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David Howarth: I think that that was in Lord Scarman’s judgment. There is a difference between tending towards an immediate breach of the peace and tending towards the dissolution of the social order. The point worth making is that it might be an effect of the Human Rights Act that common law, like statute law, has to be interpreted so that it is compatible, as far as possible, with the Human Rights Act. Given that there is ambiguity, the interpretation of blasphemy as a public order matter is the interpretation that is most clearly compatible with the Act. That is how we got to the current situation.

One of the arguments against the further existence of the blasphemy offence is that there are other ways of dealing with civil strife—other criminal offences that are aimed at preventing widespread violence. They include riot, provoking violence, and all the public order offences that we discussed earlier, including the threatening, abusive or insulting language crimes, of which there are three, all of which can be aggravated religiously and racially. There is also incitement to racial hatred and incitement to religious hatred. Then, of course, there are all the terrorism offences. The definition of terrorism is using violence to influence the Government in the interests of an ideology or a political or religious cause. Again, that is aimed at the idea that it should be clearly criminal to act in a way that tends towards the dissolution of society.

In the background is the other common law offence that the House might at some point consider: the offence of sedition. It is sedition intentionally to excite attempts to change the law or constitution by unlawful means, or intentionally to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different groups in society. There are already other ways, either on the statute book or in
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common law, of dealing with what is now rightly seen as the fundamental point of the blasphemy and blasphemous libel offences, which is to prevent civil strife. The question whether to keep the offences comes down to the issue of the protection of a single religion. That is about discrimination, as the Minister said. The offence singles out a particular religious view for protection. It violates the idea that the state should not show favouritism towards any particular religious view, or to religious views rather than non-religious-model views.

Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Gentleman’s argument sounds like one for the disestablishment of the Church of England. Is that what he believes should happen?

David Howarth: I should say that it is the policy of my party to work towards the disestablishment of the Church, and the separation of Church and state. I am fairly comfortable with that position. I will come back to the issue in a moment, because it is relevant to another point that I will make.

The principle of the separation of Church and state is not about the separation of religion and politics, which I think is impossible. We cannot separate people’s moral, religious views from their political views. We are talking about the state, not about society, and about the religious commitments of the state, not about whether people in society are religious or not. In the course of debate we have heard three separate arguments against the idea of state neutrality in religion. The right hon. Lady just alluded to one of them; it might be called the “this is a Christian country” argument.

We do indeed have an established Church, we have Acts of Parliament such as the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which mandates an act of broadly Christian collective worship in schools, and we have Prayers in this place. The trouble with that point is that what is, is not necessarily what ought to be. It ignores the new circumstances in which we find ourselves, which make it important now more than ever to reject the idea of the mixture of Church and state, any notion of theocracy or any hint that the state should be built on a particular religious view.

8.30 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack: I had not intended to vote, but the hon. Gentleman has convinced me that I must vote against him. Is he not aware that the Government, in the person of the Prime Minister, no less, have proclaimed their support for the established Church, and therefore the maintenance of the status quo?

David Howarth: The battles in the House historically between the Conservatives and the Liberals have always been about issues such as this, but when I see the House now, I see the massed ranks of the Conservative party on both sides. I am therefore not surprised that that is the Government’s position.

There has always been a theoretical case for the separation of Church and state. It is in the US constitution, in the first amendment to it, and in the French statute of 1905 that separates Church and state. What I am talking about is a new factor. We are faced—not just internationally—with people who also have a theocratic view, which we find it difficult to argue against because
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of the vestiges of the admixture of Church and state in our own arrangements. If we are arguing against the use of blasphemy laws, for example, in Pakistan or in Iran, it is difficult for us to do that while we maintain in vestigial form, a form that is not used very often, the same sort of law in this country.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that for the sort of people who run Pakistan or Iran, it would make the slightest difference to the way they run their countries if we sent such a signal in the way that we run our democratic country?

David Howarth: Not at all, but the signals are to young people in our own cities. One of the things that the former Prime Minister often talked about, on which people did not take him seriously—perhaps they should not have taken him seriously on other matters, but on this they should have taken him seriously—is the idea that we are in an ideological battle with certain ideas for the hearts and minds of young people in our own cities.

If there are people who are arguing for a new caliphate, for the idea of a religiously based state, who argue for a complete mixture of politics and religion in Church and state, it does us harm in arguing for our position in that ideological battle that we still vestigially maintain that sort of arrangement in our own constitution. It is not about what happens in other countries; it is about what happens here, in our own cities.

That is the first argument—the “Britain is a Christian country” argument, which I as a Liberal have always believed does not lead to the idea of establishing particular Church views in our constitution.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is making a well argued case, with which I totally disagree. On the point of this country being a Christian country, is it not right that in the last census about three quarters of the population said they were Christians?

David Howarth: Yes, indeed, and 10 per cent. of people go to church, and as the Bishops pointed out in the equivalent debate in another place, about four in 10 people go to carol services.

The argument comes down to the difference between society and state, which if one is a Liberal, one understands, and if one is a Tory, one probably does not. If one is a socialist, one does not understand it at all. The fact that our society is, in majority terms, still Christian is not in itself any sort of argument that the state should adopt a discriminatory stance towards that religion.

The second argument that I have heard might be called the affirmation of identity argument. It is an argument put forward by Christians who feel themselves to be threatened—not people in the position of hon. Members in the House today, who are very confident in their social position and their religious views, but people who feel that their Christianity is somehow threatened by changes in society that they have observed in their own lives.

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Mr. Cash: The hon. Gentleman places great emphasis on the question whether the issue is a Christian one. Does he accept that one of the ten commandments, which is not an exclusively Christian set of beliefs, is:

David Howarth: I am fascinated that the hon. Gentleman appears to be proposing a new criminal offence based on the Decalogue. I do not think that that is a route that he wants to go down. I was trying to make a more serious point, which is reflected in the letters that we receive from our constituents, who feel that their identity as Christians needs to be affirmed by the state.

I understand that feeling, but I think it ought to be resisted. As a Liberal, it seems to me to be objectionable, as well as sad, that people should look to the state for their sense of identity. They should not look to the Government or the law for their own sense of worth. They should look to themselves, their families and their other social relations. It is a deeply sinister idea that the state should help to create people’s identity. I realise that the Government frequently get close to that view in their debates about Britishness. That is a dangerous route to go down.

Mr. Leigh: So the hon. Gentleman believes that the state has no right to impose Acts of Parliament dealing with matters such as incitement to religious or racial hatred. He seems to be suggesting an ultra-Liberal point of view that the state has no role in that respect. Is that right?

David Howarth: Not at all. The state’s role is to prevent harm, but it must do so in a way that does not show favouritism to particular religious views.

The third argument that comes up in such debates and which is a serious argument, although I disagree with it, is the argument that the state needs to play some role in creating or maintaining a difference between the sacred and the profane, and that it is harmful for society if a category of the sacred is diminished. That is the view of the Archbishop of Canterbury. If one reads his lectures—not the ones that caused all the trouble, but lectures in the previous week about this issue—that was the central point that he was making. I shall read out part of what he said in that lecture, because it was an important contribution to the debate:

I respect that argument. I have known the archbishop for 25 years; we were fellows of the same Cambridge college for a while. However, I think that he is wrong. It does not matter that we have different reasons for agreeing on basic values, such as torture being wrong. What matters is that we agree. For the state to operate on the basis of consent—another important Liberal principle—it does not need the population to have uniform ideas or exactly the same religious practices; all it needs is an overlapping consensus about basic structures and values.

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In our society, there are fundamental differences about religion—not only between different religions, but between those who believe and those who do not. In such a society, an overlapping consensus is the best that we can hope for. If we do not work for that, we will end up with something worse. The problem with laws such as those against blasphemy, which favour particular religions, is that they make more difficult that overlapping consensus, in which people come from different directions to the same conclusions about value. Such laws imply that more virtue lies with the favoured religion than with others.

Dr. Lewis: I come back to the point that I made in my first intervention. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is an “overlapping consensus”—to use his phrase—that it is wrong deliberately to insult people’s most cherished religious beliefs? However, does he also believe that insults to the beliefs of the Jewish or Muslim faiths would be treated the same as insults to the beliefs of the Christian majority faith? I do not believe that there would be equality of treatment under the secular laws. I was originally going to abstain, but I am now inclined to support my Christian colleagues on this issue. I feel that they need extra protection, because their faith is particularly vulnerable in the current political environment.

David Howarth: That is a version of one of the arguments that I have mentioned. I respect it, but I do not think that it is right. Given the fundamental differences about religion—not just between religions, but between those who are religious and those who are not—we have to find a framework with which we can all live, if we are to get along. The one that says that the criminal law will deal with people who make remarks about religion that offend but do not harm people will send us in the wrong direction and make maintaining a cohesive society more difficult.

There are disagreements on the issue, but the question is the correct one. In the end, it is about whether the existence of the law of blasphemy makes this society more or less cohesive. I am afraid that it is the latter.

Mr. Bacon: That is the right question. However, by extension, the same question becomes one about whether the presence of one religion that is favoured in law by being a state religion makes cohesiveness more or less likely. The odd fact, which counters the hon. Gentleman’s argument, is that the leaders of pretty much all the other major faith communities are in favour of the continuation of the established Church of England.

David Howarth: It is true that there is more support for establishment among religious leaders than we would expect. However, they do not all believe in establishment, and they certainly do not all believe in the maintenance of the law of blasphemy.

The central point is about tolerance and cohesiveness. It is not plausible to say that maintaining a single state Church with privileges in law helps cohesiveness. In fact, there are religious scholars and sociologists of religion who say that it does not help religion either. Religious life flourishes far more in the United States, and some say that it is no accident that that country has no state Church. The Church there has to live by its own beliefs, attractiveness and words, not by being supported
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by the state itself. In the end, even if one is thinking solely of religious believers, there is a strong case for taking the Church out of the state.

Miss Widdecombe: I believe that we should disagree with their lordships’ amendment. I have not been persuaded by anything that I have listened to for the past 22 minutes or, indeed, by the brief remarks of the Minister.

8.45 pm

I should like to give what I think is a good illustration of the dangers of getting rid of our blasphemy laws, which apply very specifically to the Christian religion. We all remember the outbreak of outrage among the Muslim community when the Danish cartoons were published. If ever one wanted an example of a propensity for civil strife, one had it there. However, the point that I consider more relevant is that it served to demonstrate that Christianity does not receive equal treatment in our country. I was one of the worshippers who arrived at Westminster cathedral shortly after some of the Pope’s remarks had been rather badly misinterpreted, and I was confronted with banners being held by members of the Muslim community proclaiming, “Jesus is the slave of Allah—Islam will conquer Rome”: not one or two banners from one or two lunatics but a very large number. The police were there, but they did nothing. I do not, in fact, advocate that they should do something, because I am, as I have said before, a big believer in free speech. However, let us suppose the reverse and that I was stood outside a mosque with a big sign saying, “Allah is the slave of Jesus—Rome will conquer Islam”. I would be up before the bench before one could say “Jack Robinson”, or “Danish cartoon”. I could not do that—I do not think that the Minister would deny that—but they could. That, to me, is a clear demonstration that Christianity would not, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said, receive equal treatment.

Dr. Evan Harris rose—

Miss Widdecombe: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in due course—if I do not, I am sure he will remind me.

As I said in an earlier debate in this House, I am entirely in favour of free speech. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East would say to me that Christ was not God. That is not blasphemy, but an expression of religious opinion. However, if he were to do something completely different—to mock, to ridicule and to use, in the most horrible fashion, the person of Jesus Christ—that would be a direct assault on me as a Christian. What a lot of people fail to understand about blasphemy is that it hurts deeply and is deeply offensive. The reason the Muslim community got so worked up about those cartoons was that they did not mock Muslims—they mocked the Prophet. None of us would get worried about Christians being mocked, but when Christ is mocked, that is different. Most of us feel that with the way society is going, it is very unlikely that, out of good manners alone, if there were no final legal hurdle, Christians would be protected from that type of insult.

Dr. Harris rose—

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Miss Widdecombe: I give way to the hon. Gentleman, because he is dying to intervene.

Dr. Harris: When I tried to intervene earlier, the right hon. Lady was making a good point about the inequality of perception of what an insult is and her feeling that she would run the risk of being had up under our friends, the public order offences that we mentioned in an earlier debate. The answer is surely to get guarantees that her freedom of speech will be protected and that she is able to make that religious point instead of levelling down all the freedoms of speech to the lowest common denominator, which is what she seeks to do in preserving the blasphemy laws.

Miss Widdecombe: No—I think that the abolition of the blasphemy laws is a levelling down.

I rather take exception to the Minister’s comment, much expanded on in 22 minutes of waffle from the Liberal Front Bench, that the unique protection of Christianity is somehow—I use her own word—discriminatory. We have an established Church, and when I asked whether the Government wanted to abolish it, the Minister shook her head. If we call such protection discrimination, there is already discrimination built into our law. If we have an established Church, we need laws that reflect that. It is right that we keep that last legal hurdle and that people know that it is there. I am not suggesting, and no one with any common sense would do so, that it is an absolute protection against blasphemy—the Springer case proved that it is not. Nevertheless, it is there and it acts as some sort of small brake. I fear that if it is taken away, the inevitable result will be a huge outpouring of what we consider blasphemy, directed particularly against the Christian faith.

Maria Eagle: Does the right hon. Lady consider the current common law offences to be useable? One of our main points is that they are not useable any more.

Miss Widdecombe: I believe that they would be useable if the will to use them existed. “Jerry Springer: The Opera” could and should have been prosecuted because it was so extreme. The will to use those laws needs to be there. We are led in a whole number of ways by the notion of what we believe we should prosecute. There was and is insufficient will to prosecute blasphemy—it is not a fault of the law—just as there is insufficient will to prosecute practitioners of late abortions, even when they clearly fall outside the law. Somehow it is felt that we should not pursue that matter. The Minister will know that there is an enormous lack of will to ensure that the Hunting Act 2004 is enforced— [ Interruption. ] I thought that that was going to get more of a reaction. We should distinguish between what is useable and what is used: they are different concepts. I advocate that we keep the blasphemy laws because they could be used, and they would be a final safeguard in the current situation where Christians are being unfairly picked on.

Mr. Leigh: In response to what the Minister said earlier, if Bagehot were here, he would argue that we should not keep something just because it is entirely rational. There is something symbolic about the law in question. It is to do with our culture and tradition, so it has value in that sense.

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