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6 May 2008 : Column 650

Miss Widdecombe: I agree with my hon. Friend and I look forward to hearing him make that case in his own contribution. That is the end of mine.

Mr. Cash: I agree very much with the sentiments expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). I have mentioned a couple of legal cases, and one of the problems is that the matter is a fundamental question of law. There is a constant draining away of our spiritual and moral foundations; nothing is certain or clear any more. Sooner or later, someone will say, “What’s the point in the Queen having to take an oath? What is the point in Members of Parliament doing so?”

There were similar cases in the Liberal past. Mr. Bradlaugh, for example, took exception to taking an oath, but that was not because he wanted to attack the Christian religion; it was a matter of personal conviction. He was supported by many in the Liberal party, such as John Bright and others, who believed profoundly that a person should be entitled, as a matter of freedom of speech, to take such a position. An unlevel playing field is emerging, and I endorse what my right hon. Friend said about the situation outside Westminster cathedral. If the situation had been reversed, there is no doubt whatever that there would have been a serious onslaught on the person or persons taking part in the demonstration. I am glad to say that I do not believe—with slight reservations about some of the more extreme racist elements in our society—that those circumstances would arise in the first place. We are a tolerant and fair-minded people.

Even in the days of empire, we made a significant case for toleration of other religions in those parts of the world where we held governmental sway. We went out of our way to ensure that people were properly protected. Taking such a position is a judgment of wisdom and statesmanship. That is one of the reasons why, for example, even in Roman times, there was recognition of the other religions that existed within Rome’s overarching jurisdiction. It is also a reason for the extent of the aversion to the Bulgarian atrocities when the Ottoman empire engaged in a process of genocide, which led the Government of this country to take such a strong position against events there.

At the heart of our debate is a question about what sort of society we are. I believe that we are a Christian society and that we should be tolerant of other religions, but that is not to say that we should back away from the fundamentals that underpin our Christian way of life. The law of blasphemy lies at the heart of that.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): I agree with my hon. Friend, but is not there a danger that less tolerant minority faiths will perceive a blasphemy law as something to which they aspire to protect the less tolerant version of their faith?

Mr. Cash: I understand that case, and I believe that the point is well made. However, it is said time and again that our society is based on certain fundamental values—the Prime Minister speaks about the “values of our society” and our leader talks in a similar vein. If those words are to mean anything, they must ultimately depend on the spiritual foundations on which the values are based. If people on the other side of another
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religious divide happen to take the position that they would like the law of blasphemy to apply to their religion and not to the Christian religion, and we followed that route, it would effectively be a form of appeasement. Indeed, in the case of Choudhury in 1991, the divisional court confirmed that the offence of blasphemy is limited to Christianity and does not extend to other religions. In that case, Islam was the religion in question.

Let me revert to the Liberal Democrat spokesman’s remarks. As I said in an intervention, in the matter of civil strife, which appears largely to have developed in the Jerry Springer case, I understand that the offence requires contemptuous and revolting behaviour, which would endanger society as a whole. That does not sit easily with the House of Lords case, which I mentioned earlier, of R. v. Lemon, in which the

In other words, in that House of Lords case, which as far I know still stands, precisely because it is a House of Lords case, the question of civil strife was not at the heart of the decision.

9 pm

There is an irony in the situation, as we move further downhill towards a secularised society, which is what this is all about. Make no mistake; I wait with interest, but without any trepidation, to hear the words of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). I have heard him on many occasions. He is like a mirror image of Richard Dawkins in his advocacy of the secular society. I have no doubt that he will put a powerful case by his standards, but unfortunately it will not convince me.

The case that the hon. Gentleman and others who wish to secularise our society put is based on something completely different. The idea of spiritual and moral values in respect of religious conviction is alien to them. The solution in their kind of society is to secularise—to dumb down and to be not merely politically correct, but to repudiate and to oppose. That is atheism and secularisation run together.

Mr. Bone: Is not the nub of the argument the signal that the decision that we make tonight will send to the country, rather than the practicality of the law? If we do not keep the blasphemy laws, we will be saying that we are moving towards a secular society.

Mr. Cash: I entirely agree. That is the reason I am speaking on this point. The secularisation of our society is the easy way out. That is not to say that we should not have full respect for other religions, that we should be intolerant of those who believe in Islam or that we should repudiate other religions or minimise the importance of other people’s beliefs. However, the law in question is related to a Christian’s notion of a belief in God, whereby God should be respected and no statements should be made that contradict the fundamental beliefs held by people who believe in God
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in a Christian society. We should stand by those provisions because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough said, they are an intrinsic part of the society in which we dwell.

Mr. Garnier: I shall probably regret this intervention, but the first point is that my hon. Friend meant our hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), not Peterborough.

Mr. Cash: That is a good point.

Mr. Garnier: The second point is that although my hon. Friend’s point is about religiosity and reinforcing the need for respect for religion in this country, particularly Christianity, the structure of his argument is based on a misunderstanding of history. The common law of blasphemy emerged as a tool of secular power. When the divine right of kings was reinforced by the threat of damnation, there was a need for a law of blasphemy, because it protected the power of state, in the person of the Crown. Now that things have moved on and we do not have internecine disputes between the Jacobites and the Protestants, as we had in 18th century England, which flowed from the problems that we faced in the Reformation—

Sir Patrick Cormack: Will my hon. and learned Friend give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that the point has been made for me.

Mr. Cash: I am extremely grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to my hon. Friend and next door neighbour, the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), for that. It is as well that we are keeping our sense of humour, even though we feel strongly and passionately about these matters.

I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) has just come in. I do not know whether anyone mentioned to him that I was on my feet, or whether it is just a happy coincidence that he has come in now. I am more than happy to give way to him at any moment if he wishes to intervene, because I know that he, like the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, feels strongly about these matters.

Mr. Garnier: My last intervention was far too long, but it contained a question that my hon. Friend might condescend to answer.

Mr. Cash: Yes; there is no doubt that the divine right of kings came to an end in 1649, when Charles I was executed. However, I point out that the basis of our modern constitution, which started in the period from the 1680s through to 1701 or 1702, and the Act of Settlement, firmly embedded the notion—irrespective of the Jacobites, who tended to be Catholic—that on the ultimate question of the relationship between religion and the state, they were to be regarded as intertwined. It has nothing to do with the divine right of kings. It is to do with the fact that there is an understanding of the fundamental values of society, and that they are reflected in the Glorious Revolution; they remain embedded in our constitutional arrangements.

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Mr. Leigh: Is it not somewhat bizarre that pretty much everyone who has spoken in defence of the Church of England so far has been a Catholic? [Interruption.] Apart from one practising Jew.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Non-practising.

Mr. Leigh: Does not that say something about the competence of the established Church?

Mr. Cash: I was a little troubled by the intervention of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York on this issue. Fortunately, we can say things in this House that are sometimes fairly close to the bone. Their letter did not get anything like the publicity that was given to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s alleged comments on sharia law, which veered in completely the opposite direction. When I heard about the letter, I was worried that the Archbishop of Canterbury had more or less, as far as I could understand it, come down in favour of abolishing the law of blasphemy. As a Roman Catholic, I find it inconceivable that our Pope would want the law of blasphemy to be removed in any shape or form, simply because it ultimately rests on whether one not only believes in God, but is prepared to stand up and defend one’s religion, which believes in those values. One need not defend it in a hostile manner, as compared with other religions; one can be quite clear about what one believes, and be prepared to get up and say that and to defend one’s religion.

I disagree with some of the interpretations of the origins of the law of blasphemy, which had nothing whatever to do with the divine right of kings—that was just a spurious argument put by the king to support a monarchical position that had become completely untenable. This position is not untenable; it is about religion and conviction. It is about moral values and whether we are prepared to stand up for them in our society. The law of blasphemy was brought into effect to defend those values.

Mr. Swayne: Is my hon. Friend suggesting, therefore, that this has less to do with the divine right of kings than with the inquisition?

Mr. Cash: I would not wish to go down the route of defending the inquisition, but let us leave that to one side.

The increasing secularisation of our society is diminishing our sense of values and our belief in the spiritual foundations of our western society. Some of us will continue to insist that that is the case.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Is not this also about our sense of identity and a link to our history? Once we detach people from their origins, we diminish them in all kinds of complex ways. That is the price that we pay for the secularisation of society.

Mr. Cash: I agree with that very strongly. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) also put his finger on it when he referred to the fact that this matter was symbolic, that it was a reflection of the kind of society that we want, and that to get rid of the law of blasphemy would send out a very bad
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message. I would go even further, and say that it would be positively dangerous to get rid of the law, precisely for those reasons. Somehow, the argument is being inverted and it is being suggested that we who believe in the law of blasphemy represent a danger to society by saying that we want a provision on the statute book that reinforces the values to which I have referred.

Maria Eagle: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made her views clear, but does the hon. Gentleman believe that the law is useable? Most of the courts do not seem to think that it is.

Mr. Cash: I am sorry to have to disabuse the Minister. I have here the most recent edition of the standard text on these matters, which states:

That quote emerges from a Law Commission working paper. I will not quote all the references, but the paper makes it quite clear that, about three years ago, despite the fact that the Law Commission decided in 1985, for whatever reason, that the law should be abolished, it was decided that it would not be abolished. That was a Government decision, or, at any rate, a decision made by official bodies; there were “no serious plans” to abolish the offence.

Furthermore, there have recently been a number of cases, and this brings us to the fundamental question. I have mentioned Wingrove v. United Kingdom, a 1996 case in which this issue was raised in the European Court of Human Rights. It was the European Court, for heaven’s sake, that held, in rejecting a complaint that the censorship violated the right to freedom of expression, that it could be justified under article 10 of the convention, which permits a wide margin of appreciation to contracting states,

That is a pretty recent judgment on the European convention on human rights. Despite the fact that I do not hold much brief for the European Court of Human Rights as a whole, it does not alter the fact that the reasoning is good. I hope that that helps to explain to the Minister why the issues we are debating today remain live, important and fundamental. That is why, for my part—and there are many others in the country at large—I believe that retaining the law of blasphemy is in the interests of the people of this country. To say so is by no means any criticism of other religions, in respect of which we should be tolerant, fair and understanding. We should acknowledge that other people have their right to their religion, but just as they must not abuse their rights, so we must not abuse ours. That is not a reason in itself for abolishing the fundamental basis on which the law of blasphemy rests.

Dr. Evan Harris: This evening is an historic occasion—one on which we abolish the blasphemy laws. When the Bill receives its Royal Assent, as I believe it will tomorrow, that will be another historic occasion. That will mean the ridding from our case law of a law that is chilling of freedom of expression and that provides an example of an unnecessary religious privilege.

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9.15 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Otiose.

Dr. Harris: Indeed. I agree.

It was also historic when the Lords passed the amendment, but that evening was apparently also the evening of the EU referendum vote here, which was of interest to more than one party, so the occasion was drowned out in the media. Nevertheless, it was a major step forward —[Interruption.] It is interesting to see so many Conservative Members in their places—I applaud them for it—to witness the draining away of unnecessary religious privilege. It is right that they should be here to see it, but it is also interesting to note what is being drained away in the context of the previous debate. Then, we heard clear and what I thought at the time to be sincere assertions that freedom of expression was important. When it came to the issue of incitement to homophobic hatred, we heard a number of speeches and interventions from Conservative Members claiming that freedom of speech was critical and that freedom of expression was under threat. Yet when it comes to an issue—blasphemy, as opposed to incitement to hatred—that causes individuals themselves no damage, making the case for proscribing it much weaker, those very same people argue that freedom of expression has to go in order to maintain their version of no change. They want to maintain some symbolic law or the safety of the UK constitution, which they fear may be shaken to its foundations by the abolition of these unnecessary and discriminatory laws.

Mr. Cash: The hon. Gentleman may recall that I referred to the Wingrove case. In that case, the European convention on human rights, which he obviously believes in profoundly, quite clearly rejected the complaint that censorship violated the right to freedom of expression.

Dr. Harris: I was about to come on to that. This is the third intervention in which the hon. Gentleman has made that point; I heard him the first time and was ready to deal with it the first time. Let me commend to him the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. In an all-party report, and a significant number of Conservatives were members of the Committee, whose conclusions were made very clear:

indeed, nowadays,

What the Wingrove case established was that the Strasbourg Court established a wide margin of appreciation for individual states in those days, but we can be confident that the Human Rights Act 1998 is such that the UK courts applying the European convention in this country would be very clear that this was unjustified discrimination. That is not just my view, but that of the legal advisers to the Joint Committee on Human Rights and many other authorities. In any event, even if there is doubt over whether the measure is either discriminatory or an unreasonable, unnecessary and unjustified chilling of free expression, we should be certain that we do not have that chilling effect, and that we do not suppress free expression.

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