HL Deb 23 February 1978 vol 389 cc279-351

5.41 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill he now read a second time. I have just been in the Library, reading my horoscope, and I understand from that that I have to show great mechanical skill today. I hope that it stays with me. The other point which I should like to make is about the Amendment, which I understand suggests that, instead of today, this Bill should be read a second time "this day six months". I hope that I will not be pressed on that, because the Amendment would mean that I should have to reconvene the House in the third week of August, which I do not think would be a very popular move.

I should like to make one or two points clear about my approach to this Bill. I am a Humanist and I take very great pride in my association with the National Secular Society, which has a long and very honourable and gallant record in the battle for freedom of thought and expression in this country. It was, in fact, only 100 years ago, give or take 10 years, that a free thinker named Charles Bradlaugh, although democractically elected to another place, was evicted and thrown out, because he wished to affirm rather than take the Oath. Nowadays, when a Member of Parliament takes his or her seat, or a Peer is introduced into your Lordships' House, no one lifts an eyebrow if he or she chooses to affirm. But we ought to remember that this and other rights, which we now regard as commonplace, were not won without sacrifice and struggle, in the teeth of prejudice and opposition, and should not be treated lightly. They are, in my view, part of the heartland of our democracy, and anything which threatens those rights of free speech and free expression threatens that democracy.

Having said that, I should like to emphasise that in proposing this Bill I am not making an attack on the Christian religion, or the Christian ethic or any other religion or faith. Indeed, if I may coin a phrase, some of my best friends are Christians. In fact, I think that almost the finest human being I have ever known is a fiercely active Christian, and he happens to be sitting in your Lordships' House today. I am lost in admiration of him, and of many others. And one who has seen, as I have seen, the Salvation Army lasses devotedly working in intolerable conditions to help those who inhabit the lower depths of our society—the winos, the meth-drinkers, the drug addicts, the weak, the hopeless, the scorned and rejected—would think twice, and three times and four times, before criticising the deep inner faith which urges them to such heights of unselfish love.

In his play Look Back in Anger, the playwright John Osborne had one of his young characters complain that there "are no good causes left any more". The Salvation Army and many similar Christian, religious and non-religious groups give the lie to that thought every day. There are many good causes for us to fight and many so-called Christians, the ones who are quick to pray and slow to practise, and many non-Christians who have an infinite capacity for ideals but a low threshold for action in support of them, could learn a great deal from the dear old Sally Ann. All this, I hope, will help to indicate to your Lordships that I am not speaking today out of feelings of prejudice or soured opposition. I am not, and I hope I never shall be, a cynic.

Perhaps because it is relative, and because I have been criticised for bringing this Bill before your Lordships, I might briefly sum up my own faith—because it is a faith. I believe that there are two modes of existence struggling in this world for the spirit of mankind. There is, first, the "having" mode, which puts its emphasis on material possession, power and aggression; and, secondly, there is the "being" mode, which is based on concern for other human beings, on love and on productive activity. I place myself very firmly in that second school. I love life—and I say this in all humility—and I have a deep and abiding faith in humanity; a faith which some of my friends maintain that I hold to the point of foolishness. I quite simply believe that all men should strive to make this world a better place for our children, and their children, to live in, and I count as my allies and friends anyone who shares that belief, whether they be Christian, Jew, Moslem, Hindu, atheist or agnostic. All the rest, all our differences, are as a morning mist compared to that common aim.

Nor, my Lords, do I want to take this debate back to the old sterile arguments of yesterday. It would, I suppose, be possible to argue that the Christian religion itself grew out of a supreme blasphemy, that Christ was crucified at Calvary because be offended against and denied the established religion of his country. It would be possible to argue that there are many obscene and blasphemous passages in the Bible itself, that many distinguished churchmen have spoken or written what is tantamount to blasphemy, that there are blasphemous passages in the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Fielding, Byron, D. H. Lawrence, Shelley, H. G. Wells, James Joyce, Bernard Shaw and the whole gallery of our marvellous literature. But this is a territory on which I do not wish to tread. We can all go scavenging into literature or into the past, and come up with stones to throw at each other. It would be a pointless and fruitless exercise, in my opinion.

For over the past 50 years or so, we have learned to lay down our stones. There has been a growth of tolerance and, until recently, there had been no prosecution for blasphemy since 1921. Even before then most prosecutions were of a private nature. The attitude of successive Governments was aptly summed up by William Harcourt, who was Home Secretary in 1882. When he was asked to prosecute the fantastic Charles Bradlaugh and others for blasphemy, he replied: … more harm than advantage is produced to public morals by Government prosecutions of this kind". This also appears to have been the attitude of the leaders of the Established Church and others over the years. Most prosecutions for blasphemy in the last 200 years—if not all—have been brought by small extremist Christian groups. There was the Proclamation Society in 1797, and 30 years later there was the Society for the Suppression of Vice; and there were others. Most of those extreme groups had their little hour of limelight and faded away. History had its own way, in the end, as it always does. The names of the leaders of those groups are forgotten today, while the names and works of the people they persecuted are honoured in our history—names like Tom Paine, Shelley and Charles Bradlaugh.

We might have been forgiven, in the light of all this, for thinking that the law of blasphemy was a dead letter having about as much significance for the latter half of the 20th century as the law—which is still on the Statute Book—which lays down that all our taxis should have a bale of straw on the roof to feed the non-existent horses. We were encouraged in this thought by the fact that several attempts to use the law of blasphemy since 1921 proved to be unsuccessful. It seemed to us that we were moving towards more enlightened times.

In the 1921 trial for blasphemy—the last one before last year—a man named Gott was sentenced to nine months' imprisonment for comparing Jesus Christ to a circus clown. A couple of years ago there was a very successful musical in London called Godspell. In that show, which ran for two years or more, Christ was portrayed as a circus clown. There is a show—it is still running after five years—called Jesus Christ Superstar! Many people may think that the title itself is a blasphemy. That show is full of things which, 50 years ago, would have been challenged in the courts—lines like those when Pilate says to Jesus Christ: Show me that you are no fool. Walk across my swimming pool". Not only were the authors and producers of these works not sued for blasphemy but many leading Churchmen praised their work.

This was the great change, which I and many people welcomed, which had taken place in a little over 50 years. I should certainly not be on my feet today in your Lordships' House if that situation had continued. I should have preferred to maintain the unwritten truce and let sleeping dogs lie. Unfortunately, however, a new group has arisen to take the place of the Society for the Suppression of Vice and the others which I have mentioned. Last year, in rather peculiar circumstances, the leader of this group chose to invoke the almost moribund law of blasphemy. That organisation was founded and is still led by Mrs. Mary Whitehouse. It began as the "Clean Up TV" campaign. Subsequently it branched out and is now known as the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association—the NVLA.

For a few moments I should like to go into the background of this movement, because it is important to the case that I want to make for this Bill. Mrs. Whitehouse is not only a very active, not to say aggressive Christian; she is also a superb publicist. She would be a considerable asset to any firm operating in the field of public relations. Indeed, I sometimes think that had she been present at the Battle of Jericho it is very doubtful whether Joshua would have had either the need or the opportunity to blow his trumpet. Mrs. Whitehouse continually attacks the media, but at the same time she uses it with great skill to promote her views.

I do not want anything I am going to say this evening to be considered as an attack on her sincerity, but it is important to bring the facts into perspective. Mrs. Whitehouse gathered considerable publicity to herself some years ago when she declared that there was a political and ideological conspiracy, centred in the BBC, to undermine the British way of life. Poor old Auntie! That statement had about as much foundation in fact as the late Senator McCarthy's claim that the American Government was dominated by Communists, but it gives us a clue to Mrs. Whitehouse's rather extreme approach.

When this good lady writes to the newspapers—she does so with great frequency, and there is no harm in that—she normally signs as the general secretary of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association. This is a curious, not to say mysterious organisation. The impression seems to have got around that it has a massive membership, but according to a piece in The Times it has just over 30,000 members. Again, there is no harm in that. No criticism can be made of it. There is nothing wrong about being small. However, I think that it is important to get the record straight.

The NVLA is mysterious in the sense that it appears to be a head without a body. Presumably it has a chairman, or a chairperson, and a committee. Presumably these people were elected to their positions. However, all of these good people maintain a silence which is almost deafening. It was not until I read my Sunday Times last week that I saw other people in the NVLA putting their signatures to letters. Mrs. Whitehouse is apparently the only person who is allowed to write or speak on behalf of that organisation. There was a letter, in that same Sunday Times, of which I should like to quote part to your Lordships, which began: I have for a long time been trying to join the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, but have as yet been unable to discover what it is, how one may obtain membership, when and where its AGMs are held, where its minutes or accounts are published, how its officers are elected, who pays their salaries, etc. As I have said, Mary Whitehouse performs her duties with great skill and a conscientiousness which many of us could follow. But from what I have said and from the evidence it does seem that the NVLA is something of a one-woman band, and this tends to lend weight to the criticism that she is a self-appointed guardian of our moral standards.

That is a little of the background. As your Lordships will know, it was the same lady who decided last year to bring a private prosecution for blasphemous libel against a publication called Gay News, its editor Denis Lemon and the distributors of the magazine. Let me say straight away that I hold no brief for the poem which was the cause of the case. I have read it and I believe it to be ill-considered and not very good poetry. It is easy to understand why some Christians should be shocked or offended by it, but equally I do not believe that it was written and published with the intention of giving offence. I shall come back later to that point.

It is a very strange contradiction that Mrs. Whitehouse, by her action, has brought this sad little poem to the attention of thousands of people, many of them Christians, who otherwise would have known nothing about it. She has, in fact, helped to perpetuate the so-called blasphemy and has made a mockery of the law she supports. It should also be said that Mrs. Whitehouse could have chosen a dozen other instances of so-called blasphemy which have occurred in the last few years. She could have sued the publishers of some of Shelley's poems, or the publishers of D. H. Lawrence, or some of the stage presentations which I have mentioned. I have my own view as to why Mrs. Whitehouse chose to attack a small publication run, or largely supported, by homosexuals and I must leave your Lordships to draw your own conclusions. Mrs. Whitehouse would probably deny that there was any prejudice in her action. I would beg leave to doubt that.

Either way, I am bound to say that one of the most repellent features of the first trial was the report which appeared in many newspapers, describing how Mrs. Whitehouse and her supporters knelt in prayer in the corridors. The jury had retired to consider their verdict and these good, Christian people were praying that God should help the jurymen to bring in a verdict of guilty and perhaps send a man to prison. Those prayers seem to me to be a little like blasphemy itself—equivalent to the blessing of the guns in World War I. Did, I wonder, the gentle Jesus, in whom Christians so devoutly believe, applaud when He heard those prayers ascending from the Old Bailey? If He exists, I prefer to believe that He watered Heaven with his tears, weeping for the foolishness and prejudice of mankind. And He must have wondered whether anybody had bothered to read His words in the New Testament: Whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him". I have one final thing to say before I leave the NVLA and its leader. It is noticeable that this organisation has a very narrow view of what constitutes obscenity. Those involved in it are like quicksilver when they believe that our morals are being undermined by a television programme, but on the greater obscenities which stain our society—racism, for example—they retreat into silence. I believe, and many would agree, that racism is a greater threat to Christianity or to any other faith than a poor poem published in an obscure but responsible journal.

I should now like to turn to the Bill itself. It is very short, clear-cut and needs no detailed explanation from me. It speaks for itself. I base my case for the repeal of the old laws of blasphemy on several counts. First, it could be argued that the old law has withered and died and that there is now no point in resurrecting it. We have now a whole series of 20th century Statutes and cases involving offences which would previously have been prosecuted as blasphemy but which can now be prosecuted as obscenity, indecency, incitement to racial hatred, or conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace.

Everyone, including Christians, now has adequate defence. Denis Lemon and Gay News could have been sued on two or three counts without recourse to this ancient law of blasphemy. I would not have approved of such action, but the possibility was there. Indeed, the judge at the Old Bailey ruled that there was no need to prove intention to attack Christians to insult Christians, only to prove that there was a tendency to cause a breach of the peace. In the light of that statement alone, why not pursue the case under the ordinary laws for a breach of the peace?

Second, the law as it stands is manifestly unfair on several grounds. It is biased in favour of the prosecution in that the defence are not allowed to call expert witnesses, not allowed to bring evidence about the intent of the accused. Surely intent is crucial. A "hard porn" merchant would have difficulty in proving reasonable intent in a court, but an honest man who may be writes an ill-judged poem, but is nevertheless a Christian and believes in what he is writing, is not allowed, equally with the hard porn merchant, to give evidence about intent. It is ruled out, so on that ground it is an unfair and unjust law.

The law also leaves a very wide field of interpretation to the individual judge. In fact I would go so far as to say that the law as such does not exist and has been interpreted over the years by various judges. And of course it gives a special and one-sided protection to one section of the community. This law applies only to Christians. It is their special preserve. There are some who argue that it should be extended to take in other religions. I believe that we would be treading on very marshy ground if this were attempted, but at least it might serve to prove the absurdity of the present law. And if the law were extended it would still create a privileged section of the community, and put them at an advantage against the millions of people in Britain today who have no particular religious beliefs.

Thirdly, the law is illogical to the point of absurdity. Take the following proposition: If there is no God, then, of course, there can be no blasphemy. If there is a Supreme Being, is it not a kind of blasphemy in itself to suggest that he requires the protection of a man-made law? I have heard it argued that we need this obsolete law because it acts as a deterrent. That is a very dubious argument indeed. Deterrent is a very ugly word. How does that line of reasoning differ from that of the authorities in the Soviet Union who have their own deterrents for use against anyone who dares to criticise the orthodox Communist philosophy? Do we need that kind of deterrent, and does the Christian Church, which has been founded for 2,000 years and is based on strength, have so little faith in itself that it needs that kind of legal deterrent. "Oh ye of little faith"—does that not ring a bell? As I said, we have enough deterrents in our existing laws without falling back on this shabby Statute of blasphemy, and I would say, with respect to the leaders of the Established Church: If you really feel that you need this law, whether as a deterrent or for any other purpose, why do you not use it? Why does the Church stand aside and leave the dirty work to a small extremist fringe group? Why hide behind the skirts of Mrs. Mary Whitehouse? Would it not be more courageous and honest if you came out openly one way or the other?

I have almost finished. It has been argued that if the law on blasphemy were to be repealed it would open the floodgates for offensive and objectionable attacks on the deeply-held faith of millions of people. What a reflection on our society that we, all of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, have failed so abysmally that if we get rid of a 13th century Statute, an ancient and shabby law, our whole society is going to be open to perverts, pornographers and the like. I do not believe it. It is a nonsense. It is the same kind of reactionary bad argument that is always advanced whenever one wants to repeal an old and bad law. We can catch the porn peddlers and all these other people with our existing laws, and if not they should be strengthened. There should not be one special law to protect the views of one small section of our community. We are not living in the 13th or the 16th or even the 19th century. We have shaped laws which reflect the more liberal attitudes to our times, and it is an outrage that these should be by-passed in favour of an ill-fashioned and out-of-date Statute which can be used by Christian extremists to restrict the freedom of speech and thought of those who may not agree with them.

I am not introducing this Bill because I want to legalise blasphemy. I do not want to offend anybody; I do not want to see anybody else offend other people's views and deeply-held faith. I simply want to put the law straight, to reestablish the idea that all men, whatever their views or philosophies, are equal before the law. There is no place for privilege in the English legal system, and the law of blasphemy is just that—a privilege.

And so, my Lords, I ask you to support this Bill. I ask you to abolish a law which is an unsavoury relic of history, conceived in fear, rooted in religious privilege, stained with prejudice and an ever-present threat to the greatest morality of all, the morality of liberty of thought. I know that your Lordships' House is a place where tolerance, fair-mindedness and wisdom are in abundant supply. Confident in that thought, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(Lord Willis.)

6.6 p.m.

The Earl of HALSBURY rose to move, As an Amendment to the Motion for the Second Reading, to leave out ("now") and at end to insert ("this day six months"). The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg to move the Amendment which stands in my name on the Order Paper. In this House, we customarily give Bills a Second Reading as a matter of courtesy to those who put them forward and there are good public reasons for doing so. On the exceptional occasions when the issue is to be tested in the Division Lobby at the wish of very many Members of this House, I think it right that the House should be put on notice to that effect so that everyone knows that the matter will at least not go by default, whatever happens on dividing the House. The Second Reading of a Bill is one where we approve or disapprove of it in principle. There is no room for sentimentality with respect to giving it a run, or giving the proposer a run for his money. We must each stand up and be counted with respect to one issue only—whether we approve or disapprove of the principle in the Bill. What might happen in the other place if we did nothing at all is of no concern to us this evening.

I should like to begin by observing that I can find no a priori reason why what we regard as a specific sin should be covered by a specific enactment of the criminal law. Scrutinising the Ten Commandments as a basis for life, murder, theft and perjury fall under the criminal law. So far as adultery is concerned, civil damages may be payable if enticement is pleaded in divorce proceedings. So there are four cases out of the Ten Commandments where the law quite definitely has regard to what we regard as sin. We used to have two rather unsatisfactory Statutes covering Lord's Day observance and blasphemy. These have been repealed, but blasphemous libel is still an offence at common law.

The Commandments enjoining monotheism and parental respect, equally with those forbidding idolatry and covetousness, have never, so far as I know, been the concern of the law and it is not difficult to see why. For example, covetousness may be thought by Christians and Jews to be a sin, but it is a state of mind rather than an action, and one could never find satisfactory evidence that would render it punishable on conviction. So the score after my examination of the matter is that five of the Ten Commandments deal with matters of which the law takes cognizance, and five do not.

Why, then, does the common law concern itself with blasphemous libel? I think that a partial motive of a historical character may have been derived from the Old Testament picture of a wrathful God whom it was not safe to insult. This relates to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Willis, in his opening speech. The painter of such a picture would have forgotten that the New Testament Saviour permitted himself to be scorned and mocked. And I believe, my Lords, that both these pictures are essentially irrelevant.

Theoretically, the law is apprehensive of a breach of the peace. I do not myself feel that very likely in Christian contexts, which always place a strong emphasis on non-violence and peaceful dealings between men. I think it might be the occasion for a breach of the peace if a blasphemy occurred in an Islamic context, particularly an insult to the Holy Koran for which all Muslims have a very deep reverence and with respect to which their feelings are very easily aroused. It is not certain that, at common law, blasphemy is confined to insults to the Christian religion.

My own view, my Lords, is that blasphemy is an act of violence to the mind and spirit and deeply spiritual feelings of very large numbers, millions and millions, of people capable of entertaining such feelings. It is an assault upon the mind and spirit just as much as mayhem is an assault upon the body. Consider the great climacteric events to which the spirit is exposed and in the context of which we all need a source of consolation. First in our lives of sorrow comes the inevitable, expected and usually sequential death of our parents, the final parting from those who gave us life, which is none the less grievous because we recognise its inevitability in advance. Then there is the occasional, tragic, unexpected death of a child, engendered, fostered and loved, a focus of hope for the future transformed into one of grief and despair in the present. Then there is the rather sad periods in one's life, in one's eighth decade, which I now draw into, where one becomes increasingly aware that the hand of Time falls progressively heavily and more heavily on the contemporaries whom we love—a brother, a sister, a wife, a dearly loved friend from of old—reminding us thereby that for each of us time is running out and that, pair by pair, one of us must mourn the other. In all these griefs and sorrows we need a source of consolation. Whatever it be, it ought not to be mocked and smirched with ordure, and evil men are waiting to besmirch it for money if the brooding vigilance of the law is undone.

Then there are moments in the lives of all of us when our inclinations and our duties are out of line with one another or when two prima facie duties are in conflict. We need a source of moral strength in the first case and a source of mental strength in the second, of moral strength to do our duty, of mental strength to identify it. Whatever it be, that source of strength should not be mocked or smirched with ordure, though evil men are willing so to besmirch it for money if the brooding vigilance of the law is relaxed.

Lastly, my Lords, there are the moments when we need not so much consolation or strength as courage, not only the courage of the soldier on the battlefield, but the courage to face a long incurable illness with an enduring legacy of pain for the balance of one's life and without escape. Whatever it be, the source of that courage should not be mocked or smirched with ordure, even if evil men are willing so to besmirch it for money if the vigilance of the law is relaxed.

That, in my view, is why we should continue to leave blasphemous libel to be the enduring concern of the common law. It is an assault on the source of consolation, strength and courage which we all need from time to time in our lives, and which an overwhelming number of people find in religion; not perhaps every day, not every religious person is a deeply religious person; they may not go to Church every Sunday, they may not say their prayers every day. But there are times when they are going to need religion, and it should be there for them unbesmirched. As an army chaplain remarked once upon a time, "There are no atheists in foxholes". Religion should not be mocked or smirched with ordure. It is not right, it is not fitting.

I personally am not enamoured of Statutes that prove unenforceable in the event, due to difficulties of definition, or lack of the will to prosecute because of repeated failure to secure a conviction. Such Statutes tend to bring the law into contempt and are best repealed or amended. But the common law, my Lords, is different. It can hang over the wrongdoer as a vague, numinous threat, inducing caution, a reminder that there are limits, that one can go too far in affronting the deep feelings of one's fellows and that a jury may so find. That is how I would like to leave it.

I think that society has suffered enough damage in recent years at the hands of so-called liberal humanists. They plunder the capital accumulated by 2,000 years of Christian effort and thereby provide the backcloth of an ostensible respectability. Against this, they preach that Christian values are unnecessary, that we can get along without them, though, of course, they are living, albeit without very much insight, on Christian values at secondhand. They then embark upon the destruction of those values for no better reason than to give themselves something to write about.

Here, I shall turn aside from my own remarks to answer some of Lord Willis' points. First, I should like to say that we are not concerned with the social patterns of the past. Shelley and Bradlaugh are in their graves. The battles they fought are lost or won. Some of our freedoms are owed to them and some are not. We are here to legislate for this day and age. The noble Lord, Lord Willis, said he was not attacking Christianity. Well, in terms of his explicit words he is not; he is only opening the door for those who will. We must live in this day and age, with our own lack of control over very new media which are entirely fresh to society; we have no traditional means of controlling them, and we have to do our best in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

The noble Lord wants to make the world a better place to live in, but he shows his own real lack of insight into values when he thinks he can do it by enfranchising offences against people's deep beliefs. He says that he is not going to attack Mrs. Whitehouse's sincerity, but he then proceeds to attack her integrity in managerial matters. This seems to me to be a distinction without a difference. He says that that poem—which is now sub judice and I will not, therefore, refer to it—was published without intention of giving offence. I would say that it was published by someone who had lost all insight into what might give offence through the corrupting influence of living in our licentious society. That is my answer to some of the major points made by the noble Lord, Lord Willis.

Now I return to the commercial side of the matter. A newspaper without advertisements would be unsaleable because of its price. One consisting of advertisements only would be unsaleable because of its dullness. To be viable, a paper must balance the proportion of its space devoted to each. The potential demand for advertising space far exceeds what can be balanced by the output of first-class, creative, imaginatively-minded journalists. So any extension of subject matter for the uninspired and the uninspiring to write about enables more advertising space to be sold. I believe the economics of it to be as simple as that.

We relaxed the law on obscenity and profiteers at once moved in and made money out of it. We are now having to institute a committee of inquiry into what we have done. Meanwhile Private Member's Bills have to cope with the alarming growth of child pornography and to place restraints on paedophilia. Is it not about time we learnt from our mistakes? We have suffered enough from what the French call la trahison des clercs—the betrayal of society's values by those who only occupy the positions they do because society has the values which they betray. The French have another phrase for their acolytes, les idiots savants. I do not know how to translate that into vernacular English; possibly "bogus intellectuals" might be a good interpretation.

I think that it is time to say that we have had enough of this. I believe that it is the wish of an overwhelming number of your Lordships that I should move this Amendment. I have done so, and I take responsibility for it and shall divide the House accordingly. I have had enough of not the "permissive" but the "licentious" society in which I have lived for the past 30 years and I want to strike a blow in the defence of something better. I beg to move.

Moved, As an Amendment to the Motion for the Second Reading, to leave out ("now") and at end to insert ("this day six months").—(The Earl of Halsbury.)

6.21 p.m.


My Lords, we have listened to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Willis, with interest. I should like for two reasons to congratulate the noble Lord on the Bill which he has introduced. First, it is short. Secondly, its objectives are crystal clear. Having said that, I am bound to say that I find that those are the only two merits which attach to the Bill. Of course, this is a Private Member's Bill and although I speak from this Dispatch Box I express entirely my own views which are not necessarily shared by any one else.

The noble Lord, Lord Willis, referred to scrapping a Bill which has been on the Statute Book since, I think, the 13th century. It is perfectly true that we have some laws on the Statute Book which date back many years and which may be in need of reform or repeal, especially when they have not been brought into use for many years. However, because they have not been brought into use for many years does not necessarily mean that they are either ineffective or unnecessary.

Of course the cause of the noble Lord's Bill is that a successful court action was brought against a journal and an author for the publication of a poem which has become notorious for its offensiveness to the Christian religion, its obscenity and its profanity. Much of the noble Lord's argument for the Bill was based upon his objections to the activities of Mrs. Whitehouse. Your Lordships will have your own views as to the activities of Mrs. Whitehouse—I have never met her. Your Lordships will also individually determine how much weight should be attached to a Bill which is motivated and, indeed, sponsored by the personal reflections to which the noble Lord, Lord Willis, has happily given expression this evening.

I am bound to say that I find it extraordinary that the noble Lord who is noted for his avant-garde and indeed, tolerant views, should introduce a Bill which manifestly generates intolerance. We pride ourselves on being a compassionate society. Frankly, I do not think that we are a compassionate society. I think that we are an extraordinarily selfish society, but at least we try to be a compassionate society. We have passed laws to promote racial and social harmony and to make it an offence to discriminate against a person because of his race or colour. People became very worked up the other day because an eminent person used a colloquialism to refer to certain members of the new Commonwealth countries which was considered to incite racial hatred.

We have made it an offence to make a Sikh take his turban off and wear a hat as part of his uniform, because his religious beliefs require him not to to do so. We have made it an offence to advertise for a Scottish cook because apparently this shows racial prejudice. We have made it an offence to discriminate against sex—for instance, by advertising even for a "woodman"; there was an advertisement the other day for a "wood person". Apparently to do otherwise is discriminatory. We have bent over backwards in the past 10 years—and in my opinion to a degree which produces some indefensible absurdities—to show that we are, or at least must try to be, tolerant as a society and as individuals as between one person and another.

Yet, the noble Lord produces a Bill today which says, in effect, that, notwithstanding the tolerance which the law makes us have towards our fellow human beings, we can now, nevertheless, be as offensive as we like not to other human beings but to the Diety, to the head of the largest religion in the land, to the Head of the Established Church, whose followers regard Him as the Son of God. We can villify Him, abuse Him, write or speak profanities or indecencies about Him and it is all right; it will not be an offence. Of course, surprisingly of the letters of support which have been sent for the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Willis, many have come from homosexuals. I have little doubt that if this Bill were passed the so-called "gay", free-thinking lobby would deliberately set out to assault the feelings of others both by publishing more blasphemous material or even by sending it to people individually and thus causing and, indeed, creating, offence.

On the purely logical argument of moving with the feelings of the times—understanding, tolerance and compassion—the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Willis, is a counsel of gross reaction. On the practical side of life, it is nothing less than an incitement to a breach of the peace. If one goes and stands outside Westminster Cathedral and shouts, "To hell with the Pope" or, as Mr. Paisley did, call him "Old Mr. Red Socks", people will not stick it and in the end one will receive a punch on the nose and cause a breach of the peace.

Similarly, if we are to allow profanities and obscenties to be shouted or portrayed about the Head of the Christian religion, people will not stick it and we shall eventually cause a breach of the peace and it requires only a few people to do that. So, on that count I find the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Willis, unacceptable. It must surely be wrong to permit the provocation of minorities against majorities and that is what the Bill will do. All of that is being done under the cloak of freedom of speech and tolerance of others' views, and I believe that to be a very specious argument.

I suggest that one of the dangers of passing laws to forbid discrimination against race, colour, sex or whatever—however good those reasons may be—is that it encourages people to think that in the full context of life it is wrong to discriminate and to discern—it does not matter now, anything goes. Of course, it is not wrong to discriminate; it is right to discriminate. Half the trouble is that in our lives we do not discriminate enough. In our work, in our lives, and our homes we must discriminate between the efficient and the inefficient; between the devious and the upright; between the specious and the genuine; between the sensible and the stupid; between the good and the bad; and, in the end, between right and wrong. Those are fundamental choices which in our everyday lives we are obliged to make but the distinctions between which are being deliberately obscured by the type of argument which we have heard the noble Lord, Lord Willis, put forth this afternoon.

If this Bill were passed into law, the state of our society would not be advanced one iota aesthetically, academically, morally or intellectually. If the choice to be made over this Bill is, Is it a good Bill or a bad Bill?, Is it right or wrong?, then in my view it is a bad Bill and a wrong Bill, and if the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, presses his Amendment I shall join him.

6.30 p.m.

Viscount NORWICH

My Lords, I have promised that I shall be very brief this evening. I know that there are 25 speakers to follow me so I shall not detain your Lordships for very long. Unfortunately, I have a speaking engagement which I have to keep, but I shall do my utmost to be back here at the end of the debate to record my vote in favour of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Willis, for the reasons which I shall now very briefly try to outline.

First, I think that we must make absolutely clear in our minds—and I have said this before in other connections—the difference between crime and sin. There is absolutely no question but that blasphemy is a sin—at least, I do not think there is—and perhaps a very grave one too. But surely a sin should be a matter between a man and his God and possibly his priest, or on occasion his confessor, and his conscience. I submit that it should not be a matter for legislation, except and unless that sin causes public offence. If it offends the public, insults the public or shocks the public in any unreasonable way, then, indeed, in my view it should be considered a crime and would be worthy of legislation.

But, fortunately, we already have amply adequate legislation to deal with cases of that sort, even though I would remind the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, that the Reverend Ian Paisley, having called the Pope "Old Mr. Red Socks", was not, as I remember, accused or arraigned on a charge of blasphemous libel. In fact, he got away with it. None the less, that could conceivably have been done. A reasonable person has a right not to be unreasonably, deliberately, or gratuitously shocked.

On the other hand, if we are to make blasphemy a crime and if we are to legislate against it in this way, we also have to make absolutely certain what blasphemy is. This will be another appalling problem. We have all seen and suffered from difficulties in defining "obscenity". That is another of those dangerous words of which we all think we know the meaning until we actually come to define it. It then becomes almost impossible to produce a good, workable, valid definition.

Is it blasphemy to say, "God does not exist"? Four hundred years ago it certainly was. Surely it is not blasphemy to say, "I, personally, believe that God does not exist, but of course I may be wrong"? There is very little to choose between the two, but it would be absolutely impossible to legislate against the second. So, again, where do we draw the line?

Another problem that we have in talking about blasphemy—and this I believe is the crux of the whole sad Gay News affair which, although still sub judice, I understand we can speak about in general terms—is that in this particular case what really determined Mrs. Whitehouse to take the action that she took was not the fact that the poem was blasphemous, but that she considered it to be obscene; that it had extremely strong homosexual overtones. I take leave to believe that if it had not those overtones, there is absolutely no question but that she would have ignored it—indeed, she would probably never have seen it, noticed it or read it.

If any of your Lordships would like further evidence in support of that view—I cannot quite say "proof" but I think it is strong evidence in support—I should like to draw your attention to a poem in the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse written by Kingsley Amis. It is quite a short poem. I shall not read it all now; I shall read only a couple of lines. The poem is called New Approach Needed and begins: Should you revisit us, Stay a little longer, And get to know the place. Experience hunger, Madness, disease and war. You heard about them, true, The last time you came here; It's different having them". It ends: People have suffered worse And more durable wrongs Than you did on that cross … So, next time, come off it, And get some service in, Jack, long before you start Laying down the old law: If you still want to then. Tell your dad that from me". I submit that that poem strikes far more deeply, far more insiduously, far more dangerously and tellingly at the heart of the Christian religion than what seemed to me to be a rather sad, touching poem by a distinguished man of letters, a professor of English literature, the poet James Kirkup, whose poem—despite the distasteful terms in which it may have seemed to have been written—was a poem within those terms which was obsolutely instinct with the love of God. It was the love of God expressed as a homosexual felt was the only way in which he could express it, rather reminiscent of Anatole France's juggler of Notre Dame—the man they found juggling in the middle of the night before the statue of the Virgin. They said: "You cannot do this". He said, "Why not, it is the only thing that I can do; it is the only way that I can express myself". That was what James Kirkup's poem was about. He did not write it in a national newspaper—if he had, I agree that it would have been an unpardonable, shocking offence to all the innocent readers of The Times, the Guardian or the Telegraph who had suddenly come across it, and I should strongly have deplored it. He wrote it in Gay News, a paper which proclaims what it is all about; a paper which is written for homosexuals, largely by homosexuals, whose members can be trusted to read it in the spirit in which it was written and to understand what it was trying to say. If Mrs. Whitehouse wants to buy a copy of Gay News, she must expect what she gets, and she really cannot blame anyone else.

So there are only two points that I wish to make this afternoon, time being as short as it is. It seems to me that any law that can be made on the subject of blasphemy is both deeply undesirable in theory and totally unworkable in practice. Therefore, I shall support the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Willis.

6.36 p.m.


My Lords, it may be convenient to your Lordships that at this particular time I should say something about the Government's attitude to my noble friend's Bill. Having regard to the number of noble Lords who wish to speak on this matter, perhaps I can set an example and speak for not more than one or two minutes. This is a short Bill which raises a straightforward though important issue. It poses the question whether or not the criminal offence of blasphemy in England and Wales should be retained. It appears—and this has already been said—that the offence of blasphemy is indictable only when expressed in such violent and ribald language as to endanger the peace. In the Government's view this is not a matter on which it would be appropriate for the Government to take a view either for or against. It is best left entirely for decision by individual noble Lords without guidance from the Government.

Some years ago it was agreed between the Home Office and the Law Commission that in due course the Law Commission would review offences against religion and public worship. The Law Commission is now about to embark on a review of this area of the criminal law which will, of course, include the offence of blasphemy. The review was announced recently in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, and your Lordships may well feel that this would be a way of dealing with the matter contained in my noble friend's Bill. I shall not attempt to comment today on any technical aspects of the Bill. Should it appear after today that the Bill is likely to make progress in your Lordships' House, we shall need to consider whether the Bill ought to be amended to ensure that it achieves its purpose. In conclusion, I must repeat that the Government do not seek to guide the House either to oppose or support my noble friend's Bill.

6.38 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of DURHAM

My Lords, I am grateful for what the noble Lord has just said and for the brevity with which he has said it. There is no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Willis, has started a most interesting and topical debate. As he began by speaking about the Christian faith, I should like to pay tribute to the spirit in which he said what he said, although I, personally, regret some of the personal remarks that his speech contained.

I hope that this debate will help to clarify our thinking on the subject and expose some of the issues. But I must confess right at the start that I find myself very divided on the Bill before us. I cannot vote for it, for reasons which will become apparent. I would rather not have to vote against it, though I shall do so if need be, but with a heavy heart. I say that because I think that the present law needs some attention, but it is my fervent wish that there had been no occasion for digging it up from the past and having a look at it on the present occasion.

My hope is that the noble Lord, Lord Willis, will eventually withdraw his Bill, and that the discussion started today will be continued by the various interested parties. In that connection I think that what the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, has said about the Law Commission is highly relevant. I hope also that the Williams Committee on Obscenity will take note of what is said today and, as I believe they plan to do, give some further guidance on it when their report is eventually published.

It is noticeable that we have had five speeches so far on blasphemy and nobody has yet said what blasphemy is. I want to start my own remarks by distinguishing three kinds, or degrees, of blasphemy which are frequently confused and which it is important to treat differently. The first is what one might call serious blasphemy. It is the serious exploration and criticism of sacred subjects in ways which go to the limit of good taste but which still contain an element of reverence. T. S. Eliot called it "a product of partial belief." It is a kind of blasphemous utterance which cannot get away from belief; cannot, as it were, get belief out of its system, but can only express itself through hitting out at the things through which belief is symbolised.

It seems to me that much of Samuel Beckett's writing is of this kind. If your Lordships will allow me, I should like to quote a couple of sentences from Louis McNeice on the subject of Beckett's characters: Just as the absence of God implies the need of God, and therefore the presence of at least something spiritual in man, so to have failed in living implies certain values in living, however much Beckett's characters may curse and blaspheme against it and behave like clowns in a clownish universe. As with any other blasphemy the other side of the coin is an act of homage". One could adduce lots of other examples—examples of great literature, which surely none of us would wish to suppress. That is what I mean by serious blasphemy.

Secondly, there is what one might call casual blasphemy; the casual use of words like "God" and "Christ"; the flippant or irreverent treatment of religious matters. I think a better word for this is ordinary profanity, and though it worries some people, and though we may privately think there is too much of it, it is, I would suggest, basically a matter of taste and feeling and not a matter for the law.

The third level of blasphemy is the one which I believe this debate is about. It is not about artistic licence; it is not about irreverence; it is about scurrility. In reading through the legal judgments in past cases I found myself left in no doubt as to what is the present offence of blasphemy as currently interpreted. May I quote from Judge King-Hamilton's summing-up in the trial to which reference has been made. He said it is any writing about God or Christ or Christian religion, or some sacred subject, in words which are so scurrilous or abusive or offensive that if they are published they would tend to vilify the Christian religion and lead to a breach of the peace". Those are strong words: scurrilous; abusive; offensive; vilify.

I grant that in practice it may not be easy to distinguish this kind of scurrility from what I have called serious blasphemy. This, I believe, is the real point at issue in the matter now subject to appeal. But what can so easily happen, and what we have had many examples of happening in the past, is that distinctions of this kind can be allowed to disappear altogether, and measures designed to protect artistic freedom allow the unscrupulous to have a field day.

But why should the law concern itself with scurrilous blasphemy at all? First, let me make it absolutely clear, though it ought to be obvious, that God does not need protection from blasphemy. The paradox with which the noble Lord, Lord Willis, confronted us is a totally unreal one. Indeed, the irony of the whole thing from the Christian point of view is that Christ himself was condemned for blasphemy; for serious blasphemy, that is. That is why any Christian ought to approach a debate like this with great caution, because it is easy to be hypocritical. It is easy to try to protect things which do not need protecting. It is easy to encourage immaturity.

If the world is evil and blasphemous, Christians had better face the fact that this is the kind of world in which they have to live. But on the other hand, I see no merit in gratuitously allowing our society to become less hospitable to religious values than it is already. If we abolish the present laws, we do not remain where we are. The message goes out from this House that we are trying to push the boat in the opposite direction. I believe that there is a serious case to be made for having a law of blasphemy which protects deeply-rooted values in society, particularly at a time when the forces which can erode them have grown very strong and have powerful media at their disposal. I believe that the health of a society depends on holding some things sacred.

Let me for a moment pass from the sublime to the ridiculous. In front of me is a red line on this carpet. If I were to cross it, as I did inadvertently when I was a new Member of this House, there would be immediate shouts, gestures, and perhaps a waving of Order Papers, and cries of "Order! order!" because one of the sacred conventions of this House would have been broken. In itself we know that the thing is trivial. But as part of the way in which a society orders itself, as a means of expressing its rules, its history and values, little things can mean a great deal.

I would press this social aspect of the matter because, as with obscenity, the individual effects of blasphemous or obscene acts are difficult to prove. But what can happen, and what we see happening all around us, is a gradual undermining of the sense that some things are sacred. We see a loss of the capacity for reverence. This, I suggest to your Lordships, is a serious loss which we ought not to do anything to accelerate. Reverence is a profound human emotion of greater personal and social importance.

The fact that it can lead to blindness and hypocrisy is a reminder that it is possible to be stupidly reverent about the wrong things, but to be without reverence at all is to be lacking in human depth. However, if reverence is to survive it requires a currency—an imagery, a language—which is not allowed to become debased. And it is against the gratuitous and irresponsible debasing of the currency of reverence that it seems to me that a law of blasphemy ought to be aimed.

The alternative is not more freedom—in fact, it may be less freedom—because freedom, as noble Lords well know, is always bought at someone else's cost, and the freedom to be scurrilously blasphemous may be bought at the cost of spoiling for many others the chance of exploring and entering into the realm of the sacred. I believe there is an instructive parallel from the loss of taboos as regards sacrilege. One of the consequences of this gradual erosion of the taboo we see in the fact that nowdays most churches have to be kept locked. If the normal decencies, restraints and courtesies of society are undermined, then in the end everyone loses.

I have stressed the social element in blasphemy because I believe that the law has always been as much concerned with this as with the offence and hurt caused to individual susceptibilities. This seems to be borne out by some of the more antique aspects of the law, for example, its exclusive concern with Christianity, and indeed, on some interpretations of the law, with its exclusive application to the Established Church. There has behind it been a basic concern about public order, not simply with breaches of the peace but with the values which underpin the social fabric.

But now I must face the question: granted that this may have made sense once, when Christians were a large majority, what right now have Christians to enjoy special legal protection? I do not want to argue solely on the basis of numbers, but, since others may, I suggest that the relevant number in this context is not the number of churchgoers but the number of those who try, however feebly, to hold on to Christian values and who want, however seldom, to express these in a valid Christian currency. This, I suggest is a very large number of people indeed, well over half the population of this country.

An interesting thing is that it is quite often the fact that those who are most offended by blasphemy are not the secure believers. Secure believers know how to take it. It is the insecure believers—the people who are desperately hanging on to the fringes of the Christian faith, the people who depend a great deal on social support for their religion—who in my experience are most vulnerable to the debasement of Christian imagery.

It is quite wrong therefore to think of blasphemy laws in terms of a little group seeking privileges for itself. It goes much wider and deeper than that, and it is my belief that we should deliberately make it wider still by seeking ways to extend protection to the most sacred elements of other faiths and of non-faith, too. This would represent more equitably the present condition of our society. It would reflect the state of friendship and dialogue between the Christian Churches and other religions, and it could do an immense amount on the side to improve race relations in making it clear that people of other faiths have a legitimate place within our society.

I know the objections to this kind of extension of the law—that it would be difficult to frame and that it could increase opportunities for litigation and so on—but I hope that at least, if these things are discussed further, the difficulties can be looked at with the representatives of other faiths and that the idea will not be dismissed out of hand. There is much more that could be said but we have a long list of speakers, including three more bishops, and the voice of methodism, so I will spare your Lordships. I have tried to stress the positive advantages of withdrawing this Bill and starting some general discussion about the issues it raises.

I end briefly on a more negative note. I was talking last night to a lawyer, part of whose job it is to clear up the mess left by well-intentioned legislators who have failed to realise how their actions can be exploited by the unscrupulous. The repeal of an apparently restrictive law in the name of freedom is a difficult thing for liberal-minded people to resist, but it is also, as we have heard eloquently said, an open invitation to those with evil intentions or commercial interests or both to move in and make a killing, and so I urge your Lordships to be cautious.

6.56 p.m.


My Lords, I take part in this debate with a considerable sense of unease. I cannot undertake to speak for the voice of Methodism, but I will endeavour to be honest about the con-conclusions at which I arrive. My first unease or disquiet is of a general nature. It is the kind of impact that a debate like this is likely to have on a great many people outside the Church who find that the Church is singularly quiet about many of the concerns with which they are involved but mobilises its strength all too quickly and harmoniously when its own conclusions, ecclesiastically framed, are in doubt. I for one felt rebuked, and properly rebuked, by my noble friend Lord Willis when he pointed out, in a very generous introduction to his speech, the kind of dilemma in which many of us within the Church find ourselves in endeavouring to discriminate between those things which are precious to our tradition and those things which are imperative in our witness. I hope that out of this conversation today there will not come an increase in cynicism about the priorities of the Church, but I fear that it may indeed be so and I regard that as a lamentable prospect.

The other matter is much more personal. I remember probably the first words my mother ever spoke to me, and she spoke to me as she lulled me to sleep at night, "Jesus, tender Shepherd, hear me; bless thy little lamb tonight". I am long since mutton, scrag-end at that, but noble Lords will not expect me to reject what is perhaps the most intimate and personal experience of my life. It may impair the rigidity of the argument, but I testify to the preciousness of the name of Jesus and therefore I react immediately as sorely wounded when there is any degradation of His name, when there is any aspersion of what to me is pre-eminently and eternally sacred.

Therefore, what I have to say about blasphemy comes from a full heart and, I hope, an understanding mind. I can see immediately the arguments for the preservation of those standards, even expressed in law, which remain for many people, and particularly, as my noble friend has just said, those whose hold upon the Christian faith is as febrile as, from the point of view of attendance and worship, it is infrequent. I believe that we ought to do everything we can to sustain those who are clinging to a sense of the sacred or the respectable (in the best sense of that word) but who are a prey to the prevalent cynicism which is one of the most mortal foes, I think, of any progress to which we can look forward in our present situation. Therefore, I sympathise entirely with those who would regard the elimination of any sense of wrong-doing in blasphemy as being a very dangerous experiment, and a very unhealthy one.

I believe that there is a slight flaw, if I may say so, in my noble friend's theology. I have never been convinced that God is so supreme as not to need our feeble efforts, however feeble they may be. In fact, if you cannot make people good by Act of Parliament, you can certainly make it much more difficult for them to be bad—and that, in many respects, is an excellent attempt at least to do the possible, even if the ideal is beyond our reach. In that regard, I believe that there is a very real relationship between sin and crime. But, having said that, may I now refer to the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, and his very careful distinction in the matter of the Ten Commandments—a most dubious collection, as we all know. After all, besides what the Roman Catholic or the high Churchman believes as to the second of them—that about graven images—we in Methodism, of course, have our own graven image. It is the pipe organ, and we have bowed down to that almost as consistently as High Church people have bowed down before their presentations of the Saints, and so forth.

But the fact remains that there is a world of difference between those inculcations in the Ten Commandments which refer to one's personal behaviour pattern and those which refer to one's involvement, by that personal behaviour pattern, with other people. Covetousness is a sin, it is not a crime; but when covetousness expresses itself in stealing, it becomes a crime. The question which I believe we have very carefully to consider is whether or not blasphemy comes within the category of a crime, or whether it is indubitably, as I believe it to be, a sin—a sin for those who recognise that any degradation of the sacred is a mortal enemy of human civilised behaviour.

I believe that the practice of blasphemy has very many and varied apsects. I am not accustomed to listening to blasphemy; that kind of verbal incontinence which is so frequently the expression of those who wish to make some kind of stir in the open air. How many times have I been asked who washed up after the Last Supper? That, of course, is blasphemy. It is not an innocent form of blasphemy, but it is certainly a form of carelessness of speech without any real intention to do grave harm to the concepts of the Christian faith. But that form of blasphemy which is in fact dangerous and can be brought within the general framework of crime rather than sin is that which contains within itself elements which, as I believe, have very properly been recognised as coming within the purview of other laws, dealing with obscenity, indecency, the preservation of the peace, racial hatred and so forth. I believe there is adequate opportunity to deal with that form of blasphemy which spills over into a criminal practice within the framework of already existing laws. Those laws may indeed need to be tightened, strengthened and amplified, but they are there.

Furthermore, I believe that there is a very much greater opportunity than is represented by the attempt to frame within constitutional processes the obligation to do certain things or to refrain from doing others. I believe that if the Christian Church itself was more concerned with the picture that it presents in the works that it tries to do and in the spirit which it engenders, then, by example rather than by the precepts of the law, this very nasty but comparatively trivial thing, blasphemy itself, would indeed tend to wither away. Our concentration upon those things which are so much more terrible and so much more important would, I think, produce that process through the expulsive power of a new affection. I am not at all sure, my Lords, that it is not some kind of proprietary fear that still exists in our minds, and certainly exists in my feelings, but, making a very short speech, I believe that blasphemy for the Christian, for the Moslem, for the Humanist—for anybody—is an evil thing, because it destroys that which is most precious. It destroys the wages of going on. The coinage of those wages is hope, and they can be sustained only when cynicism is preempted.

It is in that respect that I would commend to your Lordships, if I may, the idea that this question of blasphemy is one which needs a very much more deeply-urged and deeply-fermented application of mind and heart. I would cordially commend many of the things which have been said by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. What I cannot do is believe that we shall sustain the wellbeing of this country by the preservation of the existing laws of blasphemy. Therefore, in honesty, however much I may offend those who feel that I am letting the side down, I must say, for my own case, that I would support the noble Lord, Lord Willis. I believe that to take this attitude and to proceed courageously along this path may indeed lead to the elimination of this evil thing and to the preservation of the liberty in which it will not recur.

7.7 p.m.


My Lords, your Lordships will all realise that it is a difficult task to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the noble Lord, Lord Soper. Lord Soper and I nearly always seem to be in agreement about the great issues which are sometimes discussed in this House, although we start from almost opposite poles as regards the question of religious belief. We are, may I remind your Lordships, debating the Amendment to Lord Willis's Bill; and, therefore, if a good many of my remarks (which I hope will be short, because I have really discarded my script altogether) are directed to what the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, said in his speech, it is because he is the proposer of this Amendment, and, of course, there is absolutely no personal attack in it. Indeed, I am a great admirer of Lord Halsbury's wisdom and knowledge. In addition to those virtues, lie is also a classical scholar, and he therefore probably knows the meaning, as perhaps all your Lordships do, of the words "ignoratio elenchi". These words describe a device by which somebody puts up an argument which appears to refute the opponent while it is actually disproving something which he has never advanced.

I thought we should come across one or two examples of ignoratio elenchi and I think we can trace it in two of the speeches. Out of the seven speeches made, there have been only two vehemently against Lord Willis, and I think we can trace this device in both of them. I have been a doctor the whole of my working life, and I have been an unbeliever the whole of that time and for longer. I do not think I have ever—in fact, I am quite sure I have not—in any way robbed a patient of his beliefs. In fact, I have done my best to see that he gets the spiritual support, and so on, that he needs according to his beliefs, and not according to mine.

I must say—having tried to live my life like that—that I find it (dare I say?) offensive when people get up and really give the impression that nobody who does not accept the whole Christian doctrine really has a right to be a good man. This seemed to me to be an exaggeration, if you like, of some of the things that the noble Earl. Lord Halsbury was saying. Ditto, or in the same sense, most of this speech of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, seemed to me to be proviing what Lord Willis had never put forward—and, I say, disbelieves—and a lot of it, I thought, was quite irrelevant to what we are disussing today.

If you read Lord Willis's speech tomorrow, I do not think that you will find anything in it on which you could base a belief that he wants the kind of freedom of speech in which people can say obscene things about somebody else's deity. I do not think that he ever suggested in any way that that was his kind of view. I think that a great deal of interpretation which he never intended has been put on the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Willis, and which will not be found written there tomorrow. He made it quite clear that he believes in a great deal of the teaching of the Christian ethic although he was not able to accept the religion in toto. I stand in the same position. I must support him if there is a Division.

7.11 p.m.


My Lords, I have listened with great interest to the speeches made, and such an excellent speech was made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham which covered in some detail the two major points that I wish to make, that I can be very brief. The speech that the noble Lord, Lord Platt, has just delivered giving support to Lord Willis does fairly make the point that Lord Willis does not wish to see the kind of offence that has been referred to; but, on the other hand, he wishes to remove one of the safeguards which would prevent that kind of offence from happening. Whether the statutory safeguards, for intance, of the 1959 Act would be of much use is for noble Lords to decide for themselves. I rather doubt it.

I thought that we had an extremely valuable potted history of the law on this subject in The Times today which showed just how thought in this country had developed over the last couple of hundred years. I have no doubt that, if we had been discussing this 200 years ago, we should have taken up battle positions, feeling that Christianity was in the last ditch and that we must defend it. But the right reverend Prelate admirably differentiated the problem and stoutly said that God does not need protection by the law or by anything else, and although 1 would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Soper, that He is undoubtedly pleased when He gets love and service from us. Protection by the law is obviously not necessary for Christianity.

The point that I wish to follow is the point which the right reverend Prelate made: that there is a need to give protection on sociological grounds. That springs out of a recognition by Christians, anyway—and the noble Lord, Lord Soper, recognised this in his speech, although he came to the obvious conclusion that it does need protection as sacred. By "sacred", I mean those personages or objects in a religion which are a part of the sacred faith of its members. This, of course, to my mind, goes for Mohammedans, Buddhists, Hindus or those of any other religion. I think it is doubtful whether this law does cover them; but I think that it probably should.

If the sacred beliefs of a person are hurt by some offensive, insulting attack then there may be provocation which will cause physical violence. Admirably, the right reverend Prelate made the point that the most likely people to be affected are the very large number of rather insecure Christians who are not great churchgoers and who, therefore, are all the more upset when their deep, intimate, sacred feelings are affected. It is in that respect that I think there is a justification for this law; because such a person, when he hears something or sees something which is really acutely blasphemous, may be provoked to a violent and, indeed, a physical reaction.

I wonder, listening to the noble Lord, Lord Willis, many of whose activities I admire, whether he and the Humanist camp completely understand just what the sacred means in the life of those who practise a religion. It is a matter of fact. And it is in that respect that I feel it right that there should be a law which will protect those feelings from being really violently assaulted. I do not believe that the existing statutory law is really effective enough to give that protection so that my wish to see this law retained is based on sociological grounds. I do not need to make any definitions; the right reverend Prelate dealt with that and he quoted the summing-up of a learned judge.

I think that, if we look at the administration of this law, the fact that there has not been an invocation of it for 50 years is some justification for feeling that it is about right. Most people are tolerant enough to put up with a certain amount of the blasphemy that goes on from time to time without feeling that action must be taken. It is only if there is an extremely offensive case that action will be taken. I am afraid that I cannot possibly agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Norwich, that the poem in question was not blasphemous and offensive in the extreme, but that is a matter of opinion.

Viscount NORWICH

My Lords, I want to say that I did not for a moment suggest that it would not be found to be extremely offensive to a great many people. That is why I said that if it had been published in a national newspaper I should have deplored it. It was only that it was published in Gay News, where it would be read only by a certain class of person, who would understand it, that I thought it permissible.


My Lords, I am not a lawyer. But publication is publication and people who publish must take the responsibility for what they publish. As far as Christianity itself is concerned, I am certainly firmly on the side of the right reverend Prelate in believing that Christianity does not need protection by the law. If we are in a society today which is permissive in a way which it has not been in the past and if our standards are not as high as they were, we must live through that. But, undoubtedly, Christianity will survive it. Wherever Christianity has been persecuted or attacked, it has always thrived. I have no doubt at all that it will survive and that most vigorous Christians will practise Christianity; and they will forgive when people are offensive and attack and insult them because that is what they have been taught to do and are given strength to do. However, for the community as a whole, and especially for the numerous insecure Christians whom the right reverend Prelate so admirably defined, I believe that this protection is needed because, if it is not there, then there is a danger that there will be provocation to acts of violence when a really serious blasphemy occurs. I hope that this noble House will decide that this Bill is not really suitable and that we should not give it a Second Reading but should support the Amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury.

7.20 p.m.


My Lords, if I am right, I make that four-all; and, if so, it shows what an interesting debate we are going to have. Our law of blasphemy has had a curious history. I am not going far back into the past. The then position was set out in 1964 in a book called Law Reform Now, of which I was a joint editor. Many contributors to the book were much more famous than I was. What we said in that book was this: Blasphemy: Offences such as blasphemy and blasphemous libel still disfigure the criminal law of this country. Blasphemy is a misdemeanour at common law, punishable by fine and imprisonment. The offence consists of scoffingly or irreverently ridiculing or impugning the doctrines of the Christian faith, the Holy Scriptures or Jesus Christ. If the blasphemous words are written, they constitute a blasphemous libel. There are also the statutory offences created by the Blasphemy Act, 1698. This Act provides that if any person who has been educated in or at any time made profession of the Christian religion asserts or maintains that there are more gods than one or denies the Christian religion to be true or the Bible to be of divine authority, he shall for a first offence be judged incapable of holding any office and on a second conviction be liable to three years' imprisonment. It is believed that, so drastic is this statute, there has never been a prosecution under it. There are also certain statutes of Edward VI's and Elizabeth's reigns which make it a criminal offence to utter any words or writing in derogation of the Book of Common Prayer or anything therein contained or of the sacraments. It is also a common law offence to utter or publish seditious words in derogation of the established religion. It is noticeable that these offences only apply to Christianity, and it is not blasphemous to say anything, however offensive, of, for example, the Jewish or Mohammedan religions. In recent years there have not been many prosecutions for blasphemy and when they occur they are generally directed against uneducated persons who have attacked Christianity in a rather crude manner. It is to be remembered, however, that under these laws there were at one time many prosecutions of booksellers for selling the works of Thomas Paine and others, and there is no doubt that if the law relating to blasphemy were enforced in its full rigour a stop could be put to much criticism and free thought. Defenders of the law assert that it is only used when attacks against the Church are couched in such language that they might lead to a breach of the peace. If this is so the special laws are unnecessary and the ordinary law dealing with conduct likely to lead to a breach of the peace can be used to deal with scurrilous language used about Christianity". My Lords, when the Law Commission came to consider what obsolete offences we had on the Statute Book, they published a report in 1966. First of all, dealing with praemunire offences they said: In their original form the praemunire offences were aimed at those who maintained the Papal supremacy in church affairs in England. Later they were extended to those who in other ways challenged the supremacy of the Crown in church affairs and still later to those who challenged that supremacy in other respects; instances are interference with the Royal courts, obstruction of legal proceedings concerned with unlawful monopolies or purveyances, propounding opinions contrary to the constitutional settlements of 1661 and 1707". Then they dealt with statutory offences other than praemunire: the Maintenance and Embracery Act 1540, the Brawling Act 1533—and the Law Commission said that the disturbance of religous worship was dealt with in more modern legislation. Therefore they did not see any need for the Act. Then they referred to the Blasphemy Act 1697 and said it: Creates the offence of denying certain tenets of the Christian religion after having been brought up in or having professed that religion. A first offence is visited with certain disabilities; and a second offence with disqualification from suing in the Courts, from holding any office, from being appointed a personal representative or from taking any gift or legacy, as well as with imprisonment for three years". Then they dealt with the Profane Oaths Act, the Unlawful Societies Act and the Seditious Meeting Act, all of which they found to be obsolete. They concluded: All the offences referred to in this Memorandum are obsolete. Consultation with Government Departments has revealed that there is no opposition to their abolition". So in a Statute Law Revision Act, I think of 1966, we abolished them. According to my recollection, nobody spoke a word in their favour. It was the general belief that we had now abolished the laws of blasphemy. Common law blasphemy has, as it were, risen from the grave. We have done perfectly well without it for 55 years—there has been no prosecution. A lot of people have felt that that was really obsolete. It is more difficult of course for a common law offence to become obsolete.

Speaking as a Christian, I cannot think that the Christian Church needs protection from a criminal law which gives no protection at all to any other religion. What the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, was saying (and I see he is not in his place now) was that people feel very strongly that if their religion is attacked that might lead to a breach of the peace. If there is a breach of the peace this can be dealt with by that law and not a special one.

My Lords, I promise to be extremely brief; but the main point is that if the House supports the Amendment which has been moved by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, then what will be voted for is the continuance of a law of blasphemy which has never been defined, which is not a Statute law and which protects one religion only. This is the effect that the Amendment has. It leaves us with a common law offence. Nobody knows exactly what it is because it has never been defined. All we know is that it protects only one religion. One can be as blasphemous or as offensive as one likes about Hindus, Mohammedans, Jews or any religion, except the Christian religion. I cannot think that is right. If we have a Second Reading of this Bill, Amendments to it can be considered. It may be that there is a case to be made for having a Statute law of blasphemy which applies to all religions; but the noble Earl's Amendment would deprive us of any consideration of that kind. We should be left with this common law offence and nothing else at all.

I believe that this is a field in which the law to be applied is the general law of public order. We already have provisions against those who create a breach of the peace, and if any remark is thought to be blasphemous this could be a breach of the peace. It may be dealt with under that head. I do not believe that in this day and age we need a special law of blasphemy. I certainly do not think that we, as Christians, can justify a law which applies to protect the case of one religion alone.

7.29 p.m.

Viscount INGLEBY

My Lords, with regret I must differ from the noble and learned Lord who has just spoken. The noble Lord, Lord Willis, mentioned earlier on that we might be able to rely on various other laws in place of the present law of blasphemy. He mentioned the law of obscenity. Many of your Lordships are well aware of the limitations of that law.

I should like to ask myself and the House four questions. On what in history is the true greatness of this country founded? What man has had the greatest influence for good on our civilisation? Whose teaching, rightly followed, has done more to bind all men together? What can replace Christian standards of conduct if these are eroded away? Is not this the cement that holds our society together? If the term "wog" is held to be offensive, how much more so is a poem describing Jesus Christ as having homosexual relations with the 12 disciples, separately and together, with the Roman centurion and others? Do we want to open the gates to speeches and writings of this kind? Let us beware lest we lay the axe to the root of the tree on which the true greatness of this country rests. I fervently hope that noble Lords will support the Amendment put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed: the Lord Chancellor on the Woolsack.

7.31 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of LEICESTER

My Lords, I am sure you all gave a heavy sigh when you saw the long list of speakers and that you gave a secondary sigh when you saw that no less than four bishops were taking, part in the debate; but I would just remind you that although we all look the same when we are in our "school uniform", we are in fact very different. The Bishop of Durham was a professional academic scientist before becoming a clergyman; the Bishop of Norwich was a commando and I am quite certain that he has heard plenty of swear words in his time, and his faith has survived. The Bishop of Truro, a newcomer to our House, has brought a finesse of moral judgment that I am sure will be of great value. I just throw myself in as a kind of Parliamentary "hack", or a No. 8 batsman, or something of that sort, to lend a hand when necessary.

There were parts of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Willis, to which we listened with great respect and admiration. I was interested in the picture that he gave of the work of the Salvation Army. I hope he will not mind my saying that it ill accorded with the speech he made some years ago in this House, in which he used very scornful terms about the word "charity". It may interest him to know that that still hurts in my little mind, because "charity" is one of the great words of the Christian religion, in spite of the many ways in which it has been misused.

He also made a remark that I am afraid I must describe as offensive; namely, that we sheltered behind the skirts of Mrs. Whitehouse and left her to do all the dirty work in these matters. I am afraid I must allow myself the privilege of telling him that on one occasion Mrs. Whitehouse wished to present a petition to the Prime Minister and there was a request to see whether any bishop was willing to accompany her. I said that I gladly would, and we walked along Downing Street together in front of television cameras. I was rather thankful that I had in fact gone with her, because I felt that when it came to dealing with high-powered civil servants in No. 10 perhaps a little experience was worth a lot of enthusiasm.

I must also warn the House not to be taken in entirely by the noble Lord's historical sketch. He said that in the early part of the 19th century societies like that for the prevention of vice were now forgotten except for those who fought for freedom, like Tom Paine and others. But he carefully avoided mentioning William Wilberforce, who was prominently connected with those movements and is also known and respected to this day for the abolition of slavery within the British Empire. I mention these things not because you can argue from one generation of history to another but lest people should think there was only one side to statements of that kind and that there was nothing to be said on the other.

Why do we want a law of blasphemy?—certainly not, in my view, to protect the Christian religion. I did not agree with the noble Lord when he said that, if there were no God, there would be no need for a law of blasphemy. I think it might be all the more necessary, because all law—and I think this would stand up to examination—always depends upon human reactions to situations. What happens in Heaven's courts is beyond our view and beyond our ken, but if people feel strongly that there is a God and their views are ridiculed and scoffed at, there may well be a case for some kind of protection for them.

If I am asked why we need an Act, I would say it is simply to register the fact that there are certain things that are so repellent to the general conscience and mind of the country that this hostility to them should have some form of expression, whether in statute law or in common law. We have had many cases in recent years where there have been protests about new roads being made—roads that were going to destroy beautiful pieces of the countryside or run along the South side of Christchurch, Oxford, or touch in some other way upon deeply-held feeling. The nation has accepted planning laws and it is realised that there are some things that are so distasteful to so many people that there must be protection.

It is only in that sense that I feel we need this particular measure. In fact, to be quite honest, the measure itself does not particularly appeal to me. It has weaknesses, which have been pointed out, and I should very much like to see them remedied. There is the difficulty of whether these measures apply to all religions. I know it is commonly held—and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, who has just sat down quoted accordingly—that only the Christian religion is protected. Certainly the Holy Scriptures are protected, and at least two-thirds of them are the Scriptures of the Jewish faith. I think a very good case could be made out to prove that they were protected. Another judgment refers to "sacred objects". That is a very wide description and I do not think it would be impossible so to widen this particular measure as to cover a good many of these disputed cases. I still think that it is important in the first place to pass the Amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, because I am quite certain that, if we do not, the headlines in tomorrow's papers will be Lords legalise blasphemy". It would not surprise me if that headline was already in print in certain papers, waiting to be passed when the result of this debate is known.

I have been struck by the fact that when we have taken one step in a liberalising direction we have very often found ourselves pushed along far more rapidly then we expected. We passed the Sexual Offences Act, and at that time everybody agreed that of course minors and children must be protected; but it was not long before there was a movement in this House to reduce the age of consenting adulthood to 18. That, as it happens, was rejected but we are now confronted with a movement to justify and legalise paedophilia. We have in The Times today a letter from a professor quoting cases to prove that of course children can survive these experiences and be none the worse for them. So they may be. But it is the thing itself that is so repellent that we want to put our influence against it. It is in that sense that I hope we shall pass the Amendment and kill the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Willis, on this occasion, but leave the way open for a wide and wise and tolerant discussion and expansion of the law, on the lines adumbrated by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham.

7.41 p.m.


My Lords, as the only woman who is standing up and being counted this evening, I feel rather an interloper in your Lordships' debate. I welcome this debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Willis, because it acts as a timely reminder of the fact that there is a law against blasphemy, and that anybody going against that law can be fined or imprisoned. As your Lordships are already aware—and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, took us through the law, point by point—the offence may be committed by written matter as well as by the spoken word, and it is triable on indictment and punishable by a fine or imprisonment or both. I think I should make it quite clear that I am not a particular follower of Mary Whitehouse—I think that I have met her once—and I certainly have not read Gay News. So that, perhaps, I may seem to some of your Lordships rather naïve.

Not only the morals and the moral behaviour of our country have changed almost out of all recognition in the last 20 years or so, but the English language has suffered an almost brazen misuse at the hands of the mass media.

This has had, and is having, a grave effect on the standards of the people of our country. Until we can supplant this common law, which we are discussing tonight, with one which encompasses the faiths of all the people within our shores, I believe that it is vital to retain this law. I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, for his assurance that the Government are considering setting up a committee to see whether we could have a law which would encompass all the faiths of the peoples of this country. But to remove the law of blasphemy by giving this Bill a Second Reading would not only lower still further the moral standard of past and future generations of our people, but would allow all those who are so minded—those, perhaps, are few, but they are insidious—to use the contents of the Bible and the religion of this country in a ribald, profane or indecent manner. I hope that this never happens and I support the Amendment so ably moved by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury.


My Lords, will your Lordships allow me to intervene, in order to keep the record clear? I did not, in fact, say that the Government would be setting up a committee to inquire into the possibility of applying the blasphemy law to all religions. What I think I said was that the Law Commission is to embark upon a study and investigation of the law of blasphemy.

7.44 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, welcome the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Willis, has raised this subject in your Lordships' House. Until last year, the subject of blasphemy had been out of the public eye for a long time, and it is right that we should debate it afresh. Perhaps from this debate will come improvements in the law, although, I am bound to say, I hope not in the direction of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Willis.

I should like to offer two comments on the Bill. The first is perhaps a personal one, though I am sure that there are many people who will share it. It might be questioned why Christians are so sensitive on the matter of blasphemy. I believe that it is not only that we have been commanded not to take the name of our God in vain, but rather that when we use the words "Our Father", as applied to God, we indicate a real and living personal relationship; and we react only in the way that one would expect any child to react to vilification of one of his parents.

My other comment is this. My objection to this Bill is that it would tend to erode the values which support and enhance our society. I accept the point of view of those who have said that the media would come under increasing pressure, which they might well not always be able to resist, to publish material which would defame and ridicule that which many of us hold to be most precious of all. It is my view that, if the honour of the name of God were to be denied the minimal consideration afforded by the existing state of the law, or something like that, because we were unable to accept the necessary restraint on expression, then we would move a step—time would show how large a step—nearer to a society where nothing was honoured, nothing respected and nothing held to be of value, except the licence of the individual to conduct himself exactly as he pleased, without regard to the interests and feelings of others.

7.47 p.m.


My Lords, I want to endorse everything that my noble friend Lord Willis has said. I accept what he had to say—and I should have liked to make the speech myself—about the attitude of the Humanists to the present state of religion, and people's sensitivity about religion. That is something for which the practising Humanist certainly has a proper regard. We no longer regard this as a conflict with religion. We sometimes regard it as a conflict with the Churches, but it is not a conflict with religion, and it is certainly not denying—I may be misunderstood for saying this—the therapeutic value of religion. But what we do object to is the fact that there is an effort to sustain the unsustainable; that is, attitudes which were dictated by a doctrinal consideration, but which were imposed by the churches and accepted by the State. I would remind your Lordships that blasphemy was the function of the ecclesiastical courts and only much later did it become a secular offence, because it then became a threat not to religion but to the State. Therefore, in considering this question, it is a matter of where you stand in your secular relationships.

I would remind your Lordships that in every day, in every age and in every circumstance there is a different kind of measurement of positions. I was thinking tonight of the story of the American and the Russian, who were arguing about freedom. The American said "We have total and absolute freedom in the United States. I can stand outside the White House and shout To Hell with President Truman." The Russian replied "What is so wonderful about that? I can stand outside the Kremlin and shout 'To Hell with President Truman'." It depends where you stand. Therefore, one thing which we must recognise—it has been emphasised and has probably been taken account of in this debate—is the fact that the limitation of blasphemy affecting the tenets of the Christian religion exclusively must, at least, now be examined. But I want to attack the whole basis of blasphemy. When the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham was speaking, he attempted to define "blasphemy". I am very grateful to the right reverend Prelate, because he showed just how, for many of us, the semantics can become completely tangled up.

I accept that there is such a thing as profanity, although that raises very interesting questions. If we are speaking about the sacred and profane—we use the term "profanity" as a more or less light definition of bad language—profanity has now assumed the stature of blasphemy. Profanity means taking serious things lightly, but the narrowing of the definition of blasphemy, which I insist we have been doing tonight, has narrowed it down to something which is not profanity. The right reverend Prelate suggested that it was scurrility. In the sense that we may be using the word here, scurrility, as has been pointed out, is more than taken care of by any secular law dealing with breach of the peace.

Noble Lords have heard of the Rangers and Celtic football teams. At their football matches one may see a Celtic man standing on one side of a little man and a Rangers man on the other. When the Rangers team scores, the Rangers supporter rattles his rattle and gets wildly excited, while the Celtic supporter boos and the little man in between says nothing. He is a Humanist! When the Celtic team scores, the Celtic supporter rattles his rattle and gets excited. Then the Celtic and Rangers supporters turn to the little man in between and ask him whether he is a Rangers or a Celtic supporter. He says, "Neither". To which both the Catholic Celtic supporter and the Protestant Rangers supporter shout "Damned atheist".

How do we define what is sensitivity and sensibility? I am being neither disrespectful nor irreverent when I say very emphatically that what we are speaking about here is not something which cannot be met, even in the terms set out not by my noble friend Lord Halsbury—I must not call him that—but "my friend the noble Earl". I cannot accept what he has said. This is a denial of a range of complete susceptibility and high sensitivity which has nothing to do with whether or not one is a Christian.

Therefore I ask why we as humanists are being crucified on this kind of argument. We are not that kind of people. To speak about opening up this whole area to wide abuse is nonsense. If your God is so fragile that this modification would destroy your religion, I believe that the Christian religion is in a very feeble position.

Therefore we want the view of this House to be that we are not prepared to leave this question to an obsolete law which has long outlived its original definition and that resulted from the imposition of standards by the ecclesiastical courts which were accepted into secular law because then we were a Christian State and blasphemy was regarded as a threat to that State. This is not the time, the age or the circumstance for that kind of attitude. My noble friend's Bill is not threatening the kind of things—the spectres—which Mrs. Whitehouse is raising out of the cauldron of her superstition.

7.56 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Willis, and the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, are both good friends of mine. They are Humanists with deep and sincere convictions, who believe what they say. Nevertheless, they are proud to live in this country which is tolerant to a degree. The Press can say almost anything, unless it causes injury and harm to people, in which case the laws of libel take their toll. As my noble friend Lord Ferrers mentioned in his speech, the average man in this country tries to do his best, although we do not all live up to it. We pass laws to protect the feelings of others and to protect the newcomers in our midst. We have a record of which we can be proud. This is not a Party matter. Both Parties have collaborated to bring about this happy state of affairs.

Tonight I am the first of the Roman brand of Christianity to speak. Let me say at once that it does not particularly upset me if I hear somebody say, "Old Red Socks". I am not quite sure why this expression should apply to the Pope; he probably wears white socks, but that is neither here nor there. Nor am I going to be particularly upset if I hear a man when coming out of a pub say, "To Hell with the Pope" or "Down with the Queen". One is not speaking tonight about that kind of stupidity but about what the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, described as besmirchment for the sake of money—scurrility of the mind.

The noble Viscount, Lord Norwich, made the point that nobody has to buy Gay News: that if they did not buy such a paper they would not read such facts. However, if publication of such facts is allowed in one newspaper, another one can publish them. Today we see for sale on news-stands, which 20 years ago would never have dreamed of having such things upon them, pictures and poems of a sexual nature which show how liberated we are—whether for the better or the worse, I do not know, although I suspect probably for the worse. It is no good saying that today only Gay News readers will read these publications. Twenty years ago people would have said, "You won't find such magazines in W. H. Smith". Today you do find such publications there.

May I suggest to your Lordships that what Gay News and newspapers of that ilk may today publish, if there is no restriction, will tomorrow be reproduced in other newspapers and that this will cause offence to others. There is a curious breed of intelligentsia who say that provided you do it under the highbrow poetry-literature umbrella it does not matter, because the common hoi-polloi will not have to read it. In practice, the common hoi-polloi are noble Lords and I. In the end it comes back to us, to our children and to all our friends.

Several noble Lords have asked tonight, what is blasphemy? Lord Justice Coleridge once defined blasphemy as that which was calculated to outrage the feelings and deepest religious convictions of the great majority of the persons among whom we live. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, said that blasphemy is not defined in common law. If people feel strongly enough about something and take a magazine, person or whatever it may be to law, we have a jury system, and it is for the jury to decide. I cannot see why the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, should mind it not being defined when in our heart of hearts we all know what we are talking about. We are talking about things, like those which have been mentioned, which no noble Lord tonight has had the courage to say he thinks are good things. A jury is able to decide, and no doubt one day may decide, whether a piece of evidence brought before it is offensive or not. Personally, I should like to say that I shall support the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury and in my opinion keeping blasphemy as a common law offence is really the long-stop of commonsense in this country and of decency in the family.

8.1 p.m.


My Lords, I should like briefly to put before you my inexpert but sincerely held opinion on this matter. About 12 months ago I was asked by a Humanist friend to read a book which argued that the whole story of Jesus was and is a colossal hoax. I was deeply shocked—in the literal sense of the word—to find Christ described as "that dervish from Galilee", "that rebel rouser" and as "a hellbound". But, according to its lights, the book was well argued with deep sincerity. Reading it depressed me very much, but after careful consideration my faith was in fact strengthened and I thought of Bunyan's memorable words about those who: Doth but themselves confound His strength the more is". My point is that although strong stuff this book seemed to me misguided but fairly argued. I do not feel that there should be a prosecution for blasphemy nor—if my interpretation of a law summary which I was given is correct, and after what has been said this evening—do I think a conviction would be possible. By contrast we come to the publication of such works as the poem by Professor Kirkup that is in our minds today. At the time of the trial, the magazine New Society of 16th December, on page 556, said— Both the prosecution and the defence are anxious to discourage more people from reading it". What a misguided matter, despite the impassioned plea of the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, on which the society for the expression of this and the freedom of that sought to take up arms. The Manchester Guardian of last Saturday referred to it as "an obscene poem", although I thought the matter was once again sub judice.

If I might use the title of that most interesting book by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester—although in a somewhat different context, I would say this with the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury— "Enough is enough". Christians deserve to be treated with the same consideration that they show to others, and following what the noble Lord, Lord Willis, and others have said I should be very happy, if so desired, to see the laws against blasphemy amended to include consideration for other religions besides Christianity. I have recently read John Stuart Mill's passages on blasphemy in his brilliant essay On Liberty. But the situation today, when, as the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said, we are almost falling over backwards to be tolerant and understanding, is very different from the vicious religious persecution that was possible in his day. It was suggested to me that I should adopt the principle behind those words attributed to Voltaire: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". I can only say bluntly that I would not defend to the death the right of anyone to publish a poem such as the one in question. Ever since reading Professor Kirkup's poem my heart has been set against any move that might make easier the publication of works in anything like a similar vein. Perhaps in this matter my heart has been stronger than my head; I am not ashamed of that. I use the word advisedly when I say that I am wholeheartedly against this Bill, but certainly not against further serious consideration of the law of blasphemy as it stands at present.

8.5 p.m.


My Lords, during the 60 years that I have had a slight hand from time to time in checking blasphemy and encouraging a spirit of reverence, I have not had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Mary Whitehouse and have received no inspiration or impulse in the course of that long sojourn. I was first involved at school in a case of blasphemy which was dealt with by the Abbot, not as a sin but as conduct to the prejudice of good order; and next in a regiment where the same thing happened. A man was up for blasphemy and other things, because coarse and obscene language invariably accompanies blasphemy. He was dealt with under Section 40 of the Army Act with conduct to the prejudice of good order. Later, some woodmen of mine in Somerset one day complained of one of their fellows. I said, "What is wrong with him? He is a good workman." They said, "He is foul-mouthed and he is a blasphemer; we do not like working with him". These three illustrations indicate what I have found, that there is always in communities, especially when a lot of men are together, a struggle between the foul-mouthed and the clean-minded, and if the foul-mouthed have their way a kind of Gresham's Law operates and the bad drives out the good, and the whole body is rather corrupted.

On the positive side, of encouraging reverence, I think I received more pushes from others than I have given to them, and I give one example only. When I was in Africa, 100 miles from any other white man, one of my soldiers died, nobody knows for what reason. I thought that the funeral was a matter for those who had different religions to mine. I am a Roman Catholic and the sergeant-major was a Moslem; but the victim, the man who had died, was a pagan. The sergeant-major came into my office and more or less told me that I had to conduct a service over this man. I did so, and over this pagan, I read in Latin my Mass for the dead, under the supervision of a Sudanese Moslem sergeant-major. I am absolutely convinced that in that atmosphere of reverence for God, which I lived in, among pagans principally, not one of them thought it desirable that we should abolish the protection, such as it is, statutory or otherwise, of the Christian religion simply because neither the Moslem nor the pagan was included. They would have said, "Pray include us too".

8.7 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of NORWICH

My Lords, I appreciated that very moving short speech from the noble Earl because I had been minded, at least briefly, to comment on the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, when he said that we do not just want to protect one religion. It seems to me that in these days it is worth trying to protect one religion and then going on and protecting some more. That seems a good thing to do. Therefore, I take courage from that. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Willis, makes out a strong case, and in the permissive 'sixties and before the horrible and blasphemous poem vilifying our Lord Jesus Christ, his case would have been much stronger. However, well-wishers towards Our Lord and the Christian religion—not only professing Christians but, I believe, Jews and Moslems and Deists generally, and many honest simple men and w omen of goodwill who are to modest to be able to give a clear statement of belief—are beginning, as the noble Lord reminded us, to say that enough is enough in the current climate in which we are living.

The noble Lord, Lord Willis, has summoned to his aid, with a professional persuasiveness which of course is denied to us simple Peers, either spiritual or temporal, the sacred words of liberty. "A supreme morality of liberty of thought" was one of his phrases, I think, of freedom of self-expression. He can condemn—and we bow our heads before him as he does it—censorship, puritanicalism—which is a difficult to say at ten past eight at the end of a long day—and Humanism until he has gently shepherded all those who oppose him into the dock at Dock Green and we find ourselves arrested by PC Dixon for a breach of the peace for appearing to have hurt poor, hardworking television playwrights and editors, and all who work to earn an honest crust of bread in the media. Now, it seems, they go in mortal terror of their lives lest by some inadvertent slip of the tongue they should be caught profanely swearing, and the whole panoply of the law, the Church, the Establishment, and perhaps Bernard Levin in The Times, descends upon them; all this because we simple Peers, whether temporal or spiritual, who are speaking against him tonight, are not willing to be beguiled into abolishing the statutory and common law offence of blasphemy by supporting his Bill.

Charm us as he will, his arguments, I believe, just will not do, for I believe that he has massive protection already. Also, I want to calm the fears and anxieties arising in the heart and breast of Lord Ritchie-Calder, who made that same point a few moments ago. Blackstone's Compendium of the Law is quite explicit when, on page 296, it says: Publications intended in good faith to propagate opinions on religious subjects which the person who publishes them regards as true are not blasphemous merely because their publication is likely to wound the feelings of those who believe such opinions to be false". It should never be thought that standing for the common law as it is today makes those who humbly call themselves Christian any less sensitive or loving towards those who either have a different religion or a different way of expressing their deeper thoughts concerning the goodness and the good ordering of humanity.

I dare to tell one story. In the war years, when I served with the Royal Marine Commandos, our doctor, David Windsor, who had stroked the Oxford boat before the war, who had won the Newdigate Prize at Oxford with his poem Rain, and who to me was one of the great young men of World War II, once said to me, "When things are difficult and when mortar and small arms fire are very close, and our men say 'Christ' when a mortar shell falls close, and 'Thank God' when they find they are still alive, they are not necessarily blaspheming". I believe that to be true, because deep in the heart of most people there is, however unformed it may be, a reverence for God. David Windsor was killed a little later in one of our commando raids. I found him dead among the men he was actually caring for right up in the forward line. I had the privilege of taking his funeral. No man in that Commando would have had his name taken irreverently, lightly or wrongly, because he was such a wonderful person. It seems to me that, at the heart of our discussion on this vexed question of blasphemy, it is something like that that touches the deepest chords.

Now, for protection also, Halsbury's Laws of England clearly states: It is not blasphemy with due gravity and propriety to contend that the Christian religion or any part of its doctrine or the wholer part of its doctrine or the wholer part of Holy Scripture is untrue". This Christian country, with its Christian Monarch and Christian laws, supported by this noble House, where we begin every session with devout prayer to Almighty God, seeks to protect and succour such noble Peers as find it difficult to come to faith and belief in the Almighty or in our Blessed Lord, and this protection of a Christian fabric of society stems from the very fact that this nation still openly recognises a loving God and gives honour to the Son of God, Christ Jesus, whom Christians claim to be not only uniquely divine but truly human, and that without sin, so he understands us at the core of our being.

Therefore, for the sake of the noble Lord, Lord Willis, and those who feel with him, and for the sake of those who respect the saving Name, whether He be friend or still stranger to them, for the good ordering of society, for our home life and our free personal development, I believe that we need the ultimate sanction of the common law's condemnation of blasphemy. Blasphemy, inter alia, is scoffingly or irreverently ridiculing and impugning the doctrines of the Christian Faith, or "gravely reproaching and vilifying Jesus Christ" so that the feelings of mankind are wounded or contempt and hatred are aroused against His Church. Let the nation discover itself yet again to be one nation under God and, with this Bill, maintain the ultimate sanction of the common law so that the law stands, and let this Bill fall.


My Lords, before the right reverend Prelate concludes his speech, may I ask him a question? Does he believe that only self-professed Christians have the monopoly of the Christian values and virtues?

The Lord Bishop of NORWICH

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her very open and clear and honest question. I tried, in preparing what I wanted to say—one never does it as well in the heat of debate as in the quiteness of preparation—to say that, whether He be friend or still stranger, for the good ordering of our society I believe it right to maintain such a position as this nation has had, and, in so doing, never to call in conflict or in question the honest, humane and good lives of those who to me are brave people, who manage to live good lives without the strength and comfort which, as a simple Christian, I find is such a help. I honour them.

8.17 p.m.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, it is an especial pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate. The noble Lord, Lord Soper—whom I nearly always agree with, but for once I did not agree with his conclusion today—implied, with less than his usual generosity, that Christian leaders, Bishops in particular, were more often heard from when their own direct interests were affected than on social questions. No one can be unaware that the right reverend Prelate has spoken up actively on many Christian social questions, particularly prisoners, and if I say that I have drawn more inspiration from him and from the noble Lord, Lord Soper, on that particular topic than from anybody—though, of course, we owe a great deal to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner—I hope I shall set the balance right between them.

I asked my old Chief Whip and Socialist conscience, Lord Beswick, whether it would be better to speak for five minutes or not to speak at all. He replied, "Speak for two minutes". I have always followed him with a kind of slavish docility, so I am aiming at two minutes. Already one has gone, so perhaps I will take two and a half.

We have had a remarkable debate, Lord Willis and Lord Halsbury set a tone of the highest quality at the beginning. There was just one difference between them as far as I was concerned. I might be slightly biased here. There was no blemish on Lord Halsbury's speech, and Lord Willis's speech was blemished by his unfortunate personal references to Mary Whitehouse. He has a kind of obsession about my friend Mary Whitehouse and it is not by any means the first time that he has displayed it. He has a sort of neurosis about her. However, the difference between them is that Mary Whitehouse is instructed by the Christian gospel to love her enemies, so I am sure she loves the noble Lord, Lord Willis. However, I am not aware that he makes a real effort to love her.


My Lords, I can assure you that I make the most extraordinary efforts to love Mrs. Whitehouse. I just think that it is a rather curious way to love your enemies to put them on trial and try to send them to prison.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, that is a very old saying.


My Lords, will the noble Earl, Lord Longford, answer?

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, the answer is obvious enough. Every child knows the answer. When people have done wrong—let us take the extreme case of murder or theft—they must be tried and they may be sent to prison. I have said a hundred times in this House that prison is a rotten answer but if people have gone wrong and offended society gravely they must be punished. That is the answer to the question which the noble Lord, Lord Willis, has asked. I hope that he will keep on trying to love Mary Whitehouse and I shall tell her the next time I see her that he is hard at work on that subject.

I am advised that in Halsbury's Laws of England we find the following passage: Blasphemy is an indictable offence at common law consisting of the publication of words attacking the Christian religion or the Bible in so violent, scurrilous or ribald a manner as to pass the limits of decent controversy and tend to lead to a breach of the peace". So, in trying to maintain the common law against blasphemy we are not trying to prevent all blasphemy occurring—a lot of blasphemy has been going on and will go on. The question is whether the extreme form of blasphemy should be prosecuted or not.

From my point of view—I hope that no other noble Lord will think me disrespectful—the most interesting speech, although I did not agree with the conclusion, was that by the noble Lord, Lord Soper, because he explained how appalled he was by blasphemy, how deeply offended he was and yet he did not feel that one should interfere with it by law.

I cannot argue the matter at length, but this is always a grave question whether it concerns race relations, obscenity or whatever it may be. Let us take the case of homosexuality. Many of us would call active homosexual relations sinful and yet many of us have defended the Wolfenden Report and the legislation flowing from it. Therefore, there is always this question: when something is admittedly sinful do we or do we not apply the criminal law? In the case of homosexuals, for example, one may well feel—and I think one can feel—that many are labouring under a special handicap. I do not, however, believe that anybody will say that blasphemers are born blasphemers and that once someone is a blasphemer it is impossible ever to cease to be a blasphemer. Therefore, I am afraid that I do not see any comparison.

The question remains: here is an evil—we are talking of extreme cases—here is something that I think the noble Lord, Lord Willis, and all those who support him will agree is an atrocious evil. Do we or do we not introduce the criminal law? It has been argued much more eloquently than I could that the criminal law should be maintained here. Noble Lords may ask why, from my point of view, it should be maintained? I am sure that if it were now abolished it would weaken the cause of religion—not just the Christian religion, but religion generally in this country. Therefore I end by quoting the words of the late Archbishop Temple: Only religious faith can make the world safe for freedom; Only religious faith can make freedom safe for the world".

8.26 p.m.


My Lords, as your Lordships will no doubt agree, a debate originated by the noble Lord, Lord Willis, has proved fascinating, interesting and very constructive. Although I greatly respect the erudition of, shall we say, the Think Tank types, they think like anything and sincerely believe that they are in touch with reality. I was struck by the reference of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, to the French "idiots savants" because when I go off to London an old friend of mine says: Off you go, old boy, but save us from the silly-clevers". I think that there is something in that. I take quite a contrary view to those who believe that the silly-clevers are in touch with reality.

I believe that a Bill of this nature is another step down the slope which leads to a decadent society".— I quote from something I said in another context a couple of years ago.

I had not intended to speak in this debate because the Bill does not apply to Scotland, and I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I speak for a little longer than the four minutes that I had allowed myself because my old friend who is down to follow me was not in the Chamber. However he is here now, and therefore I shall not speak for long. As I say, I had not intended to speak, until casual reading over the weekend brought me to two pointers to this debate. The first I shall not quote, but it is a paragraph to be found in the book of my noble friend Lord Home of the Hirsel, entitled The Way the Wind Blows on page 279 of which he refers to a conversation with Sir Harold Macmillan.

As regards the second one, I was dipping into the late Professor Barclay's translations of St. Paul's Epistles and came across his note on the famous verse 6 of Chapter 5 of First Corinthians: Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? In the note he points out something that I had never before grasped; namely, that to the devout Jew leaven was a corruption. It is clear that that is the reason why St. Paul used it and why I feel that the sort of movement which we are discussing today—fearing as I do the advance of socialism and to what it can lead, as we know, from other parts of the world—is a little of the leaven which may leaven the lump. I therefore support my noble friend Lord Halsbury in his Amendment.

I should like to make another point arising out of the fascinating speech of the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, who referred to the Sudanese. I have spent much of my life in the East and have associated on a very friendly and intimate basis with many Hindus and Moslems and came out by that same door wherein I went. I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, that our laws should protect other faiths from this sin, I think, of blasphemy. The way out, to my mind, is not to pass the Bill but to use this debate as a springboard for the further steps to which the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, drew attention in his brief and most acceptable speech. Indeed, they were matters to which the right reverend Prelates the Bishops of Durham and Leicester also drew attention.

With those feelings in my heart I believe that for this House to give the Bill a Second Reading can give comfort only to the outriders of anti-Christ. For that reason and with the caveat that I have added as regards future consideration of the whole matter, I propose to support the Amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury.

8.30 p.m.


My Lords, in speaking against this Bill I do not doubt the integrity of the noble Lord, Lord Willis, but I wonder whether he understands the intensity with which changes are taking place in the moral atmosphere in which we are living today. I do not doubt his integrity, but to what extent is he aware of the effect the proposed legislation will have in areas of our modern world? I think that he would be horrified to have created the effects which I think will be created by the passing of the Bill.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "blasphemy" as "speaking profanely of God or sacred things". I take it that the noble Lord, Lord Willis, does not wish to shatter the whole basis of family life. In fact, he glorified family life, yet family life in all its glory stems directly from God's Commandments and the Constitution of our land. The Constitution of our land both in England and Scotland is a blend between law and gospel. It declares it to be the "Lord of all" that alone really gives the basis for family life. Take away the concept of blasphemy, and we take away the concept of a living God and reduce our civilisation to becoming the "heir of nebulosity", where just anything goes, as the basis of what is called the "new morality".

That is not a prophetic fear; it is happening before our very eyes. Solely for the sake of brevity let us confine ourselves to the area of sex, though this could be applied right across the board to "Thou shalt not kill" and "Thou shalt not covet". I shall confine it to the Commandment of the living God that "Thou shalt not commit adultery". In many ways, we in this country are now a replica of the United States of America. How many people know that in the last recorded year there were more abortions in America than there were births? How many people know the extent of the horror that that conveys? The number of abortions that are necessitated by the ill-health of the mother are quite minimal. Thus the fact is that over 90 per cent. of those abortions are due to lust, complete indifference to the law of God, and thereby give rise to the harbingers of moral chaos and the certain break-up of our civilisation.

As some noble Lords know, the United States is being forced into legislation to deal, for instance, with phenomenal breakups of family life precisely by those humanist interpretations of what is fit and proper. What is called "paedophilia" becomes more and more rampant and America has to start to deal with it. Paedophilia is, of course, the use of young children by adults who wish to vary and enrich their own sex life by their sexual contacts with children, some of whom are under the age of eight.

That is the sort of situation which America is having to deal with politically. We could apply it equally to "Thou shalt not kill" and "Thou shalt not covet". However, referring for the sake of brevity to sex, does the noble Lord, Lord Willis, realise the depths and the rapidity of the similar decline in our land? In the Church of Scotland, to which I belong, we have lost 300,000 members since 1960. I was talking to a Methodist the other day and he said that the proportion is probably the same in the Methodist Church. The Church of England has the wisdom not to refer to the matter at all, but we know that in the Church of Rome they are dealing with the same kind of situation.

Before I sit down I want to give three short illustrations of what I mean. They are not pretty. One is from an alleged responsible society called the Family Planning Association, which spreads rapidly and which is now operating in New Zealand. Another is from a magazine produced by that impeccably respectable international publishing corporation which is publishing all the magazines that we hear about. I was going to read the poem that has been the cause of the issue about which there is now an appeal, but I am told it is sub judice. I am a little mystified at being informed that it is sub judice and that I cannot refer to it when previous speakers have constantly referred to Mrs. Mary Whitehouse and her case. Apparently it is right to talk about issues of that kind. For some reason one is not allowed to mention the poem, although one is allowed to mention the lady who is responsible for the case. I should have thought that would have affected the case in the Appeal Court.

First, there is the illustration from the Family Planning Association, which has now spread to New Zealand. We read about a film that has been produced in this country about sex, with Professor Sol Gordon as a consultant. The film is called About Sex and has been seen and approved by headmasters and teachers. It begins: 'Sex! Sex! Sex! That's where it's at! 'chant the Ghetto Brothers Band as they lay down a solid beat for the opening shots of About Sex. In the opening scenes we see neon signs for porno films in the United States, couples strolling in the park and a nude full frontal of a go-go dancer, whilst the narrator tells us that sex is what everybody is talking about these days. The scene changes to a classroom. The teacher, Angel Alvirez is seated on a tatty sofa leading a group discussion on sex. There are about 20 teenagers in the room sitting around, aged 15 to 16 years. About five teenagers do all the talking—the rest stay silent and expressionless. Alvirez is talking about masturbation: 'Masturbation does not weaken you or make your arm fall off, or use up your sperm, or make your hair fall out. It's a natural, normal thing we all do. We've been told it's bad, but you all do it, and you know otherwise. Does masturbation weaken you…?' At this one of the lads leaps up: 'Hey! I jerk off in the bathroom three times a day. It can make you dizzy, but it's great!' Alvirez: 'You should do it to keep your body in shape'. There is laughter in the film. It continues: 'Yeah—it builds up the forearm!' says one youth. Alvirez then proceeds to tell the group how girls can masturbate, too. A few girls add comments, supporting him. Discussing the withdrawal method of contraception, Alvirez says that it is unsafe because just when you are coming to the good bit, you have to pull out". That is a film which is being shown with the goodwill of masters. Is this sort of thing understood as the situation in which we find ourselves today?

I should like to give a quotation from one of the magazines that are being sold by that highly responsible organisation, which are being published increasingly, in their thousands, in this country. Many letters are received from young people on this subject.


My Lords, would the noble Lord allow me to ask what this has to do with blasphemy?


My Lords, I am simply trying to convey the idea that we are living in a much worse kind of responsive world—a world that is going down—than was conveyed by the noble Lord who introduced the Bill. He said that things will be all right and that we are moving into a humanist kind of world. I am simply telling him what I think is happening in this humanist world. Letters are being written by young people of 14 and 15 years of age. I should like to quote one which is quite short: Last week my boy friend's parents went away on holiday and left him to look after the house. As we really love each other we decided this would be the perfect time to go to bed together … the trouble was he couldn't get an erection. It wasn't as if he was worried about getting me pregnant or anything because he'd got the contraception organised. So, please, what do you think the trouble is? The magazine replied: Hey, don't be anxious—there isn't any trouble … I am sure you'll be able to get it together next time". People are aware that this is the situation in our so-called humanist world. This has a great deal to do with the idea that we should not move away from continuing the laws of blasphemy.

I understand that the last completed case of blasphemy was before the British courts some time in the 1920s, until the present one which is sub judice. In that case a man was convicted, he appealed against the conviction, he lost his appeal, and the last definition of blasphemy—it still stands—is this: Blasphemy is material that is an offence to anyone in sympathy with the Christian religion, whether he be a strong Christian or a lukewarm Christian or merely a person (sympathising with their ideals) who might be provoked to a breach of the peace". This was the final definition of blasphemy.

This is the point to which we have come. We have become now a secularised State if we really put through this Bill; no longer looking to the Christian religion as the aim of our living or the standard of our morals. That being so, and if this Bill becomes law in the course of the present proceedings, I beg the Government to devise further legislation to declare now that the United Kingdom is a secular State. For the faith, in the opinion of Parliament, will (in its strictest meaning) be a nonsense. I trust subsequent arrangements would then be made without delay to secularise the Houses of Parliament; to declassify the Church of England and the Church of Scotland as the established religions of our land, as this now means nothing; to desert the nonsense of opening this House with prayer; and to declare a free for all in the matter of morals. Further, to ensure that the Coronation is not related to Westminster Abbey, but that the Coronation should suitably take place at Wembley to accommodate the crowd; and that we face at last the implication of the obliteration of blasphemy, because the implication of the obliteration of blasphemy is a corollary of the obliteration of a belief in a living and a loving God.

8.42 p.m.

The Earl of CORK and ORRERY

My Lords, this is to my recollection the second time that I have found myself in the somewhat difficult situation of following the noble Lord, Lord Macleod of Fuinary. This time, like the first, I am conscious of a feeling that after the discharge of so much heavy ammunition few will wish to listen to the poppings of a Cork, especially at the end of so long a debate. My poppings, therefore, will be confined to two or three, and will be exceedingly quick.

I do not go along, I confess at the outset, with the noble Lord, Lord Willis, in support of his Bill for the abolition of Mrs. Whitehouse. However, I go along with him in the opinion, the suspicion at any rate, that all is not well with our laws of blasphemy, which might well be amended. Amending is one thing; abolition is another. It might well be better if we were now in a situation in which there were no laws about blasphemy at all and never had been. But there are laws of a sort, and to abolish them is not the same as to go back to the state in which there were none and never had been any.

In that original state when there were no laws about blasphemy there was no door to open or shut. But a door was shut. To abolish the law now is to open that door and step back through it, and leave it open. The danger of this has been amply foreseen and recognised by many noble Lords, including preeminently the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, in his opening speech. We do not go back; we simply open the door, and it is an exceedingly dangerous thing to do.

There is a question of whether or not blasphemy should be regarded as a crime. Others have touched on this; I know I am not being original. Certainly it is a sin. I think it is a crime, and I think it falls within the category of crime upon which all our law is founded. The principle of law, after all, is that anybody is free, broadly speaking, to do what he likes so long as it does not do any harm to anybody else. Blasphemy does do harm to somebody else, because we are here in a religious situation. I will not deploy a religious argument because that is no good with people who do not hold religious views. This is a logical argument. Religion is a matter for the individual between himself and what he chooses to regard as his Maker, or as the source of all being, of all life, or whatever point of view he may hold about some supreme being. This is his own innermost conviction and, to him, knowledge. To attack that is an injury against that man.

There is no question of defending God, whatever the noble Lord, Lord Soper, may say, and say with appropriate wit, about the benefits of legislation for making it more difficult for man to be bad. I do not think we have to bother about protecting God, but we have to protect minorities of all kinds. The noble Lord, Lord Willis, has fixed his finger on this one particular minority that has religious beliefs and asked why they alone among the rest of our society should be protected against this particular crime. Minorities are protected against particular crimes. Minors, for instance, the most obvious minority of all, have special laws to protect them, and I see no reason why this particular crime should not be proscribed, and should not remain on the Statute Book as an offence for the protection not of God but of people who are deeply injured by blasphemy however it may be defined.


My Lords, time is getting on. It is always a great privilege to follow the noble Earl, Lord Cork. The last time I was after him he prodded me into speaking. Tonight he has saved me the trouble of speaking for more than the two minutes I was going to, because almost everything he said I should have liked to say as well. I should also like to thank particularly the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich for saying much more clearly the longer things I wanted to say.

Like the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, I should like to congratulate and thank Lord Willis for introducing this Bill on at least one ground, in that it seems to me crystal clear what he is doing. I think that we only have two alternatives, to which choice we are longing to get. I was a little fogged by what I thought I understood the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, to say in his very interesting speech about the past history of blasphemy; that is, that if we let this Bill go through it is capable of amendment. I may have misunderstood him. Since that was said, I have been trying to think how I would amend it, or suggest an Amendment. Frankly I can only think of one which puts my view, and that is in Clause 2(2), which has been mentioned. After "This Act shall not extend to Scotland", I would insert: "England, Wales, the Isle of Wight, the Isle of Man, and any other part of the United Kingdom, if and while it still exists". I think that makes my meaning fairly clear.

I do not know whether it is worth mentioning why I would do this; my reasons have been put briefly by other noble Lords. A powerful argument has been produced by the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, and others that in the present climate of opinion (without going back to the Taylor case and that sort of thing, when a man had his tongue skewered for blasphemy) there is no need for a law against blasphemy. With great respect, I would take exactly the opposite view that there was never a climate of opinion in which it was needed more.

I know that on climatic conditions opinions tend to vary, whether in a railway carriage, a public house, or even in your Lordships' bar. There are always differences of opinion as to whether we ought to open more windows and turn down the heat, or turn up the heat and close a few windows. The noble Lord, Lord Willis, shares with me, as a liberal, a good deal of belief in fresh air. In this case there is only one window to be considered, and that is the common law offence of blasphemy.

If he was suggesting, as noble Lords on all sides have, that that window should be opened slightly or closed slightly, all right; but as I understand it he was not suggesting that; he was suggesting that we should break it. But if we were to break it I do not think that would make things easier later on. His reasons for breaking it, as I understand him, are that it is an archaic stained-glass window, that gives off a dim religious light by which one cannot quite see. Much better break it now, and put in some better stained glass later; that seems to be the suggestion. That is why I call it Cromwellian rather than liberal legislation. As the noble Lord, Lord Soper, quoted from a child's hymn, perhaps I may do likewise: Be thou my guardian and my guide, and hear me when I call; Let not my slippery footsteps slide, but hold me lest I fall". If I had to choose as my guardian or guide or both on this subject (not necessarily on any other) either the noble Lord, Lord Willis, or the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, I would put the symmetry straight on the Liberal Benches where we have had two eloquent speeches in favour of the Bill and one in favour of Lord Halsbury's Amendment. I would put in my plea for, and give my support to, the Amendment.

8.52 p.m.


My Lords, it is said, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions". I am not saying that is the intention of this Bill, but I do say it would be unwise to uplift, as the Scots say, this particular piece of paving. Paving-stones are very useful. They are not laid just for looks; they are laid for the greater convenience of people to keep their boots from getting too dirty. But during the past three decades we have lifted so many stones and the roads in parts are so muddy and potholed, not least the Via Media, that one often hesitates to use them. And now, to add insult to injury, one of the very foundation stones is under attack. Who knows what depth of mud might not be stirred up?

This House is, I suppose, more widely constituted and therefore represents a wider range of influence than ever before. One may say, "Thank God for that". All right, thank God, but also let us pray God that we keep our priorities right. It does not seem logical to me to ask the bishops to kick off with prayers for divine guidance and then settle down to abolish the law of blasphemy. Perhaps some noble Lords would like to abolish prayers too. Then of course they could proceed to abolish the bishops. Why not?

No, my Lords; it is high time we put into reverse this current fashion of debunking everything once held in respect; and instead of bowing to this permissiveness, it is high time we stood up in defence of all the good things that go to make life worthwhile. Not only in this country but throughout the Western civilised world people still watch this House to see which road we are going to take. It is up to us to show that, while standing for liberty, we shall refuse to vote for unbridled licence.

8.55 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of TRURO

My Lords, it is never easy to discern the results of our personal actions. The effects very often go far beyond what we ever intended, and this truth also applies to a corporate body such as this House. It is perfectly easy to describe in precise legal constitutional terms what we are doing this evening, but that would not express the real significance of this debate. Nor would it reveal the real issues at stake.

In practical terms, I suggest that the question is not whether the Christian religion should have the defence of law. It is not a question of the different definitions of blasphemy. I could elaborate, and if I had spoken earlier in the debate I would perhaps have elaborated, on some of the things which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, but I am not doing that now because we are come to the point, and what we must realise is the significance of what we are about to do. As the noble Lord, Lord Soper, referred to his mother, perhaps I might mention in passing my own mother, who was a magnificent, formidable lady, quite capable of looking after herself. But supposing I had seen her being attacked, impugned in one way or another: the fact that she was capable of looking after herself would have been no justification for me to stand by and do nothing.

These are not the issues which are really at stake this evening. As the noble Lord, Lord Kinnaird, said, what happens in this House is regarded as of great moment and has great weight in our society; and what we are now about to decide, I suggest, is whether we should take action which will give the impression that we do not care if God is blasphemed. That, I maintain, is the ultimate significance of this debate.

I will make two more points, the first being about human rights. Reference has been made in previous speeches to the rights of minorities, but in a pluralist society it is not merely a question of recognising the rights of minorities; it is the rights of all, and to refer to the Convention on Human Rights, to which the Government are a signatory and to which this country is a party, I would remind your Lordships that Article IX refers specifically to the freedom of thought, conscience and religion and says: This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance". Section 2 of Article IX goes on: Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and as are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety for the protection of public order, health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others". Some noble Lords will have seen the statement against the blasphemy law which was circulated in anticipation of this debate. That document states: The common law offence of blasphemy is clearly a threat to freedom of expression in religious, literary and artistic matters". It then describes in perhaps rather overdrawn terms the anxious condition of many of those engaged in artistic and literary activities in the country. It goes on to refer to the fact that: ‖ attempts may be made to extend the blasphemy law to protect other forms of religion in addition to Christianity". It objects to that on the grounds that the result would be to increase the: … division between the religious and racial groups within the community. A more satisfactory solution would be to recognise the pluralist nature of our society and to abolish the offence of blasphemy altogether". That last sentence seems to be contradictory; you do not recognise a pluralist society by abolishing or damaging the rights of one large section of it. And if we are really to talk about a pluralist society, then we must consider everybody and not merely one section or another, a majority or a minority.

I would suggest that we in this country are now very sensitive about race, for example, and some of the other freedoms mentioned in the Convention. We are also strangely sensitive to other religions. For example, I saw no condemnation of the protests which led to the makers of the film on Mohammed being required to change the title because of its offence to Mohammedans, at a considerable cost to the film-makers. I saw no protests about that; no suggestion that this was a gross infringement of freedom of expression. If we are going to talk about a pluralist society, we must realise what it means. It means restrictions; it inevitably means restrictions if all are to enjoy freedom to do the things which we are committed to allow them to do in this country under the Convention of Human Rights.

My Lords, I want to make one last point. I believe that the most significant things in human life and in our civilisation have been built up gradually through the efforts, courage and imagination of those who have gone before. They can be destroyed overnight. In his speech the noble Lord, Lord Willis, quoted the Scriptures several times. Perhaps I may remind the noble Lord, respectfully, of what Our Lord himself said about causing the little ones to stumble. I do not quote it in full because the noble Lord showed a commendable acquaintance with Holy Scripture. What I believe we have a responsibility to do this evening, my Lords, is to speak and act on behalf of the countless people in this country who, while not practising Christians, believe that the virtues of integrity, self-discipline, compassion and reverence represent the highest expressions of our humanity, and are not irrelevant, weak, undesirable or even dangerous qualities to be removed from the life of our community.

My Lords, as I look out of the window of my house down in Cornwall I see a magnificent oak tree. I do not know how many hundreds of years it has taken to grow: I do know that it could be felled in a matter of minutes. I believe that what we have to face this evening is this. To remove something is never the same as never to have had it, and, tonight, we cannot behave as if we have never had the common law on blasphemy. That is the crucial question. I entirely agree that attention is needed to the law, but I do not believe that the good of this country, quite apart from the religious beliefs of many of us, will be served by abolishing it at a stroke.

9.3 p.m.


My Lords, we have had a very long and interesting debate, and I should like to thank everybody who has participated in it, both those who spoke for my Bill and those who spoke against it, for the spirit in which they have spoken. During the course of the debate, one or two noble Lords indicated that I had perhaps offended them with some remarks I had made, notably the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester. If I have offended, I apologise: That which I am, you know me; A plain, blunt man who loves his friends; I only speak right out and tell you That which you yourselves do know". The right reverend Prelate mentioned some speech which I made about charity some years ago. I think the right reverend Prelate must have it out of context, because I cannot believe that I could ever have attacked those who work for charity in a genuine way.

I thought one of the most significant moments in this debate was when the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, asked whether those who had spoken tonight on behalf of the Christian religion felt that, some-how, those people who did not share that belief (these were not her exact words) were evil, had no principles, and so forth. It seemed to me time and time again that out of the speeches which were made in opposition to the Bill there emerged this kind of feeling: that those noble Lords had the sole prerogative of morality and that I was the evil villain who wanted to abolish the law on blasphemy and thus open the floodgates to the pornographers, and so on. My Lords, I hate them as much as your Lordships do, and I would trust those noble Lords to have enough respect for me and my friends to understand that. I do not believe that this would happen; and, as I said in my speech, if it did happen, then all of us had better go home, because it would mean that their religion had failed and mine had failed.

The noble Lord, Lord Macleod of Fuinary, gave us a hair-raising description of the things which are happening now and which might happen if we pass this Bill. The noble Lord also said (and can he not connect the two things?) that his Church had lost 300,000 members in the last 15 years. I beg the noble Lord, in all humility and modesty, to look at the beam in his own eye as well. The noble Lord thinks that all the things he described are evil, and I would agree with him that many of them are evil. But is that not also the fault of the Church and is there not some weakness there? So this kind of idea that noble Lords putting forward these views have the preserve of morality and people like myself have none is, I think, offensive and wrong. It was indicated by a very tiny but illuminating remark by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who said, just in passing, "homosexuality is admittedly sinful". Is it? I do not like it. Some noble Lordships may think it sinful, but homosexuals do not; and it certainly is not a crime. It is that kind of prejudice against homosexuals which is dangerous. We have to love them and understand them, and give them their full rights. It was a very significant remark dropped in— "admittedly sinful" as if everybody agreed, "Yes, of course it is sinful". I do not think it is sinful. I think it is unfortunate; I do not like it: I do not participate; but it certainly is not sinful. It is a kind of arrogance to suggest that it is, and that what we do is much better, and so on.


My Lords, if the noble Lord will give way, when he reads Hansard tomorrow I think he will find that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, said that certain people are born with homosexual tendencies which they have the greatest difficulty in departing from. That is something rather different from the point the noble Lord was making.


My Lords, when I read Hansard tomorrow I shall find the tiny phrase, "homosexuality is admittedly sinful". I may also find the other phrase as well; but the noble Earl, Lord Longford, can speak for himself.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, since the noble Lord wants me to speak, I suppose I shall have to. Long before the noble Lord came to this House, I was moving the adoption of the Wolfenden Report when no one in the House of Commons would touch it. I am afraid that I have outworn my medals on the homosexual front, but they exist.


My Lords, the noble Earl has a wonderful record in this respect which was why I was surprised at his tiny phrase, which dropped in unconsciously "homosexuality is admittedly sinful". He must not make such sweeping generalisations. It was this question of fear that worried me most. I felt that I had opened the cage and could hear the baying of distant wolves; as if all the people against the Bill were terrified that something terrible was going to take place in our society. All that I was proposing was to revoke an ancient law and, if necessary, to strengthen the other laws. There were a lot of specious arguments advanced. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said in effect that we will have people outside Westminster Cathedral shouting terrible things about the Pope and so on. If they did that today, they would be "pinched" for obstruction, for a breach of the peace, for obscenity—


My Lords, the noble Lord would not wish to misquote me. He has made the point that I was making, which was that if people do shout these offensive things, they are creating a breach of the peace and such action which is likely to be taken under the Bill which the noble Lord is proposing would have a similar effect.


My Lords, the whole point is that we do not need the law of blasphemy to protect Westminster Cathedral or anything else. This fear that noble Lords seem to have that suddenly the floodgates would be opened, I find personally terrifying. I come back to a phrase which I used earlier in the debate, "O ye of little faith". What faith have you in yourselves, in society, in your Church and your religion that you can believe that by passing this simple little law you're going to destroy the fabric of our society, that you are going to open the floodgates of sin? It sounds incredible.

I am grateful and I do not want to prolong the debate tonight. I would thank everybody who has taken part in the debate. One of the significant things that was said earlier was by the Government spokesman who said that the Law Commission is currently scheduled to review the law on blasphemy. In view of that, I think it would be proper to regard this debate as a kind of starter and for me to withdraw the Bill—

Several noble Lords

No, no!


My Lords, I will only say that if the Law Commission do not come up with some reasonable amendment to the law of blasphemy, then I will come back to the charge. I should like to tell your Lordships this: I should like you to make a mental note of it. It will be noted in Hansard. I guarantee, whether I am here or not, that in 20 years' time the law of blasphemy will have been removed as other kinds of laws have been removed in the past and that not an eyebrow will be raised in this House. I will read Hansard and laugh at the opposition to it. I beg leave to withdraw my Bill.

Several noble Lords

No, no!

9.13 p.m.

The Earl of HALSBURY

My Lords, it is my privilege to wind up on my Amendment. It could be argued that if the noble Lord, Lord Willis, is going to withdraw his Bill, your Lordships would like to go home and would like me to withdraw my Amendment.

Several noble Lords

No, no!

The Earl of HALSBURY

My Lords, if it should be your pleasure that we should have a Division, I can only say that I am the servant of the House and that I must raise my voice in favour of my Amendment. That being so, and I take it that it is your Lordships' pleasure that we should vote on this, I feel I have the right to wind up briefly with a few words to avoid the possibility of certain misunderstandings.

In the course of the judgment now before the Court of Appeal, Judge King-Hamilton said that it was not clear that the common law did not protect other religions as of now; but he added that this was not the matter on which he was asked to adjudicate and that, therefore, he was not going to express any opinion. I do not think that there is any money in insulting Buddhism and I am not sure it is safe to insult Islam and, Hinduism being so eclectic a religion, I do not know exactly what an insult to Hinduism would consist of. But it is the Christian religion which is involved and it is that we are trying to protect, for the time being; although I would go along with the hope the common law does protect other religions. We should worship God only but be reverent before His many Names. That would be my philosophy in the matter. But since it is your Lordships' wish to vote on this matter, I beg to move.

9.15 p.m.

The Lord CHANCELLOR (Lord Elwyn-Jones)

My Lords, is it your Lordships pleasure that the Amendment be withdrawn?

Several noble Lords



Then I will put the Question, my Lords. The original Question was, That this Bill be now read a second time, since when an Amendment has been moved to leave out "now" and at end to insert "this day six months". The Question I now therefore have to put is, That this Amendment be agreed to. As many as are of that opinion will say, "Content". To the contrary, "Not-Content". I think the "Contents" have it. Clear the Bar.

9.19 p.m.


My Lords, Tellers for the "Contents" have been appointed. Tellers for the "Not-Contents" have not been appointed, so the "Contents" have it.


My Lords, I beg to move, That the House do now adjourn.


My Lords, is it not a fact that the Question which was originally put was the Amendment? It was the Amendment which was not voted upon; and surely it is right—is it not?—now for the Second Reading of the Bill to be considered?


My Lords, I have adjourned the House.


My Lords, with the greatest respect, I thought that the noble Baroness had only moved the adjournment of the House.


My Lords, perhaps I may say, because I did go into this with the Clerk of the Parliaments, that the Motion before your Lordships was on the Amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury. That has now been disposed of: it was to read the Bill in six months' time. Therefore, there cannot be a Second Reading tonight.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for expressing that opinion and for clearing up this situation.


My Lords, perhaps I should again adjourn the House. I have already moved that this House do adjourn.