Born 70 years prior to the day I came into this world, up until that point Baroness Warnock had already lived a lifetime; well surpassing the recommended retirement age of 65 years before I had even taken my first steps. Broadcaster, dame and sometime academic-turned-politician, the former Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge has a wealth of experience. But nonetheless, this could scarcely be said to have left its mark. Coming up from London to deliver an address to the Oxford Theology Society, the Baroness was every bit as enthusiastic about engaging with students as they were with her. Rather than conceding frailty in her old age, Warnock quipped that she only pretended not to hear so that “those at the back of the room would learn to speak up!” Proceedings went over by an hour and, as you can imagine, there was a lot to talk about.

We began with the Assisted Dying Bill – a private member’s bill introduced by Lord Falconer to the House of Lords, and flatly rejected by the Commons back in September, 330 votes to 118. Counting herself among those who would rather see “the United Kingdom’s laws liberalised” than have terminally ill citizens flee in their droves to Switzerland, the Baroness spoke out in favour of Tony Nicklinson’s controversial case: the right to die.

“This isn’t going to come back for a long time now. It was really rather surprising, I think, how big a majority there was in the House of Lords for changing the law. Partly, this was to do with the judges, who have been so very definite that the law must be changed by Parliament – that they themselves couldn’t, on each and every occasion, decide whether or not to prosecute someone. But equally, the Commons surprised me, I must say. I don’t think anyone expected the Commons to be quite so strongly against it. So, we are where we are. Public opinion has got to express itself before it can come back again.”

The mere fact that the bill was proposed in the House of Lords has come under scrutiny, reigniting tensions, and resurrecting that age-old question: what is the appropriate form, and role, of the Lords? And why should we have an upper chamber packed with hereditary peers and appointees?

Baroness Warnock writes off the prospect of an elected bicameral system, branding it “a recipe for disaster.” In effect, she claims that it would amount to “equality of power [and]… of legitimacy with the House of Commons.

“As things are, the House of Lords is perfectly prepared to admit that the House of Commons, as the elected chamber, in the end, has the last word. So, the House of Lords can try improving legislation, and does improve legislation, by amendment, and sends it back to the House of Commons. And it’s quite amazing how many of the House of Lords’ amendments are accepted. One can tell by looking at a bill how often the House of Commons actually accepts what the House of Lords says, but if they don’t, then they must have the power to disregard the opinions of the other elected chamber. If that weren’t so then one could imagine completely impossible disagreement that could have no way of being settled if the House of Lords were elected.”

Where the constitution is concerned, the Baroness believes that “continuity is very important.” Something the veteran crossbencher found difficult to stomach during the reign of New Labour was Tony Blair’s dangerous “highhandedness” in tampering with the office of the Lord Chancellor, removing it from the cabinet altogether. Rather than the reform, the Baroness explains that it is the apparent lack of appreciation for tradition and procedure that she finds “shocking.” That the position was “difficult to explain to outsiders” or that it was seen to be an appendix of historical circumstance was by the by. Running roughshod over the constitution is unacceptable, an unthinkable act for any Prime Minister. The Baroness is least swayed by argument s calling for the disestablishment of the Anglican Church – the institution, as she understands it, being woven into the fabric of our political life. However, it is interesting to note the clash between the Church as a congregation with its own particular doctrines on the one hand, and its pluralistic function on the other. Does this not invite a certain brand of Anglicanism, that of the ‘low church’ variety? 

The Baroness wrangled with the dilemma, concluding that there was a great degree of “overlap” or “agreement” nowadays between different denominations; be they Methodist or Roman Catholic. All things considered, however, she makes the case that this is largely due to “the entrenched hostility” between Christians and Muslims, which has had the net effect of pulling churches closer together “much more than they used to be.”

Picking up on this point we moved into a conversation about assimilation – of incorporating aspects of other cultures into the pantheon of “twenty-first century British culture and identity.” I mentioned the thoughts of Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who asked whether acceptance of Sharia law should be seen as a natural growth of British society or as an unwarranted imposition.

Warnock was keen to stress that there can be no “concession-granting” or deviation from the norm in the application of the law. Disproportionate treatment is “something that cannot be tolerated in a nation of laws where everyone is said to enjoy equal rights.”

Secondly, she pointed toward practices that are widely frowned upon, seen as an affront to vast swathes of the public, or to what is termed ‘the British sensibility.’ Female genital mutilation and divorce laws, of course, fall under this bracket.

More generally, our discussion of rights pushed farther afield, eventually turning, in the end, to that of animals. “Our attitude to creatures other than human beings has changed markedly over the past century or two,” she exclaimed, attributing the shift – at least in part – to the theory of evolution. Darwin ‘closed the gap’ between humans and the rest of nature, but in doing so Baroness Warnock asserts that it is fit and proper to keep perspective; in other words, to remember our privileged place among the animal kingdom.

“There are laws against cruelty, and I’m all in favour of those being carried out and people being prosecuted, who treat their animals cruelly. But as for right, constitutional rights – it strikes me as complete nonsense to speak of the rights of animals. That is, the way that they ought and ought not to be treated, for that’s a moral question. To have rights, you must be able to claim them, and have them conferred upon you by citizenship, or something else.”

Cherwell would like to thank the Oxford Theology Society for helping to arrange this interview. Their term card may be found here:
http://www.oxfordtheologysociety.co.uk/