so it is important to consider by whom values are shared or understood. Some 64 million people reside in the UK, but that includes 5.3 million who are not British citizens; 3.3 million who are British citizens but were born outside the UK; and perhaps we ought now to include the approximately 1 million British citizens living abroad who will soon be able to vote in our general elections. As far as I can trace, millions now self-define as British black, British Indian, British Muslim, as well as English. Our policies have to be formulated for everyone, so everyone needs a role in creating these shared values.

For years I have mused on the right analogy for how I see Britain’s values. Analogies are never perfect but the best model I have seen is the families who have children and then adopt others as well. The robust framework of who you are as a family is essential for everyone, so natural children still identify with the ​values but adopted children have a framework to join. But a decade or so later the values will have altered—perhaps even the framework—as new people have a role in forming it. It is not unrecognisable, of course, but it is different. The institutions of the United Kingdom have to keep their role but be elastic enough to change to allow the input of others, not just their inclusion.

The first of the two issues that make me want to weep is the Prime Minister’s welcome announcement of the systematic collection of data on racial inequalities across health, education and employment. This is not just data: it is people’s lives—friends who tell me that when they look for work as black women they just accept that they will be paid less than their white counterparts. For 10 years I have had the pleasure of working with many of Britain’s ethnic minority communities and there has been progress—for example, we have the first ever black British-born Lord-Lieutenant of London, Ken Olisa—but still many of the issues are similar. A report this week from Elevation Networks outlined that charity boards and trustees are less diverse than the FTSE 100.

This institution will change—perhaps reduce in size—but as regards a proposal that each group of us just votes to retain a certain number, what if no group votes to select any BME representation to remain? Justifiably we will be reformed as we will have pressed the self-destruct button. As a Baptist by original church attendance, I observe that this denomination seems to have taken racial diversity in its stride. About half the London leaders I spoke to recently were not white, and the president of the Baptist Union a few years ago was Pastor Kingsley Appiagyei, a British Ghanaian. I applaud the efforts and the heart of the Archbishop to reshape the Anglican Church, which has not appointed a non-white bishop since 1996—and, so far as I am aware, they have always been non-British born. While we welcome people from link dioceses abroad, the “Windrush” in 1948 did bring Anglicans—they were not all Pentecostal. How will the non-churchgoing generation react to national occasions with only white leadership on display, or to a Bishops’ Bench that will soon unfortunately potentially be racially undiverse? The shared value of racial diversity has to quickly become a shared reality for institutions.

The second issue that troubled me deeply arose when I served on the recent Select Committee on Social Mobility. Although I am a product of it, I became uncomfortable with the term. What did it say about the role of ordinary working people—generations of miners, shop workers and cleaners? Are they non-socially mobile? Where is the notion that your contribution and effort to the national vision is not determined by whether you are the highest or the lowest paid or do voluntary work? The APPG I co-chair has the London living wage charter mark, so I am not saying that we accept low pay. But as we stand here speaking today, that is possible only because police are on the gates, doorkeepers are at the entrance and caterers are cooking. These people have different roles but all together we make this institution perform its role. I fear that we have lost the love and respect for ordinary working people. Why do we not offer work experience here that gives young people an insight into all our roles—not ​just that of being a parliamentarian but all the roles behind the scenes? It might help inculcate here the respect that I often feel is lacking for ordinary working people.

I believe that on many levels Brexit was those people saying, “See me, I am here”. They are missing from our institutions. The Church of England’s recent survey showed that 44% of English people and 81% of English practising Christians have a university-level qualification or equivalent. The people to whom I referred are missing from our institutions because, quite frankly, a lot of them are just too busy working. The abbreviation of the moment in the Westminster bubble is JAMs—the “just about managing”. But I think that GPs have the correct acronym, TATTs—“tired all the time”.

It is especially acute at this time of year with the run from 31 August right through to 25 December without a bank holiday. While annual leave can be taken, there is something different when we have a national day off. It is a collective public statement of the value of rest, especially if, like Christmas Day or Easter Sunday, the shops are closed. Shop workers often lose out on that shared time off as a bank holiday means shopping for leisure. Three days a year when the shops are closed might be good—and, if it is a Remembrance Day bank holiday, perhaps even the websites might close down and just put a poppy on their pages. We did shut down the television for an hour for I Am Team GB on a bank holiday, but perhaps we could all use a day where everyone can think and reflect on the shared values that we need going forward.

Church Times article in full

Debate in full

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