Professor John Healey

by | Jul 17, 2017 | Education / Academia, Interview | 0 comments

John HealeyHow would you describe your identity, in terms of religion and belief?

I think I would describe myself as being a liberal, possibly regarded by some as an extremely liberal, Roman Catholic. 

What made you decide to either adopt or retain this position?

I was born into an Irish-background Catholic family. I was born in 1948. In the 50s I was a small boy and didn’t think much about personal choices in religion. I accepted my religion because I was told it was true. So I was not a liberal then! In the 60s I was in a Jesuit secondary school in which a liberal view was cultivated and that affected me in my teens. We were all encouraged to expect to take full role as professional men in British society. 

Would you say that GB was an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?

I would say that compared with my experience of other parts of the world, GB is a relatively tolerant and equal society. I think that at the moment there is a slight issue about tolerance in religion getting mixed up with the immigration problem, as it is perceived by many people, but generally speaking I think GB is very tolerant. 

Are there any challenges for you living as a Roman Catholic in this country?  If so, are they social, legal or political in nature?

Challenges? It depends on what your profession is. I have been a university lecturer and then professor all my life … but I don’t think I have ever come across any difficulties because of the fact that I am a Catholic. Obviously if I were in some medical or social service areas, I might have found things which would be difficult because of conflicts between religious faith and secular law. Nurses and doctors … in their relation with abortion and things like that.

In the different universities in which I have taught I knew quite a few people who were Catholics but it would be unusual to be forthright and open about being a Catholic. Most people keep quiet about it and you discover they are Catholics by accident (e.g. because they went to a Catholic school). But this reluctance is not applicable only to Catholics. The same could be said about other Christians. Some who seem to be Catholics (such as people from the Republic of Ireland who have “Catholic” names) are quite offended to be assumed to actually believe in Catholicism, just as some Muslims are offended if you assume they are religious. And they are quite right to be offended: there is an element of racism in assuming you know what someone believes because of the colour of their skin or their personal name. I started my academic career in 1972/3 and in the following period religion has been pushed out of the public sphere in universities and therefore starting to introduce personal faith into conversations over coffee would be embarrassing to all present. I think the situation remains the same nowadays and it is ongoing. I think the younger staff who have religious convictions, unless they are particularly militant, would tend to keep it very quiet. Religion has been confined to the private sphere. You wouldn’t confront people over coffee about the way they vote… that would be impolite in British society… and asking someone about their personal religious faith, unless they volunteer that information, would certainly be regarded as impolite. 

Has Roman Catholicism contributed to the world’s understanding of HRs?

Catholics have certainly contributed to the way HRs are understood in British society nowadays. There have been periods in which the Church has oppressed human rights, but in the last 100 or 150 years, in the encyclicals on social themes, anybody who bothers to read them will see that the Church has been on the side of human rights very explicitly and that has become even clearer in recent years with recent Popes’ statements. Whether they were conservative or liberal in theology, on human rights they had a liberal and strong view on the rights of people. That is not to say that the Church observes human rights within its own institutions.

Organizations like CAFOD and Shelter have during my lifetime been outstanding and have really just got on with doing things. People knew they were Catholic in their origin and ethos and have respected that. I think they have made a major contribution in that way. Equally you could say that Oxfam and other Christian organisations have done the same thing. That is the way in which Christianity is visible publicly, through charity organisations of that type. It is a bit like when I was a child and the Salvation Army used to be very prominent and visible where I lived. They used to come round knocking on doors, but the fact that they helped poor people and were always there to help got the Christian message through to places where it wouldn’t have been noticed otherwise. 

Have HRs been a positive development for our society?

HRs which apply to everyone are a good thing for British society. 

Do public bodies generally respect human rights?

I think there is a culture of awareness of HRs, and I think that Government organizations, schools and universities are generally sensitive to these things. The universities have equality protection offices and so on. 

Do public authorities get the balance between protection and freedom right when it comes to intervening in the lives of citizens?

I don’t think public authorities intervene in the lives of individuals and groups in relation to religion and belief. I cannot really think of any example in which they have interfered in my life, and I think that is the right stance. It obviously depends on each religious belief and what people preach, and I think that public authorities ought to be able to intervene if things have been proposed against the common good. In the Catholic context state authorities intervening in schools where there has been abuse of children is absolutely right and where bishops in the UK and Ireland have defended priests who were involved in that sort of abuse, I think it is quite right. Negligent bishops should be treated like every other person who fails to report a crime. That is the sort of interference I support.  I think it is good interference in those situations. 

Do you regard living in a democracy as a positive thing?  Is there any system of government which you would prefer?

No other form of Government is preferable to a democracy. I can see that historically and in other parts of the world dictatorships, benign dictatorships, could allow you to live your Catholic faith very freely without any kind of difficulties, but I think that the kind of democratic structures which we have are in the end the best protection for our religious rights, because without the protection of the law, formed by parliamentary decisions, we would be in danger of being subject to any kind of dictatorship and narrow ideological viewpoint. In the British context, at least the courts protect us. I have never been in a court in my life, not even as a witness, but I consider that the courts are the protectors of our rights. 

Do you feel that you have a duty to vote?

I feel I have a personal responsibility to vote. I don’t think people should be forced to vote. I wouldn’t make it compulsory, as it is in some places, but I think it is a moral responsibility. Whichever Government is elected is going to enact policy which affects people and often poor people and the way they are looked after. And we all have a shared responsibility in that. 

Should Parliament have the final say in making and changing law, or would you like to see a more empowered judiciary, able to strike down legislation?

I wouldn’t want to see that empowerment of the judiciary in the UK. I think that the protection which exists is that if judges find some legislation unworkable and unreasonable, or contrary to the European Human Rights legislation, they can make judgments and refer the case to higher courts. Ultimately, the pressure can be put on Parliament to change the law. That is a much better way to do it. 

Is majoritarian democracy a problem for minorities in society?  Are there some groups which face barriers to participation?

It is more difficult for some groups to get representation in Parliament and there are structures in the voting system which are not satisfactory now. A situation when a third of the people of a country vote for a certain party and it ends up with only two or three MPs is unjust and not a reasonable way… it is not sustainable in the longer term… because you will have a large dissident group objecting to the decisions made by Parliament. It can be done in the way other countries have dealt with these matters, by proportional representation. I think the technicalities of the way in which Parliament is elected need improvement, but I am in favour of parliamentary decision-making, and in principle even without these changes everyone has a vote. It is a simplistic voting system, and there will always be large numbers of people who didn’t vote for a certain MP, but the MP has the  responsibility to represent the whole constituency, not just the people who voted for him or her. I think the FPTP system has become gradually more of an issue. It was not an issue after the Second World War, but as soon as you have fragmentation of parties you have a problem. 

Does it concern you that the House of Lords is not elected?

I think the HofL should be abolished. It should be replaced, if at all, by an elected body, but at the moment I don’t see any purpose in a second chamber. I might be open to persuasion that a replacement Senate would be desirable, but I am not entirely sure that where there are Upper Houses they serve a great deal of useful purpose. The only place of which I have direct experience apart from Britain is Ireland. I lived in Ireland for a number of years. The Senate there occasionally did something, but it was very rare. Where there is a written Constitution, maybe the Senate has something to contribute, but in the UK system everything depends on decisions made by the HofC, and I am not happy with the idea of the HofL, even if elected, overturning decisions made by the HofC. 

How do you feel about the presence of bishops in the House of Lords?

Bearing in mind that I think the Upper House should be abolished, I am not happy with bishops in the Upper House, because they are not elected. With regard to the idea that, given the actual situation, whereby there are Anglican bishops in the HofL by right because of a historical accident, essentially I am happy for them to speak for all Christians. I think it is awkward that they put themselves forward to some extent to speak also for Jews and Muslims, who are not represented in the same way. They can’t really plausibly do that. They can probably talk vaguely in favour of faith communities, but they cannot really defend particular concerns of the Muslim and Jewish communities. If we stick with the present model, we should also have other Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others represented in the HoL … although it may well be harder to define them as communities. I am not sure whether there is a Hindu or Buddhist Council for Britain. But at least with Jews and Muslims, there should be a presence if Christians have a presence. 

Do you think that the current system of checks and balances between the legislature and executive are effective?

I think a lot depends on the nature of decisions made by Parliament. There are sometimes very clear cut decisions about things which must become the law from the 1st January.  I don’t think there are many problems with that. But Governments have a habit of enacting bigger policy things into law, such as recently legislating over eliminating the deficit. Another example, which was on TV last night,  was the whole question of pollution levels in streets in our cities. There is a Government decision to reach a certain air quality by 2030, but local authorities are being very slow about this, because of the impact that it has on other concerns they have. There are tensions there and there must be someone to make sure that things which are decided by Parliament are really implemented. 

How do you feel about the EU and devolution in Wales and Scotland?

My answers here are revised in the light of the referendum of June 2016.

The referendum campaign was an affront to democracy. The Leave campaign simply lied its way to victory. Both main parties had built up years of resentment among less well-off voters by neglecting their needs.

The victory was marginal and the House of Commons will have to decide on the conditions of trade and other matters which are acceptable. This could reopen the question of whether GB leaves the EU. If necessary, there should be another referendum, to say yes or no to the details of any new deal for GB which is decided on by parliament.

The development of EU Law has been positive for us, protecting workers’ rights and the environment. Britain is very small and culturally and historically we are part of Europe. We have different traditions, particularly in relation to things such as the Commonwealth and the former British Empire, but I think on the whole in many areas of life, the sharing of sovereignty with the rest of Europe is a good thing. I think that the negative views of EU law-making are exaggerated, but having more and more laws about things upsets people.

Devolution is a new development, and only in the last two years has it become an issue. It is quite inevitable that there should be some sort of English legislative body, however it is organized. The logical step is to have a separate English Parliament. A Federal structure, similar to Germany, if we could pull that off, would be great. The consequences of not succeeding in finding a way through could be very serious, since there could be serious political conflict.  The consequence, especially if we leave the EU, will be the separation of Scotland as an independent state. I think the consequences for Northern Ireland would also be very serious because there would be no logical reasons for NI to remain part of the UK, if Scotland is not part of it. Even NI Protestants would turn to an all-Ireland solution. So, I think we have to find a way through all this.

With regard to what is coming to fruition now in Manchester, I am a bit wary of fragmentation… Devolution to Scotland and Wales was a good thing because of the cultural differences. However, having every bit of England with separate devolved powers worries me. It is fragmenting and divisive in the end. At the moment, I would be delighted if Manchester had more powers, but in the future this could lead to struggles between Manchester and London, and Manchester and Newcastle, etc. over resources. I think that could be very divisive in the long term.

What are the most effective ways for ensuring that those who exercise power are held properly accountable?

I don’t think accountability could just be entrusted to the “free” press. The “free” press is corrupt and driven by commercial concerns and the interests of its friends in the City of London. I think the court system is vitally important in preserving individual rights and implementing law.  In recent times, in the last 10 or 5 years, freedom of expression has become crucial. People express themselves freely nowadays through many other media in addition to the press. In my generation if you wanted to express your views on a particular matter you wrote a letter to the press and they would publish it. Now you don’t have to do that. There are hundred ways to get your views into the public domain if you want to. 

Are Roman Catholics proportionately represented in public life?

I am sure Catholics are well enough represented in public bodies. I don’t have any worries about that. I think that it might be true that the legal profession, maybe when I was younger anyway, might have been restricted. It was less common for RCs to be involved in the law, but I don’t think that is true any more. I think in the different spheres most Catholics are not thinking about their religious convictions when they do things in their sphere of influence. I think there would be little groups, such as the Catholic Doctors Association, which would do that, but in practise on 95% of occasions when people are in the public sphere, whether they are Catholics or not, they would be acting in accordance with their conscience and the values in which they were brought up, rather than with a consciously Catholic agenda. So, I don’t think there is much pushing of a narrowly Catholic agenda. It would be interesting, and upset some people in our society, to have a Catholic as Prime Minister. 

Do you feel that the judiciary are sufficiently independent?

I think our judiciary are sufficiently independent. There was a time in the 1950s and 1960s in which some of those networks, including the legal profession, would have regarded Catholics as outsiders, but I think that has gone now. I have been at dinner parties with lawyers and barristers. You sit next to a Catholic barrister or a Jewish barrister or Muslim barrister. Until the 1970s there was in Britain a certain amount of anti-Catholicism, but that has almost completely gone now. 

Are there any issues which you have felt so strongly about that you have campaigned on?

I have become more socially involved recently. Because of the internet it is now easier to get involved in campaigns, whereas it used to be more complicated. I have written to MPs, I have been in demonstrations (e.g. against the Iraq War), I used to write letters to Tony Blair when he was the PM. Occasionally when I write to my MP, I get more personal responses from him. When you write to the PM, his Private Secretary responds … he has ten standard letters of response, and you get one of them! But at least they probably report to the PM the tenor of the mail he is receiving. 

Have public bodies understood and responded to any needs which you have had as a Roman Catholic?

I have been in situations where my Catholicism had to be accommodated. When my father was very ill and died in an NHS hospital, I had a discussion with the doctor about what to do, since my father was not going to recover from his condition and the doctor asked me what I wanted them to do. I told the doctor I was a Catholic, that I had definite views (as did my father) on the end of life situation. These points were accommodated sensibly.

I haven’t had much direct contact with the hospital chaplaincy system, but on the whole I think it is a positive thing. I haven’t really thought about it, to be honest, but clearly if you believe that patients must be treated not only medically, but in a holistic way, it is important. 

Is it important to you always to act within State Law?

It is hard for me to imagine situations in which I would feel compelled to break the law. I break the speed limit at times, but I am not compelled to do it! It is hard for me to imagine circumstances in which I would … I am trying to think… I am satisfied with the current legal framework. It would be in situations where authorities wanted you to take a particular decision, but you felt in conscience that you couldn’t take that decision. It could be in the medical context for example, but I don’t have any experience in that, to be honest. So, I don’t know. 

Do your beliefs require you to speak for the vulnerable?

I think my beliefs do require me to speak and vote on behalf of the weak and the vulnerable. It is not always easy. Sometimes there is social nervousness about putting your own view in the public sphere because of the fear of repercussions from people who disagree with you. So, when you send letters to newspapers, for example, generally I wouldn’t want to include my email address if I can avoid it, because I don’t want to have it bombarded with email. Our society is becoming less and less polite and tolerant of the views of others. Social media have made this worse.

The worst experience I had, though not in relation to speaking up for the vulnerable, was that on one occasion I wrote to the Catholic weekly, The Tablet, and then got bombarded with messages from right-wing Catholic readers, some of it quite abusive. 

Is the Rule of Law applied equally in our society, or do some groups experience preferential or prejudicial treatment?

I think GB is probably not too bad compared with other jurisdictions, but I think that there are ethnic groups that either on a regular basis or for certain periods have had to put up with more pressure from the police. I think the pressure comes more from the police rather than the courts. I think that there have been long periods in which black British people have been the focus of police attention much more than was reasonable, even given the demographics of criminality, particularly in big cities like London. In recent years, because of the Islamic terrorism problem, people who look like Muslims receive more attention from the police (and border police) than is necessary, given the circumstances. But it is the same in America and everywhere really. Maybe it is natural that this sort of focus is placed on groups which are different. The great advantage for the Irish when they came to Britain and the US was that they didn’t look different at all. They had Irish accents and peculiar ways of behaviour, but they are now very integrated. Almost half of the population of Manchester is of Irish descent, but you wouldn’t be able to identify them. People with different coloured skin can easily be identified. 

How do you feel about the general trend towards an increase in police powers over the past 15 years?

I think it is a necessary development, but it must be properly monitored. Ordinary policemen should not decide when extreme measures can be taken. They have to be monitored by judges and senior officers who can be held to account. I think there have been problems with the Secret Services here… they have arrested people who have disappeared into the system for long periods and been involved in handing people over illegally to other jurisdictions. Generally the police, however, have been OK. It is painful when people are arrested and dragged out in the middle of the night, but it may sometimes be necessary. 

Are there any legal rules which you find restrictive?

I think the situation is that the law doesn’t force me to do things I don’t want to do. It permits me to do things which I want to do. There is always room for flexibility in the law. The Church seems to have at times a simplistic view about issues like abortion. I am not in favour of abortion, but I am sympathetic to the real situations people find themselves in, and I think Pope Francis is on the side of sympathy and mercy, rather than on the side of condemnation. Also the Church has in the past been obsessed with sexual and reproductive issues: it should get back to the emphasis on social teaching (especially in view of its poor record as a protector of children from sexual abuse).

So, I don’t feel constrained in any way at all by the State. The constraints which are on me come from my religious convictions and they are narrower than the constraints which the State places upon me. The society would allow me to go through certain doors, which I don’t want to go through, but it does not force me to do so. Being a liberal-minded democrat, I am happy to accept people who are different from me. I have normal relations with other people who have gone through those doors and I don’t find that difficult. Gay marriage is a good example. If I meet gay people who are married, it doesn’t bother me at all. I didn’t oppose gay marriage/civil partnership in the secular sphere and would not oppose the blessing in church of such partnerships. But I don’t want the Church to approve gay marriage as part of its teaching on the sacrament of marriage, since I see the sacrament as being essentially connected with the creation of new life. 

Is there anything which you would like to add?

The only thing that springs to mind is that there are taxation issues which relate to religious bodies and I think that is an area which is worth exploring. Religious organizations get tax benefits as charities and I think some don’t even have to register as charities or prove that they do charitable work. This is debatable as a social arrangement. I think in an ideal world I would like them not to have any advantages.

Church schools are an area which will become very important in the next few years, because, with the declining number of Catholics attending church in this country, the number of Catholic children is getting smaller and in many places Catholic schools are taking in pupils of any faith. So, they no longer have the Catholic ethos which they had when they were first set up. I think there are questions about the funding of Catholic schools in the future. Special treatment for church schools is debatable: the social and charitable contribution of Catholicism should be financially supported by the State, but why faith schools?

John Healey is a Professor Emeritus of the University of Manchester, UK. He was born in Leeds, UK, in 1948 and educated in Roman Catholic schools there. He became an undergraduate of University College, Dublin, and then a postgraduate student in Cambridge and London, beginning his teaching career in the University of Birmingham in 1973. He later moved to Cardiff University and then to Durham University, before settling in Manchester in 1989. His academic field is Ancient Near Eastern Studies. 

John is at the time of writing a member of the British Labour Party, though recent events within the Party mean that he is likely to resign in the near future. He is committed to a left-wing social agenda, but also concerned that the Party should regain power so that it can actually implement that left-wing agenda.

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