They must face scrutiny for their open letter
It’s round one to the Lords Spiritual. Though it wasn’t their open letter to The Times that stopped the first flight of deportees to Rwanda, the fact is that the bishops are winning their war on the Government’s asylum policy.
Furious Tories are plotting revenge. According to Tom Newton-Dunn, Cabinet ministers want to expel the 26 bishops who sit in the House of Lords. But I doubt that the current government will actually pull at that particular thread — getting rid of the Lords Spiritual would be unjustifiable without also removing the remaining hereditary peers, 45 of whom are Conservatives.
A more effective form of retribution against these turbulent priests would be to hold them accountable for their interventions in public life. If they want to campaign against government policy, then fine — but given their privileged position they should be open to scrutiny. It’s not good enough for them to make a significant intervention on a controversial issue and then withdraw to the calm of their episcopal palaces. The hit-and-run moral grandstanding of the open letter will not do.
Consider just one part of the bishops’ text: “We cannot offer asylum to everyone, but we must not outsource our ethical responsibilities, or discard international law — which protects the right to claim asylum.” If, as the letter suggests, there is a limit on our responsibilities, where does it lie? The bishops don’t have to come up with a precise number, but they could specify the order of magnitude. Should we be prepared to take up to 100,000 asylum seekers a year? A million? Ten million? At what point is there no more room at the inn?
They go on to argue that to “reduce dangerous journeys to the UK we need safe routes”. But safe routes already exist — every year, hundreds of thousands of migrants enter the UK legally. Presumably, the bishops are thinking of something extra — a special airlift operation perhaps. But to whom would these precious places be allocated? Should it be the sort of individuals who have the physical and financial means to travel the people smuggling routes? Or should it be more vulnerable individuals, of which the developing world has no shortage?
One would expect the Church of England to express a preference for the sick and the lame, the widow and the orphan. But the sort of individuals who currently cross the Channel on dinghies — mostly young, healthy and male — would still want to come, so what do the bishops propose to do about them? Would they make room on the mercy flights by kicking off the widows and orphans? Or do they have any bright ideas for disincentivising the small boats?
I don’t ask these questions as mere debating points, but rather because the ethical dilemmas of immigration and asylum policy are real and urgent. Far from wanting to shut the bishops up, these are the hard questions on which their moral guidance would be welcome.
So let’s hear more — not less — from Justin Welby and his colleagues. UnHerd interview slots are available.