Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Poisoned wells

I’m tired of how predictable, sterile and unproductive most public political (and religio-political) ‘debates’ are.

I was mildly interested last week to hear a pedestrian lecture on the rule of law (the annual Magna Carta Lecture in the Cathedral) by the Deputy Leader of the House of Lords. But the first question after the lecture was a cheap political shot about his move from Labour to the SDP years ago, and the last was a Suffragan Bishop’s drawing attention to the effect of cuts on the marginalised which was batted back with a lazy ‘the poor have the choice not to commit crime’.

I’ve long believed and sometimes said that Radio 4 is complicit in ‘poisoning the wells of democracy’, and was a little bucked up when Graham Linehan was reported as saying so: ‘the style of debate practised by the Today programme poisons discourse in this country; an arena in which there are no positions possible except diametrically opposed ones, where nuance is not permitted, where politicians are forced into defensive positions of utter banality - none of it is any good for the national conversation’.

But his saying so makes no difference. I’ve now read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s New Statesman editorial. Its purpose is to explain why an issue he edited has quite so much in it written by coalition ministers: ‘it seems worth encouraging the present government to clarify what it is aiming for in two or three areas, in the hope of sparking a livelier debate about what is going on, and perhaps even discover what the left’s big idea currently is’.

Fat chance. The reports of selected phrases in the editorial (which were not, for example, those which strongly challenge the opposition to provide something worthwhile to talk about), and the endless comments on it by those who have never read it, hardly relate at all to what he wrote. ‘The political debate in the UK at the moment feels pretty stuck,’ the Archbishop writes in his editorial, and we need ‘a long-term education policy at every level that will deliver the critical tools for democratic involvement’. Wish on, say I, since the wells of debate have been poisoned and drawing water from them for an healthy national conversation is now impossible, as the response to your editorial makes abundantly clear.

Anyway, the real reason I was in Lincoln was for the surreal experience of electing a new Bishop by the College of Canons (HM The Queen wrote to us and kindly provided a shortlist of one, the man whose appointed has already announced). I took this poor surreptitious photograph of some document being sealed as we sat in our places round the outer wall of the Cathedral’s Chapter House. It was, of course, good to be part of the historical theatre and to pray for him.

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