Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Gladstone Lecture!

A delightful return to comforts of the National Liberal Club last night to observe a lecture delivered in my name; it is intended I note to become an annual event and indeed the club continues to heap excessive flattery upon myself by displays of my portrait and bust.

The lecturer was the member for Berwick, Mr Alan Beith, who piled unwarranted honour upon unmerited praise by making references to my "towering" status. His words were excessively generous, if pleasing to the heart; for I continue to search for traces of any legacy I might have bequeathed the nation. I would have hoped to find a people liberal in Christian generosity rather than liberal in conduct, a nation still wedded to the British Liberal Party that we created. Indeed sometimes I fear that Beaconsfield might have won the day, that this has become a nation where the interests of self predominate. Yet when I reflect I also find much to commend in the achievements of Great Britain over the last century.

This was not the topic chosen by Mr Beith, who delivered a masterly exposition upon the relationship between Christian belief and Liberal politics. His central thesis - and I believe Mr JS Mill would have applauded it - is to be passionate in one's own belief whilst also passionate in defence of freedom of speech. Indeed he cited in support of his case my defence of Mr Bradlaugh, the atheist whom I assisted in gaining membership of the House of Commons.

Of particular interest was that Mr Beith chose to discuss the topic that I mentioned in my last essay; that is the question of the role of the Church in modern England. He is I understand of non-conformist stock, a Liberal MP of long standing, representing the great traditions of our party. It is therefore remarkable that it appears the Non-conformists and I appear to be now largely in agreement on this issue that once divided us. Indeed Mr Beith made the self-same case as myself, that the present role of the Church is not offensive to people of religious faith although it may be offensive to those who would wish to remove religion from our nation. With great wit, Mr Beith listed the impact of attempting to remove Christianity from Great Britain, the necessity of removing the crosses of St Andrew, St George and St Patrick from the Union Flag, the requirement to rewrite the National Anthem. We are in agreement that the Church needs to keep a separation from the State, to be a voice distinct from that of the Government, prophets of our time.

In conclusion Mr Beith set out the principles whereby MPs might place their private conscience above the constraints of party and the demands of the electorate. The principles are commendable; the question that remains is how many MPs possess a private conscience.


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