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Talking of messages, my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) rightly pointed out that we are dealing not simply with a law that is perhaps anachronistic and perhaps has had difficulty being interpreted in the courtsI am at one with the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) that a lack of will was the reason why Jerry Springer: The Opera escaped
what should have been a proper prosecution that led to convictionbut with a law that is symbolic.
The act of abolition in which the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon wishes to rejoice will send out a signal to the entire nation. It is a dreadful time for this House to indicate that it no longer feels that religion is important and that the Church of England has a central role to play in our life in this country. It is a time when we desperately need to reassert moral values in this country. The fact that the archbishops have deserted the field is unfortunate, because that again sends out the wrong message, but my simple role in the Church is as a mere church warden. The Minister is wrong to suggest that no drift to secularisation is likely to flow from this proposal, because that is what will happenindeed, it is happeningand it is an important time to reassert moral values.
Furthermore, this act of abolishing the law of blasphemy also carries with it a risk that nothing is sacred in our country and that nothing ought to be given some sort of special protection. Our children will not understand if this House says that it is not important, because why then should anything be sacred? That would send a dreadful message to the young people of our country.
I shall merely add that I think that this is no time to be abolishing the law of blasphemy. I say that not necessarily because prosecutions of tomorrow will be denied, but because abolition would send a dangerous signal to this nation at a very difficult time for it.
Mr. Bacon: I was not originally going to speak in this debate, because I came along just to listen. I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth). I thought that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) was a little unfair in describing his contribution as waffle, because I think he made out a liberal rationalist case quite well. Rather like my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), the more I listened to the hon. Gentleman, the more I became convinced that it was my job to vote against him and everything he stands for. He spelled out clearly, from his position, exactly what so many Conservative Members object tothat is why so many of us are present.
These are not all liberal positions, and I say, without hesitation, that they are not all purely rationalist positions, because things such as religion, love of country, and culture and heritage are not purely rational. When I listened to the hon. Members for Cambridge and for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) I kept thinking that they started, as Liberals so often do, from a position of theory, they then tried to work out whether the practice fits it and if it did not, they scrubbed it and packed it all away.
I start from the opposite side of the argument, although I will use the framework used by the hon. Member for Cambridge. The first argument that he decried was the one that Britain is a Christian country. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) that it is. Britain is a Christian country. He made the point that we have discrimination in our law already, through the established Church, and that the leadersand many membersof most other faith groups, not just the Jewish community, are glad that we have an established religion.
Our established religion has evolved in such a way that it has become a tapestry on which all other religions can comfortably hang themselves within our culture. The very coronation of our monarch, who is the supreme governor of our Church, is organised by the senior Roman Catholic in this countrythe Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk. We have managed to avoid the turmoil that has afflicted many other countries precisely because we have started not from theory, but from what works. There is a famous Rembrandt paintingI saw it in an exhibition in Berlin, but it has also been on display in Amsterdam and hereof Dutch merchants in the 17th century. I will not try to name the painting, but what was interesting about it was that although the merchants all looked the same their religious backgrounds varied, but they had reached an accommodation that enabled them to rub along and live together in harmony.
It is an enormous tribute to our country that we can have you, Mr. Speaker, sitting in the Chair as a Roman Catholic without anyone commenting on that or its being a matter of great public debate, let alone concern. It is a huge tribute to the way in which our country has developed that that can be a matter of such little comment.
It remains the case that we are a Christian country, and more people go to church on a Sundayeven now in these times of diminished observance of the Christian faiththan go to football matches on a Saturday. I went to a Catholic church in the west midlands on Sunday morning because it was the first communion of my godson. I was allowed to become his godfather, even though I am not a Catholic. That might not happen in all countries, but it is not considered odd here.
I shall come on to the second argument outlined by the hon. Member for Cambridgeabout the affirmation of identityin a moment, but I wish first to address his third argument about the state needing to play some role in maintaining the distinction between the sacred and the profane. He thinks that that is wrong, and he is entitled to put that view. However, not only does the state have a role in distinguishing between the sacred and the profane, but it is normal for that to be the case in most countries.
Some years ago, I heard the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), who recently retired after serving as First Minister in Northern Ireland, make an interesting speech, which I looked up afterwards. He referred to many European countriesI can remember only fourwhere similar arrangements obtain. It is the case in the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark that the head of state has a specifically religious role. In Sweden and Denmark, the head of state must be a member in good standing of the Lutheran Church, and in the
Netherlands of the Dutch Reformed Church. Even in Spain, which has an explicit division between the state and religious life, the Spanish constitution provides a special place for the Catholic Church.
The hon. Member for Cambridge referred to the United Stateswe are all familiar with arguments about the first amendment. In the past, many people from my own constituency went to the US to obtain more religious freedom. The hon. Gentleman said that it was not an accident that the churches in the US flourish as they do, given an environment in which there is complete separation between Church and state. He may be right, but it is also not an accident that people who wanted that went to the US, and that people who did not stayed here. Many people did not leave my constituency in Norfolk or anywhere else, and some of those who went to Massachusetts in the 1670s or before came back to this country. We have to remember our culture, tapestry and traditions, and not just those of other countries.
As I said, the second point made by the hon. Gentleman was about the affirmation of identity. He is absolutely right: that is what all this is about, although he thinks it is wrong to use our religious traditions and institutions to establish identity.
Mr. Bacon: I recommend that the hon. Gentleman read Roger Scrutons book The West and the Rest, as I believe that he has it precisely the wrong way around. One is safer if the state plays some role than one is if it plays none at all and the only allegiance is to religion. I think that one needs a bit of both, but I strongly recommend the book.
Some years ago, when I was serving on the European Scrutiny Committee, I met Mr. Buttiglione, who bore the wonderful title of Minister of Productive Activities in the Italian Cabinet. I do not think that he had a role in promoting fertility in Italy: his job had more to do with trade and industry. However, at the time he was being proposed for the Italian European Commissioners post. He had to stand down, for no reason other than that he believed the central tenets of the Catholic Church and was foolish enough to say so.
Mr. Bacon: Well, I sent him a message of solidarity from his office, which had a ceiling as high as the one in this Chamber. It also had a balcony from which Mussolini could make speeches without having to descend among his Ministers.
Mr. Buttiglione was a learned scholar and political philosopher. I was struck by one of the things that he said, and I wrote it down. He said that there were three things at the heart of our western European identityGreek philosophy, Roman law and Christian morality. That is why, even though the Minister says that the law may not be usable, I tend to agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald that there is a distinction between what is usable and what is used.
The Minister said that the law would be used only in the most compelling circumstances, but did Jerry Springer: The Opera represent the most compelling circumstances? I have lost count of the number of times that I have sat in Committee and heard Ministers say that they will have a piece of legislation just in case.
Mr. Leigh: Ministers use that argument many times. There are tens of thousands of lines of legislation and laws that are never used, so why have the Government focused, laser-like, on this particular law?
Mr. Bacon: They have done so because it is part of their secularisation agenda. Some people think that, for every law put on the statute book, oneor even 10should be removed. That would get the statute book into some sort of bounds. That argument certainly works for tax legislation, but I fear that this law is part of a wider agenda of secularisation. Although the hon. Member for Cambridge made the argument that this is about affirmation of identity in order to dispute it and disagree with it, in the end that is exactly what this proposed law is about. It is also exactly why we should disagree with the Lords amendment.
Maria Eagle: This has been an excellent and enjoyable debate. Many contributions have been made, from a wide range of different perspectives. A wide range of approaches have been adopted, with hon. Members speaking from their knowledge of history, legal theory and political philosophy, as well as from their religious belief. However, it is not possible in the remaining time for me to cover every point that has been made. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me, but it has been striking how so many different positions have been set out by the main speakers in the debatefrom the secularism and wish to disestablish exhibited by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), to the political and legal theory propounded by the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) and the strongly held religious beliefs of many on the Conservative Benches. Many believe strongly that the laws are so much a part of our heritage that it would be desperately dangerousthat word has been used by Opposition Membersfor us to abolish the two common law offences, which have fallen into disuse.
We do not have much time, but let me say that the Government do not believe that removing the offences is the first step towards the disestablishment of the Church or the secularisation of our society, although some hon. Members have asserted that that is what it is, or what the Government believe it is, or that a hidden agenda is being pursued. If the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon has a hidden agenda, it is not very well hidden: he asserts his point of view every chance he gets, and whenever he stands up in the House.
The Government took an opportunity that arose as a result of the way the Bill proceeded to abolish the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel, but we do not believe that that is the first step towards the disestablishment of the Church of England as the state religion, or a step on a slippery slope towards the secularisation of our society. Probably all of us in the Chamber would say that our countrys Christian heritage has been a very important part of our society as it developed, and is an important part of the democratic, tolerant society that we all value. In recent centuries, although not in its early stages, that religion was fundamental in developing the freedom of speech that we have spent most of this afternoon saying how much we value and wish to defend from various positions.
It is true that the hon. Members for Cambridge and for Oxford, West and Abingdon have their views about where we should go next, as do many other hon. Members who have spoken from their religious opinions. Getting rid of offences on the statute book that have fallen into disuse is not an indication that the Government are going down one particular path. We are simply taking the opportunity to get rid of the offences; there is widespread agreement that that should be done, and widespread acceptance that that would be sensible, because they are no longer usable.
Mr. Cash: The Minister makes great play of the importance of making sure that there is no unfairness in the expression of opinion on the subject. I have a simple question: are Government Members on a free vote?
I do not believe for a moment that the fact that we are taking the opportunity to get rid of offences that have fallen into disuse and are no longer usable indicates that the Government are not in favour of Christianity, or want to disestablish the Church. I noticed that one or two Opposition Members, including the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), asserted that the problem was not that the offences were not usable, but that there was no will to use them. I would dispute that; I do not think that they are usable because of the way things have developed over the years. We have discussed those developments during the passage of the legislation. If it is simply a matter of will, the right hon. Lady will note that the last time someone tried to use the offences was in 1977they have not been used by the public authorities since 1920. So it is not simply the present Government or Labour Governments who have not sought to use the offences or not had the will to use them, but every Conservative Government as well.
I do not believe for a minute, and I am sure the right hon. Lady does not believe, that if the offences were to go when the Bill receives Royal assent and if the Commons agrees to the Lords amendments tonight, we will end up with a more secular society or a society that denies its Christian heritage. Christians and Christian organisations in this country are well able to assert their own history
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