Voices: It’s not the Archbishop’s job to call the government ‘morally unacceptable’ – but someone’s got to do it
One moment you’re placing a crown on the head of the King, the next you’re pouring a bucket of excrement all over the government.
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s second biggest moment of the week may not have been quite so box office, but it was no less important. The aptly named Illegal Migration Bill (apt in the sense that it is almost certainly illegal) has made its way to the House of Lords where, somewhat unsurprisingly, it has not been well received.
This is the bill that seeks to legalise deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda before their claim for asylum has been heard – not just an obvious moral aberration, but a legal aberration, too.
It should hardly need to be stated that it isn’t normal for the head of the established church to stand up, four days after anointing the King with holy oil, to publicly defenestrate the government. It isn’t normal for the Archbishop of Canterbury to have to call what the elected government is trying to do “morally unacceptable.”
We have an antediluvian system, but it rarely gets as far as Lambeth Palace before certain questions are asked. Like, for example: Why do we want to make ourselves an international embarrassment? Which is precisely what the Illegal Migration Bill does.
It is very much not normal to be at a point where an unelected bishop has to stand up and say such things as: “The United Nations Human Rights Commissioner has warned that this bill could lead to the collapse of the international system of protecting refugees. Is that what the United Kingdom wants its contribution to be?”
Asylum laws are, by necessity, an international matter. That the UK imagines it can just get up and walk away from the table and somehow not look ridiculous shows precisely how ridiculous it has become.
The government knew the archbishop’s words were coming, so they did their best to undermine him, but the trouble is that their best involves Suella Braverman. They can’t do any better. She wrote in The Times that the House of Lords should “take note: our asylum bill delivers on the will of the people.”
The warning that the House of Lords should stand aside and let the government deliver on its manifesto commitment would make more sense had there ever been any kind of manifesto commitment to deport people to Rwanda before even considering their case. Obviously, there was not.
The policy appeared precisely 24 hours after Boris Johnson was fined for breaking the law while prime minister, which had never happened before, back then, though has now sadly happened twice. And whatever the manifesto said, it is somewhat difficult to ignore the fact that was three prime ministers ago anyway. Braverman seems to think the “will of the people” can be inferred from consistent polling that want migration to be reduced.
But as far as deporting people to Rwanda is concerned, if the public were asked to draw up a list of candidates for the honour, the current government would fill almost the entire plane.
Braverman is not the first to try and undermine the House of Lords for having the temerity to seek to do its moral duty and stand in her way. It’s easy politics. Who voted for them? Well, no one. But it is not so easy to get around the system by talking it down when you’re barely hours on from a full weekend of diamond encrusted acquiescence to its glorious eccentricity.
Braverman and co don’t want to hear what the Archbishop has to say because, unless they’re too deep underwater in their own self-delusion, they know he’s right.
They know he’s right when he says such things as: “Our interests as a nation are closely linked to our reputation for justice and the rule of law.”
And they can hardly complain that an unelected Bishop, sitting in the legislature by virtue of little more than historical quirk, should feel its his place to stick up for the rule of law, because they do not.
Rishi Sunak makes his views on the matter clear almost every single time he comes to the despatch box and points at Keir Starmer and drops the “L” word, “lawyer”, as if it’s some kind of insult. As if Keir Starmer should somehow be ashamed of his decades of public service prosecuting terrorists and criminals. They’ve made exactly who they are abundantly clear.
But the Archbishop is not having any of it. He knows what we all know. That unless or until he is reformed away, he has a complete right to speak. “God Save The King” might be his four most memorable words of the week, but these six minutes mattered a lot more. And Thank God, if He happens still to be listening, for Justin Welby.