On Tuesday of this week the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum held their annual Gladstone lecture, which aims to spark debate and build bridges between faith and politics within the party. It was given by Sarah Teather MP at Liberal Democrat Party Headquarters in Westminster to an audience made up of members of the Liberal Democrats and many from outside the party including from the wider Christian community. The lecture was entitled ‘Immigration: Whose Story Is It Anyway’ and in it Sarah was critical of the political debate on immigration in the UK in terms of both the policy agenda pursued by government, including the present Coalition Government, and the language used in discussion of immigration. As well as approaching the subject from a political perspective, Sarah spent much time approaching it from a Biblical perspective, looking to establish an understanding of the issue that will challenge all Christians irrespective of their political persuasion.
Sarah Teather is the Member of Parliament for Brent Central, one of the most ethnically diverse local communities within the UK. The experience of living in and serving this area has provided Sarah with insight, knowledge and experience of the issues surrounding immigration into the UK and the impact on local communities. She is the ex-Minister of State for Children & Families and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees. Whilst in her ministerial role, Sarah was responsible for the legislation which ended the policy of Child Detention.
Here is a full transcript of the speech:
It is a great honour to be asked to give the Gladstone lecture this year. A huge thank you to the Lib Dem Christian Forum for inviting me and for providing a platform to speak about such an important topic.
It is fantastic to see so many here. I can see many friends, not just the Lib Dem Christian Forum – to whom I shall mainly address my words this evening – but wider party members, members of the media, organisations I have worked with who support refugees and migrants, personal friends, and my team from Brent.
I want to begin with a story.
Whose story? As you will see, it is a story that touches many. It begins with the birth of a little girl, at the close of the first world war. A Slovak Jewish girl. A girl called Berta.
Berta was born as Czechoslovakia was born. In her lifetime she would see her country formed and reformed, invaded and liberated, named and renamed, enlarged and split.
Political ideology would take the lives of almost all of her family. But politics would also come to be the calling of her children.
Berta married Adolf in 1940. Clever, professional and 5 years older than her. They were comfortably off.
But the year they were married, the Nazis came and rounded up both of their parents. Then their aunts and uncles and cousins and friends.
Adolf’s job as a Government architect protected them for a time. But not forever. In October 1944, Adolf was sent to Sachsenhausen, and Berta to Auschwitz Birkenau.
Berta never spoke about her time in Auschwitz, or her joy on finding Adolf alive after the war. They just quietly resumed their married life, had two sons, Juraj and Pavel, and kept as low a profile as possible while the politics of their homeland shifted dramatically around them.
But on the 21st of August 1968, Berta’s homeland was invaded again. Two weeks after Russian tanks flooded in to Bratislava, the family fled on forged papers, under cover of a holiday, holding just one small suitcase each of what they could salvage of their lives.
The original plan was America, but in transit Adolf was persuaded to change course and join a long separated sister in Brighton.
Pavel was 13 when they arrived in Brighton. He remembers it clearly. They had nothing. Pavel’s unsuspecting aunt and uncle did their best to welcome the family of four into their tiny one bedroom flat, but it was hardly practical, and often he and his older brother were sent to stay with neighbours.
His father, once a high flying architect was reduced to helping out in his sister’s shop. Eventually he did manage to get a lowly position as a junior draughtsman in London. And so a year after they arrived in the UK, the family uprooted again and moved a few doors from where I live now in Willesden Green. It was a small, damp, mice-ridden one-bedroom flat, provided by the Refugee Housing Association, but it was at least theirs.
Pavel was now calling himself Paul to make school life easier, and in spite of being dumped in the bottom stream at Kilburn High School with the other foreign children, at 15, he confounded his school by gaining 9 CSEs, mostly at grade 1, before going on to Manchester University.
It was there that he had a chance meeting. Cast your mind back to spring 1974, if you are old enough to do that. Britain was in between General Elections.
“Come and help”, said a fellow student, “you have nothing better to do.”
One round of Focus leaflets later, Paul was hooked.
Eight years after he delivered his first Focus leaflet, Paul Lorber was elected in Wembley as one of the first three liberal Councillors in Brent. Twenty four years later, he became the first Liberal Democrat to lead Brent Council.
For 40 years since that fateful chance meeting, Paul Lorber has been marching unsuspecting volunteers around the London Borough of Brent, with a bundle of leaflets in his hands, and several thousand more in the car for when you have finished.
His delivery capacity in Brent is legendary. The awkward single-mindedness and early morning calls (and a whole host more besides) are the butt of local party jokes in our close knit team. But I am not sure I can overstate the influence of Paul on the shape of politics in Brent.
Paul was formed by his journey. By the fight to survive. By the low expectations others had of him. By the determination to prove people wrong. By the friendships he made along the way. And by a dogged commitment and quiet gratitude towards the poor inner London Borough that welcomed him as a refugee, and that he continues to call home.
Paul’s story is bound up with the great political and ideological struggles that came to form Europe, and the people who came to shape our country as we know it today.
It is his story. But it is also our story. Because his story has shaped who we are.
Liberal Democrats have always celebrated the diversity and benefits that immigration brings – and not just because of the benefits Paul Lorber has brought to LibDem leaflet distribution in Brent.
The preamble to our constitution enshrines our commitment to fostering diversity, and to free movement of people and ideas, it rails against entrenched privilege and inequality, and recognises the interdependence of all the world’s peoples.
Christian liberal thinkers too have understood that our notions of justice cannot be confined by national boundaries.
Let me quote from one of Gladstone’s speeches:
“Remember that He who has united you together as human beings in the same flesh and blood, has bound you by the law of mutual love; that that mutual love is not limited by the shores of this island, is not limited by the boundaries of Christian civilisation; that it passes over the whole surface of the earth, and embraces the meanest along with the greatest in its unmeasured scope.”
But as we think about immigration from a Christian perspective and try to understand whose story we are telling, let’s go back to the beginning.
Because if you are Christian, or for that matter a Muslim or a Jew, the narrative of your faith and your very relationship with God is founded on a story that was always about journey.
Consider Abraham, our father in faith, called by God to leave his settled life in Ur for the sake of a vague promise of new life. And so began a great story of migration that in some ways would never end. The journey to Egypt to escape famine, the Exodus from Egypt to escape slavery. Isaac, Esau, Jacob, Hagar, Ishmael, Joseph: all travelled or were displaced.
Then Jesus, born literally on the move on the road. First he retraces the steps of his ancestors, fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s clutches, then his family settles in Nazareth in the North, displaced from the birthplace of his parents.
As an adult of course, he is an itinerant preacher, with nowhere to lay his head. His entire ministry a journey to Jerusalem, which will find its meaning in his Passion and death at the journey’s end.
He calls his disciples to sit lightly to place, and the early Church is propelled outwards from Pentecost, as exiles and missionaries to every corner of the globe.
So migration, journey, dislocation and displacement are a crucial part of our Christian story and identity.
But that is not all. Not only did our ancestors in faith migrate, but the call to welcome strangers in hospitality is a central biblical thread. From Leviticus to Deuteronomy, Israel is told to “love the stranger” and indeed that “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you”.
The author of Hebrews reminds us of the story of Abraham and Sarah and their three mysterious visitors. As he says: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it”.
Jesus makes the instruction more explicit: “whatever you did to the least of my brethren, you did to me.”
But there is another story too, and it is perhaps the most challenging for today’s narrative about immigrants.
Over and over again in the bible, the stranger – the foreigner – is presented to us not as threat, or even as a subject for pity, but as gift, as truth teller, and as teacher.
In the Old Testament it is Melchizedek who brings bread and wine and blesses Abraham. It is Balaam who blesses Israel in the sight of her enemy Balak. It is the Queen of Sheba who brings gifts to Solomon and testifies to his wisdom. It is through Cyrus that God delivers the Jews from Exile. It is Ruth the Moabite, whose loyalty and faithfulness prove a model, and it is from the line of her descendant, David, that the Messiah is given to the world.
In the New Testament, it is the Samaritan who Jesus offers to us in a parable as the model of a good neighbour. It is a Samaritan who is the only one of the ten lepers healed who returns to praise God. It is the Roman centurion who asks Jesus to heal his servant and prompts him to say “In no one in Israel have I found such faith”. And it is the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark’s gospel who comes seeking healing for her daughter and is the only person in all the Gospels who argues with Jesus, and wins. His whole sense of mission is expanded, even corrected, by listening to her. There is no perspective on his mission better than hers.
In the Christian story, we find that the stranger is often the hand of God. Not the drainer of resources but the donator of gifts. Not the harbinger of scarcity but the sacrament of abundance.
How challenging it would be for us today were any of that perspective towards the newcomer to touch our discourse about migrants.
Because the story politics tells today about immigration is a very different one. Today’s debate is framed wholly in terms of need and resource. Their economic and material need. Our precious resource; resources in short supply on our overcrowded island. And we justify our rejection of the migrant’s neediness by the story we tell ourselves about their dubious character.
Illegal, criminal, bogus, scrounger, liar, cheat, terrorist, health tourist.
Words matter here. They frame the story. They affect how politicians approach policy making, how journalists approach news reporting, how officials make decisions on individual claims, how any of us approach our neighbours, even what school we send our children to and where we choose to live.
Words used carelessly by successive Governments, and I’m afraid to say every political party including our own, have had a lasting impact. They, and the words of the media who have reported them, have narrowed the political space available for inclusive policies and fundamentally undermined the possibility of individual migrants gaining a fair hearing.
Because it is against that story of the migrant as a drain on us that policy has been written.
So although every study that examines why asylum seekers arrive in one country or another says that it is either about common language or family connections and may well – like Paul’s family – involve a hasty change of plans en route, we continue to insist that it is the generosity of our benefits regime, and the softness of our enforcement process, that pulls those fleeing violence half-way round the world to our shores.
And so we detain and disperse them, berate and disbelieve them. We render them destitute, and we prevent them from working.
We dehumanise. We disrespect. We disable.
The way we treat people who seek our protection is nothing short of a national disgrace.
Detained for administrative purposes, our system keeps thousands of migrants effectively just filed in storage until the bureaucracy is ready to process them. We ended routine detention of children, but we are the only European country who detains adults indefinitely.
Paul’s journey to safety in the UK was tough. But today, travelling on forged papers would be held against you. Paul’s family knew when they reached the UK that they would be able to stay. Today’s asylum seekers may wait years after they arrive for such certainty.
And while they wait for that certainty, rarely is any integration strategy provided. No language help, no help in how to navigate the system. And as soon as asylum seekers assemble anything approaching a fragile support structure, we pick them up, with no notice and no choice, and we move them again. Probably to a grotty housing estate in a desperately poor area, somewhere where its inhabitants already feel alienated and neglected.
Talented, gifted, innovative people, who had the wherewithal, the resources and ingenuity to escape danger in their own country are slowly but surely turned into passive receivers of our grudging benevolence.
Successive Governments have failed in their duty of justice to asylum seekers and to the poor areas we have dispersed them to. We have turned the former into a burden by our own design and we have placed that burden upon the shoulders of the groups least able to bear it.
For many asylum seekers their experience of the system is a living nightmare. But what keeps them going – what keeps body and soul together – is the support provided by voluntary sector and faith-based organisations. Support provided by some of you who are here as my guests this evening.
Where the official bureaucracy may dehumanise, via indifference or design, by contrast, you affirm, respect and enable. Where asylum seekers are detained, rendered destitute or relocated, you visit, support and befriend. In every age, in every Government, it is civil society that offers help and hope.
My worry is, that despite all that you do, my Government is about to make things a whole lot worse again. We have always had a woeful record of getting decisions right in asylum, and we are particularly poor at hearing the stories of those who have suffered sexual violence, or been tortured, or who are gay.
But instead of improving the way we make decisions, there are proposals again to bar people from claiming legal aid to put in their fresh application. Of course, if they are unable to put in a fresh application, they will then find themselves denied health treatment under the latest consultation, and possibly even find that their friends are prosecuted for lodging them.
And it isn’t just asylum seekers who are seeing the rough end of the Government’s pledge to get tough. Last July new rules came into force setting a minimum income threshold for family visas. That threshold is significantly more than the national minimum wage and indeed more than almost two-thirds of women in Britain earn. The result has been the separation of thousands of British people from their partners, often just as their children are born, for months on end.
Why has the Government set this threshold so high? Well ostensibly to prevent people who come here being a burden on the tax-payer. But if this were really the case, it is hard to imagine that the rules would be so rigidly applied, in many cases defying any common sense.
No, it seems all other objectives of government, family policy, early intervention, child development, economic policy, have been subjugated to meet an arbitrary cap on the number of immigrants we let in.
We have split up families essentially just to allow David Cameron to stand before the electorate in the next TV debate and say that he has driven down the numbers of foreigners in our country.
We have got ourselves into an extraordinary tangle. A cycle, entirely devoid of ethical perspective, where the judgment about what is right begins and ends with some notion of public opinion, and where we absent ourselves of any part in the responsibility for forming it.
As a Liberal Democrat, I believe Britain is the better for immigration. I am proud of the diversity of my own constituency, of culture and ideas, of talents and interests. I am enriched by the conversations I have with others of different faiths. That liberal perspective on immigration is the reason I joined the party, and certainly the reason I first campaigned for it
But I am not and have never argued for no borders whatsoever. Neither am I arguing that the state should never refuse, or never deport.
What is needed, however, is a proper ethical framework for making those decisions. One that allows us to balance what is owed to each – to citizens of this country and those who would come to join us.
I think Christian anthropology might help here. Christianity has a very particular view about what it means to be human, about human value and worth. A worth that transcends notions of wealth or popularity, of race or creed, of citizenship or country of birth. Christianity professes that all are precious and worthy of dignity, as beings created in the image of a loving God. A loving, generous, creative, active God.
Remember the echoes of this in Gladstone’s words that I quoted at the start of this lecture, as he urged his listeners not to deafen their ears to the cries of injustice of others beyond our shores. In fact this still finds an echo in our party policy. We have always been instinctive internationalists. Supporters of European and indeed global institutions that can seek to further human rights beyond the confines of the nation state.
Christianity consistently asks us to give particular attention to the most vulnerable members of society. We are asked to seek and find the face of Christ in the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned and the stranger, and to serve those as we would our Lord.
But this is not just a matter of pity. Christianity has a challenging notion of justice. When we consider what is owed to our neighbour, it is not enough just to give merely what is owed in law: there is a greater call on us.
Christian notions of justice demand that we recognise that the world’s resources are not justly distributed. That we recognise and seek to alleviate the causes of forced migration in the first place: lack of water, food insecurity, genocide, conflict. Starting here will always leave the Christian asking questions about whether it is really just to run an immigration system that seems only to serve the privileged few – to service the needs of the academic and business elite, while raising the barriers to migration to the poor and the persecuted.
Beginning here will also force us to think about what we owe to the asylum seeker who lives with us in our own communities, in terms of food and shelter, access to healthcare and to justice.
But Christianity also says something else profound about human beings: that we are at heart relational creatures – defined by our relationships person-to-person, with God and with one another. We exist as an individual-in-community. Christianity’s very notion of God is relational. We profess a three-personed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each distinct and yet united, existing in perfect relationship with one another. A relationship into which God draws us in a model of perfect communion, as John’s Gospel says, “that they may be one even as we are one”.
As relational creatures, interdependent by virtue of our common humanity, creative and active by virtue of the imprint God Himself has left on us, we need opportunities to participate and shape the world around us; to form relationships with others, to communicate, to give and receive. The pursuance of policy that excludes asylum seekers from mainstream society, whether via prolonged detention, dispersal or constant relocation, or the denial of rights to work – the pursuance of such policy is a rejection of fundamental aspects of being human. A denial of human dignity.
And this has implications for the way we as politicians conduct ourselves too. It is not enough to give someone refugee status but brutalise them along the way. It is not enough to do the right thing in policy terms, but use such aggressive language that we demonise the subject of our cause so they cannot form meaningful relationships with others.
But I can hear some of you thinking “This is all very noble but not very realistic. Not with public opinion hardening on immigration and hostility particularly high towards asylum seekers. We can’t do anything about improving actual conditions, unless we find tougher ways to sell what we are doing. Public opinion will not tolerate it!”
I want to say three things in response.
First, allowing asylum seekers to work, giving adequate financial support, enabling people to set down roots, helping them learn English, making them feel welcome – these things are not expensive. But they would make a significant difference, not just to the way asylum seekers feel about themselves, but also to the way in which they are seen by others.
Second, the sheer scale of the numbers of British families now caught up in the family visas system is beginning to unearth the truth about the consequences of writing policy that subjugates fundamental aspects of human nature to a quick headline. These families do not understand the injustice that has been meted out to them. And they are telling their stories. I suspect that they will come to be a window on the whole immigration system. Their story will come to stand for the many thousands of others whose voices will not get heard, but who have been treated with similar indignity.
Finally, I want to say something directly to those of you who are my fellow politicians: it is time that we took responsibility for the role we ourselves have in shaping public opinion. That requires leadership. We need to set out on the course we believe to be just and argue with all the tools that we have at our disposal for that to come to be.
Frankly, if that is not the calling of politics, I wonder what is.
I began my story this evening with the birth of Czechoslovakia. I told you about how its politics marked the life of one family and led them ultimately to flee to exile. Let me close with some words from its last President. Reflecting on its troubled history and the role of politics in its healing, Vaclav Havel, offered this:
“[…] It is the duty of politicians to bring back to life this potential, timid and lethargic, to show it a way, to clear a passage for it, to render it assurance, a chance to come forth – in brief, hope. It is said that a people gets the politicians it deserves. This is true up to a point: politicians are in effect the mirror of society, and a sort of incarnation of its potential. Paradoxically, the opposite is also true: society mirrors its politicians, because it is largely up to the politicians to determine which forces are liberated, which are held in check, to choose what they depend on, whether on the best or the worst in each citizen […] In my opinion, anyone who goes into politics bears a greater responsibility for the moral condition of society and it is his duty to seek out in it that which is better, and to develop and nurture it.”
We have to decide what story we want to tell about immigration, and the story we choose will reflect the story we tell about politics as a whole.
I would argue that a liberal approach to freedom of movement, a liberal approach to the role of the state, a liberal approach to upholding human rights – these things are pretty core to our party’s story.
We must decide whether we have the courage to tell that story. Believe me, if we don’t, no one else in politics will.
With grateful thanks
I have drawn on work by theologian, Dr Anna Rowlands (Kings College London) on migration, conversations with Rev Sam Wells (St Martin in the Fields) and material from his book God’s Companions used with his kind consent, as well as conversations with Fr Damian Howard SJ (Heythrop College) and Daniel Groody and Gioacchino Campese’s book A promised land, a perilous journey. Theological perspectives on migration. I wish also to acknowledge the help and advice of many others including (but not exclusively) Cllr Paul Lorber, Louise Zanre (Jesuit Refugee Service), Ruth Grove-White (Migrants Rights Network), Fr Frank Turner SJ (OCIPE), Bishop Pat Lynch (Auxiliary Bishop of Southwark), Bishop John Packer (Bishop of Leeds and Ripon), Fr Dominic Robinson SJ (Heythrop College), and Duncan Brack (Liberal Democrat History Group). Sincere thanks also to Jon Featonby and Georgina Jones in my office for all of their editing and research help. And finally to Liliane Djoukouo, to whom this is dedicated, for her dignity and generosity.