Boris Johnson is a proven liar and a proven criminal, who broke his own laws, and continues to insist this is compatible with remaining as Prime Minister. The Archbishop of Canterbury is not a proven liar, not a proven criminal, and has a long record of genuine public service.
Yet yesterday morning newspapers which present themselves as arbiters of the public interest, and opine endlessly on questions of ethics and morality, decide that it is the proven liar and crook who deserves their support in an argument over, of all things, Godliness.
To justify their screaming headlines they dismiss Justin Welby’s thoughtful and measured Easter sermon as a ‘rant,’ and call in support a succession of rentaquote Tory MPs who urge the Archbishop to stay out of politics. Among them of course MPs who were keen to parade their Christian credentials over Easter, tweeting the news, Alleluia, Christ has risen, prompting most of the Jesus parody accounts to point out their rank hypocrisy.
The message of the Mail, Express type of propaganda rags and of the Tory sycophant MPs is that it is fine for ministers to talk about Jesus but religious figures should keep out of politics. But dig a little deeper and they are frankly suggesting religious leaders should keep out of religious affairs too.
This is the madness, I fear, that the pro-Johnson, pro-Brexit, populist, anti-fact, anti-reasoned debate right-wing media has inflicted on our debate. And I for one have increased my respect for the Archbishop in hearing him speak out as he did, on such an important day in the Church’s calendar, fully knowing that as a consequence that the pro-Johnson, pro-Brexit, populist, anti-fact, anti-reasoned debate right-wing rags would set upon him with their customary venality and viciousness.
When Parliament is failing to hold a lying crook properly to account – and we shall see this week if they fare any better than they have so far in the 1,000 days of Johnson’s dreadful Premiership; when the rule of law is being wilfully undermined; when the media is in the main so supine, then thank God for someone in a position of spiritual leadership speaking out with such clarity on such an important issue. I hope in a future sermon he turns his attention to the damage being done to our country and our public life by the incessant lying and the defence of lying that has become, according to a polling word cloud, the single most recognised quality associated with Johnson.
‘We don’t do God’ is probably the most quoted ‘soundbite’ of my time in Downing Street. But, as I told the Archbishop when I interviewed him for GQ a few years ago, though I am an atheist, I am a pro-faith atheist. I am interested in religion and I like and respect the faith of others, provided it is not used as an excuse for violence or hatred or division.
If you want to get a sense of the character of the Archbishop I suggest you take forty minutes of the day to watch the interview. He comes over as thoughtful, humane, wise, and humble, four qualities rarely associated with the man whose policy on refugees and asylum seekers he was criticising. Welby is living proof that while many Etonians turn out as selfish, narcissistic, arrogant and believing they are born to rule, not all do.
Despite – or perhaps because of, who knows – my atheism, I have been lucky enough to meet him and talk to him fairly often. We share an interest, not least through personal experience, as we discussed in the interview, in depression and mental health more generally. We share an interest in prison reform and it was through him that I met the Pentonville mental health and chaplaincy team with whom I have kept in touch and tried to support. I also always enjoy talking about the Bible, which whether you are a believer or not is one of the most remarkable books ever written, and of which his knowledge, even for an Archbishop, is remarkable.
If only ministers and MPs thought as deeply about their responsibilities to those they represent as he thinks about his. If only newspapers were as committed to fact and reasoned debate as he is.
What the Tories and their rags do is reshape any debate to suit whatever passing narrative is being dreamed up in Johnson’s journalistic head. So whereas once the narrative was that no laws were broken in No 10, and there were no parties, now it is that it is ok to break the law and because there is a war in Ukraine, it is time to move on from parties. Whereas once the narrative was that the Church of England was the Tory Party at prayer, when Welby speaks out, it is a hotbed of liberalism which should stick to God. But if the Church has no role in our political life why do we have bishops in the House of Lords? As ever the Tories and their rags pick only on those parts of the debate that suit the current Johnson agenda.
But when we have a liar as Prime Minister, and several parts of the media not merely failing to challenge the lies, but actively promoting and ventilating them, then we need the voices of people like Justin Welby more than ever.
Likewise when those with an active role in the running of our constitution trash it so badly, we need voices like those of Peter Hennessy more than ever and once you have listened to the Archbishop, I strongly recommend you listen to our foremost constitutional historian too. Here is the Mirror story on his comments, and here are some of his words set to Johnson’s face as he tried his latest greased piglet wriggle from responsibility and accountability
Partygate is now no longer about parties. It is about whether our politics and our constitution can survive if a thoroughly bad man reaches the top and decides that the rules simply do not apply to him, and if the normal checks and balances fail to deal with the crisis his conduct has created.
Knowing them both as I do, I think I can say with some confidence that Johnson is a genuinely bad man whose role in public life will do more and more damage the longer he is in office. Justin Welby is a good man who should be praised not criticised for speaking as he finds, according to beliefs that are deeply held.