How would you describe your personal beliefs and identity in relation to religion?
This is an interesting question. I don’t necessarily label myself. I don’t identify myself with a particular theology or ideology. I appreciate certain aspects of different theories, but I wouldn’t put it in one way or direction. I have lots of issues with some of the major religions, such as Catholicism, because I am gay. So, things which affect me personally and they don’t agree with, I find it hard to identify myself with them. Having said which, I have never been christened, my parents haven’t had a specific religious background themselves and they have allowed me to develop my own, and I suppose I am still developing my views.
However, if I had to choose a label now, I would say I have a propensity towards Atheism.
I lived in America for a while and was in the deep south exposed to religion which was and it still is, very extreme in some religious aspects and more conservative than in England. When it came to formulating my beliefs, I have been very lucky,I have seen how other people have experienced religion and I have not had any religion forced upon me. So, I think that has allowed me to make an informed choice, which is not necessarily to follow what my parents chose, because equally they haven’t sat and told me what I had to believe. I just know we didn’t go to church and I was not christened. You know, I think that has allowed me to have a more rounded and open sense of other people’s religion and not feeling the need to identify with any particular religion. When I say that my parents haven’t exposed me to religion, my dad, interestingly enough, was a choir boy and was brought up in a very Christian background. His background was much more religious… he went to church and he sang in the choir. My fathers parents ended up running their own spiritual church. My grandparents (my grandmother is still alive today, 97) never imposed their beliefs on us. I wasn’t obliged to follow a particular path and equally it is nice that even though they had different beliefs from mainstream society, they never felt the need to preach me. It was there if I wanted, but I was free to disregard it.
Would you describe GB as an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?
I think GB is ironically becoming less tolerant to a certain extent because of recent events, particularly political. There has been a massive backlash. Until fifteen years ago GB was an incredibly tolerant place, but in recent times, because of the heightened feelings towards terrorism, unfortunately then identifying Islam with terrorism – it would be naïve not to accept that this has had an impact on our religious tolerance.
I view my position as being relatively lucky. You can see that the Church still carries resonance, but it is more traditional than real powers nowadays… this is very different, needless to say, from Henry VIII’s times. Nowadays I don’t feel obliged to follow the Church’s views and that is very positive. I have never felt compelled indeed. Sometimes in a way it would make my life easier to be a believer… having that thought that there is something else… particularly when things go wrong. That reassurance that everything will be all right is important. I see how people who are religious, when they go through traumatic and devastating experiences, they take a massive comfort from religion. In that sense, I would like to have that. I can see how much religion comforts other people and undoubtedly I would like that, but I don’t have it.
I think Atheist voices have contributed to the HR debates. I hope there is an angle in which believers and non believers are brought together (if you want to categorise people this way). Probably one of the biggest issues I have about religion is disrespect to other people who have other views from you. Atheism, because you haven’t been given a specific path and hopefully you are not judgmental of other people, allows a more grounded, levelled approach, which enables you to treat people equally and whether they are Catholic, Muslims, etc, is irrelevant. It makes it a level field. Unfortunately, there are some religions such as Jehovah’s Witnesses or others which can be so judgmental about others, that when it comes to human rights their contribution is severely curtailed.
Have legally enforceable HRs which apply to everyone been good for society?
HRs are a very good thing for British society… obviously.
The interesting thing, when it comes to HRs and people who campaign actively in the modern era… to many people religion comes second to HRs… I admire people who campaign commendably for human rights and I couldn’t really know what their religion background is. I don’t have to see them as Catholics, Protestants, Atheists, etc. I see them as individuals who have issues about the lack of respect for human rights. If you are looking for equality and humanity, there is no need to departmentalise in religious backgrounds. I think it should be more encompassing.
Do you think that public bodies in Great Britain generally respect HRs?
HRs are generally respected in Great Britain, in comparison with Turkey and many other countries. Turkey is applying for membership of the EU and there are still massive issues about whether HRs are being sufficiently respected there. HRs are massively important and coming from my background and what I do professionally, we need to respect HRs and that is simply non negotiable, which is a very good thing.
I think public authorities could always do better, but in general they do. Sometimes people become over-cynical… we are so frightened of offending others’ human rights that all this has made the world a harder place, even with the best will of the world. Laws and procedures in place are there for the right reason, but in practise they don’t necessarily have a beneficial outcome.
When should the state intervene in the expression of religious beliefs?
I refer back to the previous point I made. Needless to say, Islam does not amount to terrorism, but if someone has a belief that has an impact on other people’s HRs and they do something which evokes hatred towards other people and incites hatred, I think the State has an obligation to protect HRs and when it comes to those situations, I wouldn’t want the State to sit back. I don’t want a big brother State, but at the same time I wouldn’t want the State to sit back. There are malignant groups which think they should have a free ride because they are religious bodies, but that is simply wrong.
How do you feel about faith schools?
I do have an issue with faith schools. I do also have an issue with the selection process of our schools. I can open it up to the way our schools are run and the whole issue of the catchment areas. The postcode lottery -I know of parents who feel they have to gain a place in those schools they see as academic or beneficial for their schools… those parents they feel obliged to come closer to that religion and bring children to church with them when they actually don’t have a belief in that. They are just playing the game and I think that is happening. How is that beneficial? It is not beneficial for parents or for the school itself. It is positive to have good schools, but that doesn’t require that good schools must necessarily be linked with a particular religion. I am reluctant to faith schools because I see the system has been abused and the idea of associating a particular religion with positive academic results has been in practise manipulated.
I don’t agree with religious beliefs that reject sections of a community (like the gay community)as they believe the practise of their sexuality is not correct. That is far too judgmental.
Do you regard living in democracy as a positive thing? Is there any system of government which you would prefer?
Living in a democratic society, of course, makes it easier for me to live in accordance with my convictions. There is no better alternative to democracy.
Do you feel that you have a personal responsibility to vote?
I feel I have a personal responsibility to vote. This is a duty which should be recognised by all citizens. How can you live in a democracy if you are not prepared to take part in it?
Should Parliament have the final say in making law? Would you like to see judges empowered to strike down laws?
I wouldn’t want to see an empowerment of the judiciary in the UK to strike down primary legislation. I am very sceptical for the judiciary to have that absolute power when it is unelected.
Do you think that politicians are representative of society? Do some groups find it our harder to participate in our democracy?
Unfortunately, there are barriers to get into Parliament, particularly in view of the result of the last elections, if you look at the predictions and the complete flip of what everyone was expecting, I think that has had a negative impact on people’s sense of responsibility. We should all take part in elections; we shouldn’t be waiting for opinion polls to see whether one is going to be 49 or 50 percent in order to provide motivation to vote like a reality tv show! I think unfortunately at this stage we have become too complacent. People are happier to get their phones and apps, rather than going to the poll station, but that has a massive impact on their lives and people don’t feel they can really influence the result….
Token efforts have been made, there may be a few people from state schools background, but unfortunately the possibility to join Parliament if you come from what is deemed a lower class, a minority, etc, is much harder than the ex public school corridor to parliament.
Does it concern you that the House of Lords is not elected?
I think the membership of the HofL is a cause of concern. I do also appreciate the work they do. They can do an extremely important work, they are reviewing what the Government passes. This is a crucial function. Having said which, there is room for modernisation and there should be fixed terms. There shouldn’t be a life peerage. The UK would get better value for money and a more representative House if there were stipulations concerning the size (it is getting out of hand in my view), it has lots of positive features but in view of recent controversies, there are negative elements and there is still this idea of an old boys’ club. However, I must admit that the level of independence is valuable and positive. So, I wouldn’t throw the baby out of the bathwater, but it needs attention. I don’t want the House to be totally elected, because then we would have two Parliaments and that is not what is about. It is great to have different perspectives and people looking at things from different perspectives. However, in this stage and age it is definitely arcane and it does not represent people in terms of age, race, etc. I would like to build the House again.
How do you feel about the presence of bishops in the House of Lords?
I don’t think you should necessarily have a position in the HofL because of the cloth you wear. I am not suggesting that bishops shouldn’t be there, but it should be on merits. I understand some bishops may have excellent things to contribute, but it should not be preordained that they must be in the Upper House.
I think the presence of some bishops may be justifiable, but not because they are bishops, but because of their merits.
Can you think of examples of public bodies ignoring the will of Parliament as expressed through legislation?
There are obvious situations of government bodies ignoring legislation… Think of Ken Livingstone. There were responses from public bodies which didn’t want to apply some legislation. Think, for instance, of the council tax. There have been numerous occasions in which this has happened. I was very young with the miners’ strikes, but with the poll strike, there were riots and that was an interesting thing. It was something which Parliament tried to impose, but individuals didn’t want to accept.
What do you think about the devolved assemblies in Wales and Scotland?
I do have some issues with the fact that Scotland can become a very important player in the British political arena and all the discussion that in a hypothetical situation it could have provided 40 or 50 MPs to a coalition with an all UK political party. I would have had an issue with it, because that doesn’t represent the UK as a whole. It was alarming that it was a real possibility before the last election. We could have had a situation in which a very small representation would have had a massive impact on the way my life is dealt with, but not on theirs, because those matters have been devolved to Scotland. So, I have some concerns. I don’t have problems with devolution as such, but it must be both ways, if it makes sense. If you are devolving, it must be a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly… but don’t then also have a two way thing and then you have your own Parliament and at the same time you have a massive say in the English Parliament. It seems that it is all positive for the devolved bodies.
How should we hold people with power to account?
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is an ethos in which I totally believe. So, there must be countenance to it and checks and measures must be in place. Going back to the HofL, that is why I see it as positive. It is a great political addition but it needs to be refocused and updated.
Do you think that Atheists are proportionately represented in public life? Do you think that people are comfortable being open about their atheism?
I would probably say that openly Atheists are not appropriately represented in public bodies, but the reason why I say that is because as we go back to schooling and the identification of people, I think it is easier to say that you are member of a mainstream religion, particularly Christianity. Whether that is a true representation I really don’t know. It is interesting even when I go to court, the question is whether to swear in the Bible… and most people still swear in the Bible rather than affirming. I think that is still seen as the norm. I think most people would still go for it as it is the norm. The same when it comes to the census and you have to tick a box. Most people would probably go with the Protestant or Christian box. You will be more likely to tick the box which says you are religious as opposed to non religious.
Do you think that the judiciary are sufficiently independent?
Ideally the judiciary are independent in Great Britain, but unfortunately their independence at times has been questioned. Unfortunately, with the law on occasions it comes down to interpretation. When something is interpreted, it has an impact on your own beliefs and how you interpret something.
If there was something, in social media, which I thought I had to take part, I have also done it. That is the modern petition in fact.
The only thing is that when you give evidence I wonder why I have to be given the choice to swear on the Bible. Everyone should say the truth, regardless of their religion or who they are. What I would like is that everyone who gives evidence should give evidence to the best of their abilities. I shouldn’t be made on a book or not on a book. I think you should tell the truth and I don’t think you need that choice.
I don’t feel I am part of a wider community, the Atheist community. I see myself as a person and I view as a person and part of humanity and the human race. I don’t need to have an additional identity.
Do you believe that it is important to act within the law?
If I felt that a law was imposed… I can only put myself in a situation like in the Second World War and the Government asked me to do something which I regarded as abhorrent and I could not justify following what they told me to do, I would ultimately have to challenge that. And I hope I would do that, it is an additional check… just because the Government asks me to do something, that doesn’t necessarily mean I would have to do it. I do have a background and I would not do things which are outrageous and against humankind. I have morals to question those requests from public authorities.
Do you beliefs mean that you feel that you have a duty to speak out for the vulnerable?
I think everyone has to speak out for potentially the voiceless people with in our society. I don’t think it has to do with being an Atheist. It is just a matter of humanity. I hope everyone would recognise this.
Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equally to everyone in society? Do some groups experience prejudicial or preferential treatment?
I think we are trying and we endeavour to have a fair criminal system, and I would hope it is the case, but inevitably people’s background and baggage is important. I think for sentencing the nature of the crime, rather than the nature of the individual, would be the important element. However, on the ground level some individuals are treated differently. There are some citizens who would get more attention in the first place and when attention is attracted, they would have worse representation. So, there is a degree of inequality to an extent.
How do you feel about the general increase in police powers and State surveillance over the past 15 years or so?
It is a very difficult balancing act. Unfortunately, it has become a necessary evil. If you think of recent times, with the events happening in Tunisia, it is an ongoing and real threat. Having said which, the government has to think carefully on how to approach the threats increase security levels. You can’t ignore the increasing number of threat’s and unfortunately, because how society is these days and because people are more insular and you can get attached to your laptop and still get involved in extremism. Consequently legislation is bound to be more intrusive and state surveillance has had to be increased.
Are there any legal rules which you would like to see changed?
I am sure there are lots of rules which I would like to see changed. It is one of those questions. I am sure there are, but as you put me on the spot now, I cannot really think of one. I do think freedom is something which should never be taken for granted. I enjoy being part of a society that is in the main respected and appreciated for it. Given our unique system politically, compared to the USA for example, I think our system has lots of benefits. I enjoy being part of it and being part of what I regard as a very reasonable society in the whole. Furthermore, the level of inequality I saw in America made me really appreciate what we have in the UK.
Wendy was originally from Essex but has been enjoying living ‘up north’ for well over fifteen years. She had the opportunity to widely travel the USA for over a year under the guise of it being part of her degree at Swansea university. She begrudgingly accepted the realisation of having to grow up and get a proper job so then went into retail management /buying/ merchandising before moving onto a new challenge which saw her becoming a civil servant. Her spare time is centred around too much socialising,travel ,concerts,and succumbing to a quality box set binge!