Moderator makes history by addressing the House of Lords

Lord Wallace has made history by becoming the first serving Moderator of the General Assembly to address the House of Lords.

He spoke in a debate led by the Archbishop of Canterbury on contemporary challenges to freedom of speech, and the role of public, private and civil society sectors in its upholding.

A member of the House of Lords, Lord Wallace is sitting on the non-affiliated benches during his year in office.

The Palace of Westminster in London serves as the meeting place for the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

The Moderator said:

"I am delighted to be able to participate in this important and timely debate initiated by the most Reverend Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I am also pleased to speak, not only as a member of your Lordships' House, but also from the perspective of Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

It is a privilege which I cherish.

We do well here to reflect on the privilege which we have as noble Lords to speak here but as with all privileges, it comes with a responsibility to exercise it wisely.

From a Christian perspective as we approach Christmas, we should recall that when Jesus came to live among us he was not born to a position of privilege nor did he have a platform of contemporary power and influence. He came alongside those at the edges of power.

Moderator Lord Wallace
Lord Wallace

So, when exercising our freedom of speech, do we not also need to feel a moral or spiritual obligation to listen and walk in the shoes of others; to understand better the fear and anxiety and impact of words and behaviours on those without power?

And should that not make all of us more careful in our own choice of words?

It was 38 years last June when I was first elected to the House of Commons.

Over my years as an MP, and then as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I engaged in debates with other MPs and MSPs of different political hues.

These debates could be very robust.

We often differed but with very, very few exceptions, I always felt that my opponents, by their own lights, were expressing views which they thought best served their country and their constituents.

But I also note that during my time in front line politics, I was spared much of today's vituperation and abusive language; a trend today towards ever greater bitterness, anger, slander, and malice, which, I fear, risks being normalised on social media.

In his book published last year, Let Us Dream, Pope Francis despaired that at times our politics, society and media seem like one long shouting match.

And I do sometimes think that our female politicians are more often the victims of unacceptable targeted abuse. But it is not just politicians who are on the receiving end.

Whilst I profoundly disagree with anti-vaccination campaigners, I acknowledge that they hold that view, often passionately.

But let us recall during the summer that a former nurse attacked those in the medical profession who are administering vaccines with the words, ‘at the Nuremberg trials doctors and nurses stood trial and they hung'.

Recently, I spotted a tweet from Scotrail which reproduced a Twitter message received – with many words necessarily redacted, and certainly not repeatable in your Lordship's house – and the comment,

"This is your periodic reminder that a real human being reads every tweet and direct message sent to this account. This kind of behaviour isn't acceptable in person or online."

Moderator Jim Wallace Tankerness
Lord Wallace

I very much doubt whether doctors and nurses being compared to Nazi war criminals or Scotrail employees reading vicious bile in Twitter messages can possibly be an experience at all uplifting or encouraging for them.

When the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, addressed the Kirk's General Assembly in 2019, she said,

‘..perhaps these days we can be too quick to retreat into political tribes, with a focus on areas of conflict rather than agreement.

‘So, all of us - and political leaders especially - have a responsibility to resist the momentum for division and polarisation…

‘And when politicians forget or fall short of that responsibility - as all of us sometimes do - the Church is, I think, well placed to remind us of it.'

As people here engage in the political process, I believe that we have a leadership role in setting an example.

So, if those in positions of political responsibility are ever tempted or apt to ‘forget or fall short', I think the Church does have a role remind them of the responsibility so well-articulated by the First Minister.

But that should not in any way make politicians any less passionate about what they believe in.

If they are prepared to put their name on a ballot paper, it is to be hoped that they are fired up with commitment to do rather than to be.

Inevitably when dealing with issues such as this, the question arises as to whether the government should strengthen legislation to tackle online abuse.

The Convener of the Church of Scotland's Faith Impact Forum, Very Rev Dr Susan Brown called on the Government as long ago as summer 2020 to bring forward what even then was thought to be overdue Online Safety legislation.

Joined by faith leaders from the Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu communities among others, she said: ‘Words always have consequences and we would encourage people to use them to break down barriers, not build them'.

General Assembly Moderato
The House of Lords.

We have heard today that the committee report on the draft legislation will shortly be published and in replying to the debate it would be helpful if the noble Lord the minister could tell us when the actual legislation might well be brought forward.

One important lesson which I have learned from years of engagement in law and politics is that both have their limitations.

I realised that laws don't necessarily change hearts.

So, we should not kid ourselves that legislation can or will fully solve the many manifest problems associated with online abuse.

And picking up on the quote from Dr Martin Luther King, who said ‘Morality cannot be legislated for, but behaviour can be regulated.

‘Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless'.

Yes, some laws are worthwhile where they can provide welcome and necessary protection, particularly for vulnerable groups or individuals, including ethnic and religious minorities.

And in the sphere of social media, some of the big tech giants do need some prodding to ensure customers comply with user agreements which include rules on standards and codes of conduct.

But from a Christian perspective, I would claim that changing hearts requires something more than laws.

It requires love.

Arguably the message of the parable of the Good Samaritan would be far more effective in bringing about a society more at ease with itself than any number of Acts of Parliament.

I believe that there is a role for churches to play in trying to bring about a much-improved public debate on a host of issues.

In the very contentious Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the Kirk, and not least through the offices of the then Moderator, Very Rev Dr John Chalmers, created a space for respectful dialogue between the two sides.

I dare say that some of the voters who attended these perhaps found it beneficial to have a discussion which provided more light than heat.

And surely a host of contemporary contentious issues which would readily lend themselves to such a respectful dialogue and responsible exercise of free speech today which our churches and others might be facilitators.

My Lords, it has been a privilege to take part in this debate.

I think it augers well when your Lordships consider the online safety bill, not only in showing the value we place in exercise of freedom of speech but also giving us an opportunity to speak up for those who are on the margins and do not have the privilege of a voice in parliament."