How would you describe your beliefs/identity in terms of religion?
The census form is a bit rigid and doesn’t give you many choices; the nearest definition would be ‘Christian’. I had a Christian upbringing, and was a chorister in a cathedral when I was younger. The Christian teaching probably underlies my belief system, even though I have an awful lot of problems with the fine print. When people come to the door I tend to get into long discussions about whether Mary was a virgin or not, and whether that is important.
If I had to pick a label, I would have to say Christian. Or perhaps I could describe myself just as religious, I wonder if that would do? I do believe in a higher order, but not in a man with a long white beard. I think there is a guiding force in the universe, yes.
This upbringing sent me down a route which I didn’t question until I was a teenager. Then I stopped being a regular church-goer but was still inspired by the music and big old buildings, and began to wonder what it was about the cathedral that I found attractive. Was it just the building and the music, because I found God living there in a way that I didn’t so much in smaller, modern parish churches? Clearly my fault, not His – or Hers! But I just try to treat people as I’d like to be treated myself. And whenever I don’t, I feel bad, and sometimes bizarrely the law of karma just seems to come straight back. You do something unworthy and things don’t get any better, and you do something randomly helpful and the universe gives you something back. And if you look at Buddhism and other forms of religion, they all seem to be pointing in the same direction to me, which is why I would describe myself as religious. But Christianity is my background and that is the main Holy Book I have read.
Do you think that Great Britain is an equal and tolerant society, particularly in relation to religion and belief?
By and large yes.
How easy it is for you to live in accordance with your beliefs in this country?
I don’t think there are social challenges to that, no. It’s largely up to you if and how much you seek to engage with a culture. The materialist culture makes you have to work quite hard to sift out what is useful and what isn’t: to switch it off, or not buy it, or look at it with some distance and say, ‘I see what you’re doing there, next year you will be saying something else’. That’s copable with. Legal did you say? That seems to try to be based on fairness and the idea is that we are innocent until proven guilty. I find our culture a bit quick to rush to judgement; we seem to be becoming increasingly judgemental. Maybe it is the result of email and the internet and Twitter, people are very quick to give you a 140-character judgement on something. How easy is it socially? It can be very hard to take a moment to weigh things up and make a considered response to something. There are solicitors in my family and they say that they will try not to reply to an important email on the day it arrives, they will sleep on it. And you work out a much better reply if you don’t just react, because I think the amygdala, the primitive brain reacts first and then the considered brain says ‘No, put away the gun and write a nice letter.’ And that is a challenge. I’m not sure that we are particularly encouraged by newspapers and other media to be considered, because they are based on the thrill and sensation. The legal system is based on fairness. The BBC are amazing, they will run programmes and debates on whether the BBC should exist. They represent a classic British institution which is prepared to say we are not perfect. How easy is it politically? I don’t have a problem, but you are talking to a white, male Christian, and maybe there are other people who don’t feel that. Maybe I’ve got this view because of my education, colour and sex. I am relaxed about the way I can live my life, and how much I am able to hold onto my beliefs, but I’m probably speaking from a position of privilege. I have friends who are not white who see their identity in terms of their colour in a way that I don’t. I am fortunate in that respect.
How do you regard human rights? Has Christianity contributed?
Anyone can take any bit of the Bible and make it say what they want: ‘That bit means that women should be in the home.’ I’m not sure St Paul was great on women’s rights. As far as Christianity and the UK is concerned, I regret its historic missionary activity around the world. Christianity is a proselytising religion as is Islam… part of both their founding missions is to convert the world to their way of thinking. I have a huge problem with that, in relation to human rights. Which is why I don’t call myself a Christian capital C.
Do you think that human rights are a good thing for our society?
It’s quite a loaded question as to what a human right is: does a prisoner have a right to vote? And didn’t a prisoner sue someone for some infringement of his human rights? But maybe it was a Daily Mail story to get people frothing at the mouth. Rights come with obligations, duties to society. I would like a proper declaration of human rights. The right to express yourself fairly, the rights to clean air and water. A right to privacy. A right to the absence of noise in this increasingly noisy world. But if you want a short answer, the answer is yes.
And in your view, do Christian voices and campaigners have a practical influence on HR?
Historically, Christianity has always been the religion of the country, so the Archbishop of Canterbury may well get more airtime than the Chief Rabbi if he gives an interview. It is gradually changing, but it is there underneath everything, as if the other arrivals are newcomers. But I sort of feel that Christianity is probably almost implicit in certain articles or in public life. I expect prayers are still said in Parliament, the Queen rules by the grace of God (whose god?), there are services at the Cenotaph or the Coronation. For hundreds of years the royal family were not allowed to marry Catholics; has that just changed? We finally got there after 1533 or whenever it was.
Do you think that HR are generally respected by the government and public bodies in Great Britain?
The areas where I would wonder…..the conflict between a citizen’s right to privacy and the government’s possibly alarmist take on the threat posed by terrorism. I am not sure who is driving that; it is very convenient to have us all watched all of the time by cameras. There is a human right to privacy. Something else that has struck me coming in to work in London every day is that building work and construction often seem to be prioritised over the environment; making money seems to be main driving force, perhaps because it is hard to put a price on a view, on peace and quiet, on a sense of the aesthetic. Access to those things should be a human right as well. Look at the Shard, it’s half-empty and now there is a mini-shard about to be built! Hang on, let’s fill the first Shard before we build another! What is it, a vanity project? It concerns me that power is not equally spread throughout what is supposed to be a democratic country. Those are my areas of doubt about human rights. The government….there are some very good people doing some very good committee work everywhere. But you do sometimes wonder what is driving our progress. The way the Mayor of London is giving the go-ahead to sky-scrapers and vanity projects which are out of the reach of ordinary working Londoners. There is an imbalance, but that hasn’t changed. Dickens was upset with poverty and we are upset with poverty, some things sadly don’t seem to have changed. The poverty may be relative, but the imbalance is still there.
Do you think that public authorities intervene too much or not enough when it comes to religion?
I think they live and let live. At the moment some people have become so careful not to give offence that they stop using the word Christmas to describe the December festival. That is disappointing. Let us celebrate all Festivals equally.
When should they intervene?
If ‘public authorities’ includes the judiciary, the police and government then they should intervene if the law has been broken. Laws regarding intolerance, abuse and violence should be upheld. I think the UK has a historic tradition of tolerance. Public authorities have no business interfering with people’s religious beliefs, but if people are using religion as a cloak to conceal or justify acts of intolerance or violence, that is a different matter.
Do you think that living in a Parliamentary democratic society is a good thing?
For an entire country, I think you have to live in a democracy. Once you get beyond about 20 people it is very hard to make a co-operative or a commune work.
Do you feel that you have a personal responsibility to vote?
Is it a good thing that Parliament has the final say in making law? Should the judiciary have a stronger role and be empowered to strike down legislation?
Yes, I think they should. I kind of assumed that is why there were so many judges in the House of Lords. I assume the Supreme Court is so structured so that no one judge can push through an agenda, and their deliberations are public. I do have more trust for the judiciary than for politicians. Politicians are often looking quite short-term, and may not always have the country’s long-term interests at the front of their minds.
Do you think that an understanding of democracy as the will of the majority of the people is problematic for minority groups?
It seems to be more difficult. This morning I heard about the Scots, they may have quite an effect on things after 7th May. Scotland isn’t as densely populated as England and I believe they have a disproportionate number of MPs in Westminster. If 40% of people vote and 30% of 40% vote for the ruling party, then in fact only 12% have voted for them. I sometimes think you should have had a proper job before becoming an MP, and that nobody should be an MP before the age of 40. But then you could say that Westminster was full of old people who don’t understand the problems of the young. Of course there are issues of Parliament being too white and too male. I remember the guys back in the Students Union at University. It was always guys back then, and they didn’t seem to be smiling much. I don’t think that everyone feels included by what is on offer.
Do you think it is a problem that members of the House of Lords are not elected?
I kind of thought it was full of a variety of wise old heads, who didn’t have an agenda. But then when Prime Ministers started creating Lords so that they had a majority of their party in the Lords I thought that was wrong. And now there are more Lords than there are seats and it has got out of control. The prospect of yet another election to another house doesn’t appeal to me either though. I would cheerfully nominate retired judges, maybe retired MPs, people with perspective who have an eye on the country for their grandchildren.
What do you think about the presence of bishops in the House of Lords?
I didn’t know that there were so many of them. There seems to be an imbalance, faith-wise. I think that the numbers should reflect the numbers of faith in the country, so the numbers of bishops could come down. But I wouldn’t want to see them go. Someone of religious faith tends to see things in the long term, it encourages big thinking.
Would you say that public authorities try to respect the will of Parliament as expressed in legislation?
In principle, yes. But it’s not very joined-up sometimes, and policies are nowadays invented then discarded at such speed that it is very difficult to implement them. Government is a slow process. My LA was happy to give the go-ahead to a supermarket in the village which would involve lots of lorry journeys through the narrow high street and an awful lot of food miles. The supermarket has put small independent shop-owners out of business; and yet someone else from some other bit of government will say that they like small businesses. Where is the plan?
How do you feel about the devolved assemblies?
Within the UK I think government is too London-centred. There are some issues which will affect you if you are a sheep farmer, but would affect you just as much if you were a sheep farmer in Cumbria as if you were a sheep farmer in Wales. We have Scottish MPs voting on English matters. We are one country. I am not a fan of breaking up the three countries, I think that what we have in common is much greater than what divides us.
Do you think that freedom of expression has been strengthened or weakened in recent years? How should society respond to events like the Charlie Hebdo murders?
I think that freedom of expression has been weakened; people think twice about what they say. You’ve got to be careful now to be correct, which is a good thing when it makes you hesitate before saying something prejudiced or ill-thought out. There is a place for comment, humour and satire otherwise our rulers aren’t always held to account. Christianity has been robust enough to take jokes, perhaps because it has been secure in its status as the dominant religion, so you can have Rowan Atkinson playing a ridiculous comedy vicar for laughs and vicars can laugh and get over it. Christianity feels confident enough to take it. But people are being careful now; lots of papers didn’t reproduce the Charlie Hebdo drawing on the front, even though it was the subject of a news story. I didn’t see the cartoon; if it was published simply to upset people then I am not impressed by the motives of the magazine. Why mock anyone? Why not let people believe what they want to believe as long as they don’t force other people to believe it too? Maybe Charlie Hebdo were trying to use mockery. I didn’t see the cartoon……..there was a Danish one as well which I didn’t see. I think they had done it once and had had some sort of come back, and so they did it again. Which is only understandable in the sense that they wanted to show that they wouldn’t be cowed. I would never condone the reaction, of shooting somebody. The response should be verbal; there should be free and open discussion. I think that freedom of expression may have been compromised because people are afraid of a violent reaction in a country which has a tradition of free speech.
What role does the Arts have in defending freedoms and pointing out injustice?
A book I was reading this morning, the Arts in Shakespeare’s time, talked about the public theatre as the one place where you could portray sedition and violence and have political discussions about abdication and deaths of monarchs in an era when Elizabeth I’s secret police were watching everyone. So you can use fiction to air topics which need discussing to get a discussion going, and you can use metaphor, satire and humour to make points more deftly. Tyrants hate laughter.
The Tricycle up at Kilburn sometimes puts on plays which are transcripts of trials, they have got quite a tradition of it now. Theatre is unique in the sense that it is using something live, where you can give a voice to someone who doesn’t normally have a voice and bring something into focus which would have got buried on page 14 of the newspaper or never even been properly publicised. It is invaluable for airing problems or paradoxes in society.
Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equally in our society?
The principle is there and the intention is there, but there is definitely inequality, often because certain sections of society just don’t have the access to the legal services or the funds or confidence or voice with which to fight their corner. Institutions are made up of people, who have their own prejudices, get tired, and have moods. It is imperfect because we are as human beings. Could do better.
Are there any legal rules which you find restrictive?
The regulations on drug use; I think that is maybe unnecessarily criminalised. No, broadly not; as much of our communication moves online I find a decrease in the authorities’ preparedness to take individual circumstances into account. But largely I feel I can live my life as I like.
What do you think are the best mechanisms to keep a check on the people who exercise power?
If you mean economic power, I’m starting to wonder who is running this place. Is it basically Google and GCHQ? I don’t think it is necessarily intentional or malicious, but I think there is a real danger that our Parliament isn’t really running stuff. The Bilderberg group is incredibly secretive and its members are extremely influential. There are no frontiers now, it feels like it’s run for the interests of some mighty corporations. I think there are very few checks on their enormous power. Free press? Mr Murdoch is still making his presence felt: I don’t like the fact that one organisation owns so much of the UK’s media outlets. The checks on the press are not rigorous enough in spite of the News of the World stuff in the last few years. Generally I think that the way it works is that different groups watch each other… politicians watch the press, judges watch the politicians; but maybe it is actually a network of people in nice school ties keeping things as they like it.
Is there enough distance between politicians and the judiciary in this country?
Yes, it is Shell, Mobil and Exxon which worry me.
Have you ever been involved in any campaigns on issues you have felt strongly about?
I marched for CND back in the 1980s, and my mail started getting opened, which I was very upset about. I write to my MP about fracking, about the Greenpeace guys in the Arctic; generally about environmental issues when they come up against economic ones – energy, solar vs oil; wildlife vs GM crops. It’s generally future of the planet stuff. But I also write letters to my local council and MP about the Tescofication of the village. I belong to various charities in the kind of Soil Association, Greenpeace type area. I really don’t think that man is the most important species on this planet, I think that we are all in it together. If we lose birds, worms or bees we are in trouble.
But I get nowhere with my MP. He either sends something from a department of state or gives you back the party line.
How good have public authorities been at understanding and respecting your spiritual needs?
I’m not sure anyone has the time to try to inflict anything on you unless you ask for it. There was a meditation room in the hospital where my Dad died. I don’t think that there is a negative cross-over between public authorities and religion.
Is there anything which you would like to add/tell us?
Religion now seems to be separate from life, something you just do in a special moment rather than infusing your whole life. I have a theory about being watched. When we believed in an all-seeing, all-powerful being, we behaved in a certain way because we felt we were being watched. Then Sartre declared that God was dead, and now there was nobody watching us. I think human beings need an audience, need to be watched and appreciated (not just us poor actors who need to be validated by applause every night). There was an experiment which looked at bicycle theft at a particular place where quite a few were being stolen. When a big pair of eyes was painted on the wall overlooking the bikes, fewer got stolen. There was another experiment involving recycling. Some university students agreed to have cameras installed in their communal kitchen so that they knew they were being watched, and the recycling rates went up. People were more careful about where they put their empty tins and cardboard. We are almost in danger of embracing CCTV because we all want to be seen and need to be watched. Because some of us have decided that God is dead, we are looking in the wrong place. Feeling like we are being watched can put us in touch with our better selves – just as putting on a balaclava can make it easier for us to take part anonymously in riots and violence. I know that too much conscience can screw us up, but I still think that somehow we have lost something by separating religion out of our lives.
Philip Bird is an actor, director, musician and playwright. He also runs courses and workshops for Drama and Literature students at Shakespeare’s Globe.