Liberals must not defend the discriminatory status quo when supporting John Sentamu

Constitutional reform is a longstanding golden thread running through liberal political philosophy. We don’t believe the current system of government is fit for purpose. Liberals have long wanted to replace the House of Lords with an elected upper chamber accountable to voters. And liberals have long called for the disestablishment of the church and equality for people of all faiths and none. That’s because our values tell us that in a multi-faith society, handing law-making powers to a small number of people from a single faith tradition is discriminatory and illiberal.

So while I understand the motives of Liberal Democrats getting exercised about the government’s decision not to award John Sentamu a continuity peerage, I disagree with their arguments. The former Archbishop of York has a long and admirable history of campaigning for positive social change. That is not up for debate, though many will remember with some pain his opposition to equal marriage. If we had an elected upper chamber, I’m sure he’s exactly the sort of person who might belong in it.

But that does not mean Liberals should jettison our long-standing beliefs to champion his elevation to the peerage. Because while there is certainly a place for faith in our politics, that cannot be allowed to extend to special treatment for one faith at the expense of others. I’m yet to see anyone in our party call for the summary elevation to the peerage of senior members of other faiths. We might ask ourselves why and come up with the answer that it is an illogical argument for a liberal to make.

To those who feel injustice on behalf of John Sentamu, I suggest that we use this as an opportunity to again renew our calls for political reform and equality in the political system for those of all faiths and none. At these troubling times when liberalism is under threat from all sides, we must always revert to liberal first principles.

And in doing so, we must not settle for anything less than an end to cronyism and faith-based discrimination.

* Max Wilkinson is the Liberal Democrat parliamentary spokesperson for Cheltenham. He was the candidate at the 2019 general election and is a cabinet member on Cheltenham Borough Council.

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28 Comments

  • Of course the House of Lords is a constitutional nonsense, but the Liberal Democrat Party – especially, but not exclusively, under Clegg N.W.P. (2007-15) – couldn’t wait to add profusely to its numbers – to the amusement of those who happened to notice it. A nice little earner in more ways than one.

    I happen to agree with David Lammy, the shadow justice minister, who said : “No 10 broke a precedent and snubbed Britain’s first black archbishop for a peerage because it says the House of Lords is too large, but it made room for Ian Botham, Claire Fox and Theresa May’s husband”. But now apparently, Cummings & Johnson are doing the Hokey Cokey and the Reverend Prelate is in line for one shortly.

    It’s a storm in a Westminster teapot and Lib Dems with aspirations to go there such as Mr Wilkinson ought to focus more on the appalling levels of (often hidden) poverty in the UK. The latest report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation ought to give them more concern.

    UK Poverty 2019/20 | JRF – Joseph Rowntree Foundationwww.jrf.org.uk › report › uk-poverty-2019-20
    7 Feb 2020 — This is the 2019/20 edition of JRF’s annual report

  • I’ve worked with a fair number of Anglican bishops over the years and met several archbishops including Sentanu – I’ve every confidence he wouldn’t remember me! None of them regardless of ethnicity, gender, speaking ability or self-awareness should have been in the House of Lords. Max Wilkinson is spot on in the points he make. Giving Anglican bishops a constitutional place in the legislature is all about inappropriate power and whatever it says to people of other faiths it discourages people from taking Christianity seriously. Faith and politics can be related in a whole variety of ways for good and ill. Meanwhile I understand someone having an ambition to become an MP. I have friends in the House of Lords who do a good job (even one or two fellow-Methodist ministers) but I fear I shall never understand a seat on the red benches as the pinnacle of ambition.

  • John Marriott 20th Oct '20 - 10:26am

    No, Mr Wilkinson. Whilst I would like to see the House of Lords replaced by a Senate tomorrow, it still exists and probably will do so for many years to come unfortunately. While the opportunity exists to place retired Archbishops in the Lords, that tradition needs to be honoured, although I do agree with Geoff Reid here. So, not to have afforded John Sentamu that right smacks to me of covert and overt racism.

    Now, the former Archbishop would go up in my estimation if, like a few other notable public figures (John Major and Winston Churchill come to mind), having been offered it, he had turned it down.

  • I also loath the honours system but have to accept that it will not change in the foreseeable future but have to agree that it would make a bold statement if John Sentamu were to turn down the belated offer offer of a peerage and take a stand against the obvious cronyism which invades our society.

  • @John Marriott: “While the opportunity exists to place retired Archbishops in the Lords, that tradition needs to be honoured, although I do agree with Geoff Reid here. So, not to have afforded John Sentamu that right smacks to me of covert and overt racism.”

    I beg to differ.

    The tradition of placing retired Archbishops in the Lords is a recent one, it is most definitely not a “right”, or a legal entitlement of any sort, it should end, and the sooner it ends the better.

    And I would agree with Max Wilkinson that, if John Sentamu is ennobled, it should be because of his achievements in public life, not because of his old job title.

    It has been suggested, in the government’s defence, that the actual reason for his not having been ennobled as part of the latest list is an administrative hold-up. This may even be true, in which case it amounts to a delay rather than a denial.

    Whatever the government’s motivation, it has been all too easy to make accusations of racism, purely on the basis that John Sentamu was the first Archbishop of York from an ethnic minority.

    The fact is that we don’t know.

  • @Toby Keynes

    The fact that we don’t the reasons for the snub is part of the problem. People are left speculating as to why what had become standard practice for every other former Archbishop suddenly isn’t applied now. If there is another reason, the government should openly declare it so it can be scrutinised.

  • Toby Keynes 20th Oct '20 - 3:37pm

    @Krissib: “People are left speculating as to why what had become standard practice for every other former Archbishop suddenly isn’t applied now.”

    Well, of course; speculating is what people do.

    But “every other former Archbishop” is in fact just the last five (Michael Ramsay, Donald Coggan, Stuart Blanch, John Hapgood and David Hope) and, much earlier, Cosmo Gordon Lang.

    David Hope was ennobled way back in 2005; the Church of England has declined considerably since then.

    There is also a strong and very sensible tradition of the government not making public announcements about likely future ennoblements.

    Having said that, the Conservatives have been merrily trashing that tradition over the past year.

  • @ Krissib “The fact that we don’t the reasons for the snub is part of the problem”.

    It doesn’t have to be a snub. It may be just a typical Johnson/Cummings foul up. What Brexiteer Botham has to offer to the House of Lords is beyond me. The only mitigating factor is it would have been worse with Boycott.

  • John Marriott 20th Oct '20 - 7:23pm

    @Toby Keynes
    It’s the ‘optics, as they say. John Sentamu, incidentally an alumnus of my old college, brought a breath of fresh air to the job of Archbishop. I remember his removing his dog collar, for example and keeping it off in protest for a considerable time. He’s black, in case you haven’t noticed. So, why give even more ammunition to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign? Talk about scoring an own goal.

  • If this party doesn’t stop talking about its own introspective obsessions and start talking about issues that interest, affect and benefit the vast majority of the general public then it will go down its own plughole with barely a gurgle.

  • Tony Greaves 20th Oct '20 - 9:04pm

    What an oddly grumpy thread of comments! I have no idea of why Sentamu was missed off the list though my guess is cock-up more than anything else. This government is incompetent in so many areas, why should we think this is different?

    But it would be nice if fellow Liberal Democrats recognised the rather brilliant hard work that our group does in the Lords, on behalf of both the party and the people of this country. We don’t have to think the Lords as an institution is wonderful, or even a good thing, to recognise the work that is done.

    It would also be good if people saying “why don’t we call for reform?” remembered that this party just a few years ago was responsible for a Bill that would have resulted in an Upper House that would already have been 80% elected by the people on the basis of proportional representation. That Bill, part of the Coalition Agreement, was passed at Second Reading in the Commons by a huge majority of some 350 votes, and then blocked by the ultimate unholy alliance of right-wing Tory backbenchers (yes, by and large the leading Brexit lot) and the Labour Party front bench who put party political games before the future of the constitution. With the PM Cameron too feeble-gutted to force it through. If it had got to the Lords, a lot of them would not have liked it but it would have got through.

  • John Marriott 21st Oct '20 - 9:03am

    @Tony Greaves
    Come on, old chap, stop being the curmudgeon! As Groucho Marx once said; “I wouldn’t join any club that was prepared to have me as a member”.

    Enjoy your life of ermine. You probably deserved it and you obviously enjoy it and I have no doubt that you are doing good works. The fact that you and many other ‘Liberal’ worthies are still prepared to do so just makes it that much harder to get rid of it!

  • John Marriott: “He’s black, in case you haven’t noticed. So, why give even more ammunition to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign? Talk about scoring an own goal.”

    Perhaps a fairer indicator of Boris Johnson’s inclusive tendencies (or absence of) is not the absence of a Church of England dignitary who happens to be black, but the 9 nominations that actually come from Johnson in the first place: six men, three women, all white.

  • And what sort of people would sit in an elected Upper House ? I suspect the same ones as sit there now. People seem to be tired of the form of party political “Democracy” we “enjoy” now and are looking for something better. I do not see many signs that this party has any ideas that would grab the voter but there is evidence that young people have lost faith in the sort of ya boo politics that seems to be the only thing on offer now and they appear to like what they see in places like China where the Government just gets on with it and does not spend decades discussing what to do. Maybe Dominic Cummings’ time has come and we only have ourselves to blame.
    Unfortunately this might have meant we had the HS2 running empty trains from London to Birmingham with the collapse of commuting by train which seems to be continuing and that is the danger but at least we could stop the nonsense of sending millions of young people to finishing schools masquerading as universities then not having the sort of jobs to go to that they hoped for and expected. We will soon have masses of discontented people as they do in many other countries.

  • Thanks, Lynne – absolutely right.
    There’s a lot more to disestablishment than ending the Bishops’ reserved seats in the Lords, but it would definitely be a good start.

  • John Marriott 21st Oct '20 - 12:17pm

    Yes, disestablish the Church. But what about the House of Lords? People in glass houses and stones come to mind.

  • In a grown up world you wouldn’t need a royal family based on inheritance – although the Tory tabloids need them for entertainment circulation purposes in their version of a fantasy Brexit Britain world.

    One of the advantages in Scotland is that Holyrood is elected on a form of PR (as are
    local authorities) and there is no unelected second chamber. Another advantage is having a national bard who wrote :

    ” Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord,
    Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that,
    Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
    He’s but a coof for a’ that.
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    His ribband, star, an’ a’ that,
    The man o’ independent mind,
    He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

  • A clarification. I exempt my old and ancient friend Tony G. from being ‘a coof’. Lord Grumpy ? Yes, occasionally on justified occasions – but ‘a coof’ ? Never.

  • Toby Keynes 21st Oct '20 - 2:36pm

    John Marriott
    “Yes, disestablish the Church. But what about the House of Lords? People in glass houses and stones come to mind.”
    We need Lynne and her fellow LibDem peers in the Lords, to help vote through its eventual reform/abolition.
    She needs to stay there until it is done.
    In the meanwhile, the Lords is a fact of life.
    We can play by rules that we don’t like, and have some beneficial effect while we try to change them, or we can walk away on principle and sit on the sidelines carping.
    Stick with it, Lynne.

  • nvelope2003 21st Oct '20 - 4:43pm

    Still not much sign of any ideas which the voter might find interesting or even relevant. At the moment the House of Lords is useful so why knock it. In the real world people are rarely governed by logic or they would not run up huge debts by buying things they do not need. An elected Upper House is a great idea but few votes are likely to be gained by advocating it. Just cut the numbers. The US Senate represents 350 million people with 100 members. Why do we need over 800 lords when 100 or even 50 would do ? It is there to give jobs for the boys ( and girls).

  • Nonconformistradical 21st Oct '20 - 4:44pm

    “We need Lynne and her fellow LibDem peers in the Lords, to help vote through its eventual reform/abolition.
    She needs to stay there until it is done.”
    We do need a second chamber – for checks and balances. At present the only constitutional check we have on this runaway ‘government’ is being provided by the Lords.

    “In the meanwhile, the Lords is a fact of life.
    We can play by rules that we don’t like, and have some beneficial effect while we try to change them”
    Seconded

  • Toby Keynes 21st Oct '20 - 5:05pm

    @Nonconformistradical: “We do need a second chamber – for checks and balances. At present the only constitutional check we have on this runaway ‘government’ is being provided by the Lords.”
    Seconded.
    If the Lords were to be abolished, it would have to be replaced by something better.

  • Peter Hirst 21st Oct '20 - 5:35pm

    I don’t understand the logic of this piece. Does the colour of the former ArchBishop of York’s skin and racial origins really come into it? If he is to be honoured it should be on the basis of what he’s achieved. Criticising his possible peerage because it is unfair to others is leading the debate exactly in the wrong direction. We need to be the change we want to happen or it all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Max Wilkinson 23rd Oct '20 - 8:15pm

    Thanks to everybody for commenting. I’ve enjoyed reading the debate – particularly Lynne’s short and standout contribution.

    I feel I must just reply to the confusing comment by Peter Hirst: nowhere in my article have I mentioned race. I did so deliberately to address other matters In isolation. Of course, I would abhor discrimination on the grounds of race as much as I would on the grounds of faith.

  • nvelope2003 24th Oct '20 - 1:59pm

    Lynne Featherstone: Why ? and by the way I am a Methodist.

  • And answer came there none. Just a deafening silence from those who parrot slogans they do not understand.

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