Keith Porteous Wood
How would you describe your religious beliefs or other worldview?
I’ve never been a believer full stop. My philosophical outlook is based on my life experiences as a human being and science and my concern for human rights and for the environment and for the golden rule – treat others as you’d have them treat you – a sentiment that has a long history, much longer than Christianity.
Do you think that Great Britain is an equal and tolerant and society particularly in relation to religion and belief?
I’m glad that you have excluded Northern Ireland, as that is both the most religious and least tolerant part … whether that is a causation I will leave open for the moment. I think that the rest of the UK is tolerant of religion and belief, although because of the behaviour of a minority, this is becoming harder.
How easy is it for you to live in accordance with your personal beliefs?
I think that there has been a major improvement in the attitude to non-believers, one could argue that they are in the majority – it depends so much how you ask the question, perhaps if you say non-religious people rather than non-believers. There are many people who are religiously inactive, sometimes they describe themselves as spiritual, or Christian, but despite that many don’t believe in God. Or they regard themselves as “culturally Christian” – sharing a version of Christian morality even though they’ve never seen the inside of a church, except perhaps for weddings and funerals. As far as the non-religious are concerned, there has been a growing acceptance of non-belief, there is still a little bit of resistance to people using the harder word of atheist, but that is less than it was. There was a massive increase in people defining themselves as non-religious in just ten years according to the census, that could not be explained solely in reasonable changes over the last 10 years. It could only be explained statistically if some of the people who had described themselves as Christian in 2001 had moved to describing themselves in 2011 as non-religious and I think that is a symbol of the greater social acceptance of people being non-religious, and happy to say so.
Do you think that human rights which apply to everyone are a good or a bad thing for British society?
Human rights must apply to everyone, they must be universal or they are of no value. The ideal of Human Rights being something over which all of mankind, believers or not, can agree in the furtherance of our common humanity seems, sadly to be receding. I am very worried about the growing attempts to undermine universal human rights by, for example, the Cairo Declaration – the attempt by the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation to have an alternative human rights declaration, subject to Sharia. That, I think, is a key example of the worrying and growing dismissal of human rights as a “Western construct.” This was not the case fifty or even twenty years ago. The problem is primarily, but not exclusively, from Islam, but almost all of the attacks on human rights are religiously-based and could eventually lead to their destruction. There should only one set of universal human rights, and they shouldn’t be exemptions for anything, whether that is Sharia or anything else.
When do you think that it is acceptable for the State to intervene with the expression of belief by citizens?
The State has a duty to consider what people do, much less what they say their motives are. There is a growing tendency for people to say that they are doing or objecting to something on the grounds of their religion and expect to therefore be absolved of any legal or human rights obligations. And there is a growing attempt by, for example, Evangelical Christians to discriminate against other people, especially sexual minorities, and consider that they have a right to do so regardless of the consequences on others. We oppose such attempts to undermine human rights and our deep concern was why the NSS has intervened at the European Court of Human Rights in 2013, largely successfully. It was where Christians attempted to discriminate: against gay people in employment or public office (Ladele): or disregard health and safety rules in their employment on religious grounds (Chaplin); or a marriage guidance counsellor who refused to work with same sex couples on sex therapy (Macfarlane). All three failed; the ECHR disagreed that the human rights to freedom of religion of these applicants had been infringed.
Do you think that living in a democracy is a good thing?
Yes, of course, but I also value particularly the further controls to which that democracy is subject, because of our treaty obligations to the UN – where we are active, we have Special Consultative Status with its Economic and Social Council –, the European Convention on Human Rights and indeed the similar treaty obligations relation to our membership of the EU.
Do you believe that you have a personal obligation to vote?
Do you think it is problematic that members of the House of Lords are not elected?
The intuitive answer is that it is a problem, but the practical answer is the opposite. I have spent a lot of time in the House of Lords and I think our law making is better because of the Lords. Most of the members are very experienced and have more time to improve the laws made by the House of Commons, which is a very valid and important role in quality assurance. I also worry that there is an unwillingness of elected parliamentarians to deal with sensitive issues. For example, there is a growing unofficial use of Sharia law in this country. The House of Commons will not deal with this because Members are concerned about losing their seats, especially in constituencies with large percentages of Muslims who may be uncomfortable about looking at these issues in a critical, analytical way.
And finally I find that the House of Lords regards itself with some justification as being the guardian of people’s human rights and the protector of the disadvantaged. For example they’re bringing in an assisted dying bill which 80% of the population want, but the elected chamber has never decided to take on. The democratic chamber isn’t touching issues like that, and counter intuitively the House of Lords says that “the people’s will is not being listened to, let’s start the bill here”.
What is your view of the Lords Spiritual?
I don’t think that bishops should be banned from the revising chamber as such, the revising chamber should be taking people on their merits and on some occasions that might include bishops. So the bishops should earn their seats because of any particular expertise they have (other than theological) that will be useful in the law-making process. They should not be in their simply because they are bishops, regardless of their suitability. The Westminster Parliament is the only one in the world to have bishops sitting as of right. There are 26 of them – middle class, largely male and largely white, only from English dioceses of a Church that only 2-3% of the population attends on a normal Sunday. The “right” for them to sit originated in the Church’s massive land holdings and is no longer relevant.
It is alarming that those bishops have immense power from their position. Being in the Lords gives bishops access to Ministers on a day by day basis, they are able to hold ministers to account in a way no one outside Parliament can. It is telling that in the Chamber itself, even now, if a bishop stands up, anyone speaking sits down and allows the bishop to speak. No one else enjoys such primacy.
They do not hesitate to use their power in self-serving ways, e.g. trying to get the Church exempted from the Human Rights Act and to license discrimination against non-religious teachers. They have insisted on retaining mandatory daily worship in all schools, not mandatory any other democracy, and on refusing to allow older pupils to withdraw, yet the UN has called on the UK to change both.
MPs are considerably more religious than the population and peers, on average rather older, are even more religious. The Bishops’ Bench illegitimately duplicates that over-representation of religion. The bishops are not representative of the country or even of Anglicans, the majority of which support same-sex marriage, yet every vote from the Bishops’ Bench opposed it. My biggest fear is that the Bishops’ Bench is opened up to those of other faiths who are even more socially conservative and less representative.
How should people with power be held to account?
It’s a fairly depressing reality that people in power are essentially far from being immune from corruption and ruthlessly exploit their ability to shield themselves from discovery. Power without being held to account seems always to lead to corruption. Generally self-regulation is regulation lite at best, and at worst no regulation at all. Bankers campaigned ruthlessly for decades for lighter regulation, and are already starting to do so again despite the economic catastrophe it led to. Individual and corporate greed is very powerful. Regulations – if effectively enforced – create a level playing field, rather than leave it to the least principled to ride rough shod over everyone else in a race to the most reckless and damaging.
Another battle is between short term interests and longer term ones. It is a major and worldwide systemic problem in our governance with four or five year parliamentary terms. The most worrying example for me, this is not a secular issue, is taking action on climate change.
We are discovering a great deal about this through inquiries into the child-abuse crisis. I am talking about the politicians and also the church, where I have done a lot of work with the UNCRC relative for example to the Vatican. But examples of misfeasance relating to child abuse are widespread. The expenses scandal in parliament goes to the very top of the political establishment, as does some child abuse. There have certainly been accusations that the police have been told that they would face charges under the Official Secrets Act if they revealed the name of politicians accused in child abuse cases. Similarly, with scandals such as the Hillsborough stadium disaster, the police were corrupt or lent on. And how could no one in authority have known about the gangs systematically raping children in care for decades in so many towns including Rotherham, Oxford and Rochdale?
There is a much smaller example, which I found very worrying with the West Midlands Police and the supposedly independent CPS, about a programme created by Channel 4 called ‘Under Cover Mosque’ about Islamic extremism. The police visited Channel 4 who thought that the police were trying to find information about specific hate preachers, only to discover that the police were trying to prosecute Channel 4 for racial or religious hated. And I am quite sure from my own work that this was being encouraged from the top of the British political establishment. It took two years to get an apology from the Attorney General, but that was only for this specific, blatant, instance; the real problem was that it was a symptom of woefully misguided Government policy. The then Labour government was unwilling to take on hate speech among the Muslim community and that is a form of corruption. Could this have been a deal – you bring us your votes en bloc and we don’t ask questions? I am not convinced that the law has been operated equally on racial and religious grounds for some time. Failing to tackle hate speech by Muslims can (and I think did) cause long term structural problems. Some of the problems we now have with terrorism could go back to that, in part. The French did not call our capital Londonistan for nothing.
I think that the press is terribly important in holding power to account, but the press is becoming less and less able to do so, because people aren’t buying newspapers and they can’t afford to employ journalists to do investigative journalism. It was in newspapers where a lot of these horrific abuse or corruption stories started, with stringers on local papers feeding up to national papers. There is a little bit of counterbalancing with social media, and people being prepared to say things they couldn’t say elsewhere. But there is far less key investigative work being carried out by big newspapers. I have seen so many excellent investigative journalists being made redundant. Abuses are less likely to be found and acted on. The Telegraph did well on exposing the Parliamentary expenses scandal and the activities of Luftur Rahman London’s Tower Hamlets, but has lost numerous key staff since then.
Do you think that our politicians and leaders are a good reflection of society as a whole? If not what could or should be done?
I understand the theoretical desire to have people who reflect the ordinary person in the street, there is a difficult balance between having people who have the ability to do these roles. I understand some of the frustration against career politicians, who go from a degree to being a researcher to a candidate, never having had a real job, and maybe the turmoil in the Labour party and the Referendum result are a revolt against that. There are some exceptions. The member for Nottingham North, an honorary associate of the NSS was a warehouseman, he has done some wonderful reports on early intervention in child welfare and magnificent work on the constitutional issues too. But he is very much the exception, and he tells me that the mavericks are very unpopular with whips and business managers, governments want politicians to vote how they want. That detracts from real people with independent views, people we want more of. Mr Blair has a particular black mark on all of this, he was so obsessed with people being on message. Labour MPs would be sent sample text messages or press releases, the party says this … almost Orwellian. Those contemplating voting against the party came to realise that it would mean they would never get preferment – a powerful, but in many respects destructive. Only the yes people got jobs, that is a truly corrosive effect on parliament, some of the best people we work with were the ones prepared to say no, for example to stand up for gay rights and the poor.
One of the few positive things that have happened in this respect, is for chairs of Parliamentary select committees in the Commons being voted by the committees, rather than as before being appointed by the government. That has done some good in making these committees less subservient to the government. The public accounts committee, chaired by Mrs Hodge was prepared to hold people to account.
Politicians are keen to talk about generational theft, which I agree has reached endemic proportions for many reasons, for example the people who have final salary pension schemes are going to do a lot better than the growing proportion that are denied them. But Labour and Conservative governments have promoted Private Finance Initiatives. An example would be a school or hospital has a huge contract set up for the next 40 years, the government has committed to pay for the hospital for all of this time, whether it needs it or not. It doesn’t put the cost of the building on the public debt balance sheet, and not even a minor change can be made without triggering some penalty clause. The interest rate is commercial not public and there is a totally unjustified and wasteful profit element in there. The effect of that is that the total cost is massively more than it should be and is pushed into the future for our impoverished successors to pay for. It’s done by both political parties, and is the accountants’ nightmare.
Have you ever felt so h2ly about a political or social situation that you personally campaigned to try to change it? If so, what did you do?
One of the things I have worked hard on, one of the reasons I do this job is that I agree passionately with the NSS objectives set out in its Secular Charter, so my personal objectives are closely matched to the organisation’s.
One area in my own life where I have campaigned h2ly is on gay rights. I feel very h2ly and positively about the change, in encouraging moves forward from decriminalisation to equal ages of consent to civil partnership to marriage. I have used every possible avenue to promote this. And that is probably one of the most positive stories that you could tell about the change of attitude to gay people and the pace it has happened throughout the world. Having said that, there is still a lot of homophobia, a high suicide rate amongst younger LGBT people. And one of the problems with becoming a multi-religious country is that the attitude to gay people is less positive among those in minority religions, and that is echoed in the EU. The accession of more countries from the East is reducing the acceptance of homosexuality, and some women’s rights issues such as abortion. Opposition of the scale seen now in the European Parliament on both fronts would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.
Would you say that it is important for you to act within State law?
I believe in the rule of law. I would however think that people should feel free, if the law intrudes into their personal lives to ignore inhumane restrictions. Naturally, this can only apply where it is a decision for the individual with no adverse consequences for anyone else.
An example is homosexuality, which is illegal in many, particularly Muslim countries, sometimes it is even a capital offence. Before limited decriminalisation 1967, individuals in the UK disregarded the law in large numbers because their need for human love, which overwhelmed their fear of the law.
But grey areas are now emerging on freedom of expression. One area is where there are some prosecutable offences where there is a very low prosecution threshold, where you don’t even need to have a victim. Insulting behaviour on grounds of religion is an example. The prosecution threshold is so low that it would be easy to be prosecuted even for legitimately exercising one’s right to freedom of expression.
There is a systemic problem with our laws on breach of the peace. Activity thought likely to lead to a breach of the peace should only be unlawful if the breach were likely with an average person, not with some zealot.
Is the rule of law applied equally?
Unfortunately not always in the UK. There have been instances of behaviour being overlooked for one group in society which resulted in other groups being prosecuted. I realise that there are sometimes public policy reasons why people are not prosecuted. But if we think of Salman Rushdie and his life being threatened, all the pressure was on him and not the people who were threatening this life. There was no attempt whatsoever to prosecute them, which I think was a terrible mistake and sent completely the wrong signal for which we may still be paying. That was both unjust and has had long term adverse effects. Hate preachers haven’t been prosecuted, mainly Muslim, when everyone knows they have been inciting hatred.
How do you feel about the widening of police and state power?
Sadly, I think that it is probably necessary, we have never lived in a time of so much terrorist threat but I am also very worried that the pretext of terrorism is being used to bring in entirely disproportionate measures, for example Extremism Disruption Orders, EDOs. As currently envisaged, the Government are unable to explain what the proposed EDOs can achieve that existing law cannot, which seems sinister. The threshold of evidence to issue these draconian EDOs is woefully low. Yet the consequences of them being issued, far less broken, is life changing – it would make most people unemployable.
Sometimes unreasonable expectations are placed on the police. I couldn’t believe the arrogance of the family whose daughter was documented to have crossed the border from Turkey into Syria, who blamed the security services for not having ascertained what had taken place in their own home and acted upon it, while at the same time complaining about the intrusion of police activities. The State is on a hiding to nothing if people are so keen to blame the State.
I think that the State has done extraordinarily well in forestalling a lot of these terrorist threats on a falling budget. On the other hand, the Hilsborough disaster and the revolving doors between the News of the World and the Metropolitan Police, show they are not all saints.
Do you have anything you would like to add?
I would like to look at trends and their implications for the future.
Generally there is a growing influence of religion in public life, which is starting to challenge the liberalisation and Human Rights advances of the last 50 years that we have taken for granted.
Evangelicals and very orthodox Catholics are increasingly seeking to put religion at the top of a hierarchy of human rights, potentially at the expense of the rights of women on reproductive health and of sexual minorities, for example. And similarly, with the growth of Sharia, there is almost a growing movement for it to become a de facto law. The (now former) archbishop of Canterbury but one even claimed that the spread of Sharia is “inevitable”.
If you go back 20 years, Muslims were not generally not veiled, but are so now, more so than in many Muslim countries. There appears to be a great deal of – possibly state-sponsored – money being spent by extreme Muslim sects in the UK, including in higher education.
The proportions are currently small, but some elements of both the Muslim and Jewish population are becoming more radicalised, or more Orthodox, and it is the younger people that are the very much more Orthodox, which suggests that this, to me concerning, trend will continue. People should be free to worship as they please within the law, but it is no longer a secret that some completely unregulated ultra Jewish schools in predominantly Jewish areas such as Stamford Hill, in north London, are not taught English or any secular subjects and know nothing of the word around them. Some of the pupils nearly drowned during a school outing at Dover recently because they could not read danger signs. Many leave such school totally unprepared for life and they are being betrayed by the authorities who should insist in a balanced education.
There is a much greater degree of separation than in the past, which is very worrying, including the growth of minority religious and denominational religious schools, attended by pupils from already segregated communities and who probably rarely meet people from the rest of the community. A further factor is that some minority faiths have segregated themselves into places where they live separate lives; I have even heard of “outsiders” being paid a premium to move out. This is dangerous for social cohesion. The schooling is something we could do something about. It’s a negative move to have more faith schools. Even the Anglican and Catholic schools have been accused of taking more than their fair share of affluent or gifted children, which the law allows them to do leaving the community schools who cannot do this to take a disproportionate share of possibly difficult to teach or disruptive children.
A broader point, the religious influence on politics is becoming greater often by well-funded evangelicals and sometimes by very orthodox Catholics and increasingly those of minority faiths. It has led to more concerted and effective ambushing of liberal initiatives or undermining of existing settlements for example on abortion. That is undermining the broad human rights consensus that we have had, and it is women and sexual minorities (as we have just seen in the USA) who are suffering.
And that threat to Human Rights is becoming greater at the United Nations. Saudi Arabia now chairs the Human Rights Council, whose members are supposed to be those who dedicate themselves to upholding Human Rights.
I am convinced that the threat to Human Rights is growing and that this is becoming one of the major battles of our time. Secularism is not about non-belief, it is concerned human rights – with everyone having equal rights regardless of their religion. So as Britain becomes a both more religiously diverse and less religious it should be looking more to secularist principles to build a fairer society, and this is even more necessary on the international stage.
Keith Porteous Wood comes from a background as a Finance Director in several large companies. He has been the Executive Director since 1996 of the (UK) National Secular Society, founded in 1866. It is the only national or international body in Europe focussed solely on promoting Secularism and also works internationally, particularly in Europe.
Keith lobbies governments and parliaments on equality, education, freedom of expression, constitutional matters, home affairs and justice and is a frequent contributor to print and electronic media. A major focus is opposition to the established Church in England, and the ex officio seats this gives 26 bishops in the UK Parliament, the only western country with such an arrangement. He worked with parliamentarians to abolish the UK’s blasphemy law.
He is particularly concerned to limit excessive religious exemptions to equality laws, successfully intervening on several key cases at the European Court at Strasbourg. He also has intervened several times at the UN Human Rights Council; the NSS has special consultative (ECOSOC) status at the UN.