Me and my vote: Richard Holloway

The former Bishop of Edinburgh: 'The election is a bit like an Olympic Games - only you've got paraplegics battling against truly able-bodied athletes, rather than a contest of equals.'

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, author of Godless Morality, and general thorn in the side of the Anglican Church, must be one of very few who is ‘actually enjoying the general election campaign’. Really?

‘Yes, really – though I’m a bit of an election junky. Most of the country might have turned off, but I find the politics of it, the actual issues of it, quite exciting. This is the people’s chance to make a difference, and I don’t think that can ever be completely boring.’

But Holloway thinks he understands why ‘everyone else seems to have switched off’ – because the election is so obviously a one-horse race. ‘You get the impression that the election is a bit like an Olympic Games – only you’ve got paraplegics battling against truly able-bodied athletes, rather than a contest of equals.’

So who will the former bishop be siding with come 7 June – the paraplegics or the Olympians? Holloway will be voting Labour, as much ‘out of tribal loyalty, and giving them another five years of the benefit of the doubt’, as out of a commitment to the New Labour programme. ‘I’m a Labour Party member and I’ve always supported them in the past – but there are some things about New Labour that depress me.’ Such as?

‘Their approach to the asylum issue’, says Holloway. ‘There is a willingness to pin the accusation of racism over the asylum issue on to the Tories, but I think New Labour has just as much to answer for. There seems to be this arm wrestling competition between Jack Straw and Ann Widdecombe over who can do the most to turn away, and badly treat, asylum seekers. My message to the political parties would be: we need asylum seekers, they are good for the country, and we should let them in.’

Another thing that ‘depresses’ Holloway is what he calls ‘New Labour’s fraudulent war on drugs’: ‘The government’s focus on drugs has distorted the debate, by always pointing to the dangers and risks, without having a rational discussion. The fact remains that two of the most addictive drugs, alcohol and tobacco, are freely available – and you have to ask why other drugs remain illegal and so surrounded by taboos.’

So what would Holloway do about drugs policy? ‘I would quite quickly allow the legalisation of cannabis. To people under the age of 45, cannabis is just a normal part of growing up. Just as older generations have normalised the consumption of alcohol and tobacco, so younger generations have normalised the use of hash. You have to ask what gives our society the power to say that some substances are bad and others are not – that approach just isolates younger generations who see cannabis as their form of tobacco. After legalising the use of cannabis, I would like there to be a serious discussion about what we can do about other, harder drugs.’

What about heroin and cocaine? Calling for the legalisation of cannabis has become a trendy thing over the past five years – with even everybody’s favourite New Labourite Mo Mowlam admitting that she has had a puff in the past – but surely even the self-styled ‘extremist moderate’ Holloway would not argue for the free availability of class A drugs?

‘What I would like to see’, says Holloway, ‘is a serious discussion about all these issues. Obviously, you could not just legalise all drugs overnight – you would need a grown-up debate on the subject. But there is an argument for even making harder drugs legally available. If some of those drugs were available to addicts through medical prescription, as they are in Switzerland, then there would be fewer of the problems of crime and degradation that surround those substances.’

If you knew nothing about Richard Holloway, you might be surprised to hear a man of the cloth sound like one of those new-age types who marches to ‘Free the Weed’. But this is the man who made his name as a moral relativist, for whom even the question of whether or not he believes in God does not have a straightforward yes or no response: ‘I am haunted by the strangeness of the universe, by its sacredness as well as by its obviousness – from time to time I have crossed invisible thresholds into other dimensions of reality – another way to put this is to say that I believe in God.’ (1)

When his book Godless Morality was published in 1999 – arguing for the separation of God from morality so that moral decisions could be taken on a secular basis – Holloway, then the Bishop of Edinburgh, was attacked by fellow clergy from across the world for undermining traditional morality. Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey said it was ‘unacceptable’ to ‘turn our back on scriptural insights and teachings’. Other bishops were less guarded, with the Archbishop of South-East Asia denouncing the book as ‘horrendous and heretical’ and others calling for Holloway to be tried in a ‘heresy trial’.

So having argued that God should be taken out of morality, does Holloway now think it’s time to take morality out of politics?

‘The problem is, New Labour has got morality a bit topsy-turvy’, says Holloway. ‘They are moral on inappropriate issues. They seem to have little morality on the “macro” issues, like poverty and the weapons industry, and then too much morality on the smaller issues, of how we live our everyday lives.

‘I don’t think it is the place of politicians to tell people what kind of substances they should ingest or what kind of sex they should have. These are not areas that the government should have any role in. It should be up to individuals to decide if they want to experiment with drugs or engage in whatever form of sexual encounter. New Labour should keep well away from those areas.’

Holloway would also like to see the separation of Church and Crown, ‘but again this is not going to happen overnight. Even if there existed the will to do it, it would probably take a whole five years of parliament to see through. Anyway, the English prefer to let these things wither away rather than confront them. If Prince William decided he wanted to marry a Catholic we might get a bit of a discussion and some action – otherwise it will just go on as it always has done, I expect.’

So is there anybody in mainstream politics who Holloway admires? Apparently not. Holloway argues that those who are ‘most committed, most Christ-like, most singular in their beliefs’ tend to be on the margins of society rather than in the mainstream. ‘To get into mainstream politics you don’t have to necessarily be corrupt, but you do have to compromise – which I think is probably a form of corruption, corruption of ideals.’ Holloway prefers people who stick to their guns – which is why he ‘admires Peter Tatchell so much’, and caused a storm in 2000 when he named the bishop-outing, Canterbury-protesting Tatchell as one of his five ‘Christ-like’ figures of the modern world.

So how long before we have a gay Archbishop? ‘Goodness’, says Holloway. ‘I think we’ll have a gay prime minister long before we have a gay Archbishop. But perhaps one day.’

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Read more Me and my vote interviews

(1) Winning lashed as bishop bows out, Observer, 12 March 2000

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