Religion, law and the constitution

Balancing beliefs in Britain

How would you describe your religious or ideological identity?

I’m a Jew, an Orthodox Jew. My family came from Spain in 1490, we were expelled by Ferdinand. And the Safardi branch of the family left for what is now the Middle East, and settled actually in Israel, in Tzfat. So my family’s been living in the north of Israel in Tzfat for 600 years. Some went to Livorno, Leghorne, and entered the United Kingdom in 1690. My father’s family were Askenazi and came from what is now Prussia, Pomerania in about 1702 so may family is a long-standing Jewish family, which is slightly unusual in Anglo-Jewry, because most Anglo-Jews that have been in Britain for that long are totally assimilated and don’t, aren’t practising and are mostly not even allied with the Jewish community, I mean there are exceptions, my family has remained relatively Orthodox and all three of my children I would regard as being rather more Orthodox than I am actually. Erm, out of choice, I mean that’s how they are erm.

First of all do you think that Great Britain is an equal and tolerant society particularly in relation to religion and belief systems?

With my tongue in my cheek, he didn’t like that (laughter) but the reason why I start off like that is what is ironic about Richard Dawkins sums up the answer to your question. Richard in a sense rails against the very beliefs which in my view have shaped British democracy. The reason why British democracy is fundamentally different from what happen in 1681 and what preceded 1618 and 1648 in what is now Germany is that already by that time there was a starting of the ascent of Anglicanism. Which in the 18th century was very predominant in Britain and in my view the irony of Richard Dawkins is that he rails against the very values with which he was brought up. Arundel school, a Christian foundation, Oxford University which is a Christian university, New College which is very much a Christian college and of course the chapel of New College is one of the great wonders of Anglican religion. And to my mind I think the Anglican religion has shaped British democracy to a very large extent.

Together with that, it’s tolerance. It has been a very tolerant country, which is why I think we have been fairly early with a whole range of tolerations that were not. Whilst we were not very good at giving women the vote, in fact we were rather late compared with much of Europe, we tolerated religious minorities in way that many European countries have not, and even today, even though there is a claim that there is British Anti-Semitism, I feel that that’s a great deal less than it is in most parts of Europe actually. And I think it is probable the same is true about Islamophobia.

Whatever you think of multicultural societies and I’m not sure I really think much of multiculturalism. I think Britons on the whole have really tired quite hard to integrate people with differences in way of life and to some extent of course in their Constitutional involvement. We have a difficulty with the Scots……

Well, they’re remaining with us in the British country

And you know, what’s interesting the most intolerant example of British behaviour is seen really at a football match between Spurs and Arsenal now I mean that quite seriously. Grace Davy wrote a book called ‘Believing But Not Belonging’ which you may well have come across. Where she argues a modern version of religious bias is seen absolutely on the football ground. She quotes Liverpool as being an example where there’s almost a religious fervour where the bishop comes out and blesses the crowd. People sing religiously and hymns are even sung in way that’s not actually religious, but not in the conventional sense.

So, no I think we do live in a, I’ve gone-a very long winded answer for which I apologise but I do think we do live in a society which is absolutely forged by its religious background. So I think for us, er the Reformation was very positive. Having said that of course, it’s not to say that Catholics didn’t suffer hugely in Britain at various times. And of course there was anti-Catholic feeling even in Victorian times. But I don’t think that’s fundamentally different from the sort of things which happened in Central Europe. I mean when you consider the virulence of some aspects of Calvinism for example, deeply Anti-Semitic for example, in its concept. The Lutheran Church which was very rigid and indeed parts of European Catholicism, which you know, I think have been a problem for many people. The French Revolution was essentially a tolerant movement, Rousseau and so on. But by and large, it didn’t fundamentally alter the…..the difference is it didn’t fundamentally, I think, maybe I’m being very, very opinionated here, but I don’t think it fundamentally influenced the French state of mind…ultimately, when the revolution was over. That’s interesting……-Er, whilst our revolution, which was a great deal more peaceful by the time of the Restoration in 1660 whatever, it’s very interesting how Charles II comes to the throne and is immediately forgiving of religious minorities to a very large extent. And although Catholics were disenfranchised in a Protestant society, and I suppose, you know in Parliament to some extent they still are, because we have you know, conventions that we can’t have a Catholic monarch. We’ve never had a Catholic Prime minister, although Tony Blair came very close to being a Catholic, but there was comment about that of course.

How easy is it for you to live in accordance with your faith in this country? Bearing in mind what you said, I can know the answer…

I haven’t got much to add I mean I, erm, I’ve never found it being a problem being openly Jewish. I occasionally get Anti-Semitic emails, very, very rare. I mean I had one during the Scottish election where somebody wrote me an email saying that they were pleased that Scotland was Zionist free. Well, I mean that sort of pathetic….

That’s shocking

Well, it’s not shocking really, it’s rather silly. I mean it’s, I don’t take that very seriously, I don’t take it seriously at all. Erm, but I haven’t seen the sort of bias that I saw when I was in Belgium. For example, I lived in Belgium for a year doing research, and there was no question that in the university of Leuven, if you were not a Catholic and practising as a Catholic you would be, you would find it very difficult to get a professorial chair in many departments. And indeed, the most able scientist in the department that I was working in was a lapsed Jesuit and he was passed over for the chair of that department because the Church did not regard him as being, you know, a good person to have even though he would have been the best professor by far that was on offer.

So I think, you know, I’ve never had that in Britain. I’ve never seen that. I mean, maybe I’m unaware of it. But I don’t believe that in Imperial College I’m the slightest bit at a disadvantage for being Jewish.

How does Judaism regard human rights? Has it contributed to or has it influenced the world’s understanding of human rights?

Well Judaism is about human rights. I mean Judaism almost founded human rights. The notion was from very early on, Mosaic law argued that kings weren’t the appropriate way forward, that actually you had to have representative government. So of course right back from the….Judaism is about freedom. That’s why the celebration of the Passover, the leaving of Egypt is so important, because it’s essentially about release from slavery. And that actually meant that you had to have a people who with all their faults would actually be, have that respect for fugitives from justice for example, that those cities were set up. And although there was a death penalty, er what is remarkable in Judaism is that the Sanhedrin, the great court of Israel, only actually condemned one individual to death ever, although there were penalties like stoning and hanging and the rest of it. There was only individual who was ever actually condemned to death until Adolf Eichmann was condemned to death, much against the will of very many Jews actually. And there was a great deal of discussion about that. What’s interesting about the Sanhedrin, that committed a person to be condemned to death, it was called the Bloody Sanhedrin. It was marked down as being an intolerant group of judges, so these penalties may exist, but it’s very different from some religious laws in other countries which would be much more assertive of these needs for punishment or retribution.

Are there any ways in which Judaism has practical influence on human rights in contemporary Britain?

Yes, I think there is. I mean I think it’s very interesting for example in Parliament when the lawyers were debating the Human Rights Bill a huge proportion of those lawyers were Jewish…..a huge proportion. And if they weren’t Jewish they were very philo-Semite in their approach. And I don’t think that’s entirely an accident. I think it’s something which is absolutely deeply ingrained in the Jewish consciousness. And it’s contributed to the Christian approach. And of course, you know, we forget that Christianity and Judaism are from the same root and you know the same Scripture applies to both religions and to a very large extent I think those concepts under different sorts of revision have been maintained by the Christian church.

Do you think that human rights are generally respected by the British government and other public bodies here in Great Britain?
I think there’s no question of that because of course not only are they respected but when we make legislation, parliamentary legislation, we look to see how that effects human rights and we look to see how it might affect the court of human rights too, which of course is quite independent from the EU. It’s an independent body….sometimes, people don’t realise that…

Yes, so many of our students confuse them both

But they’re quite separate, and of course whilst we might have very grey views about the European Parliament, I don’t think that many people would criticise the court of human rights in the same way, I mean that’s seen as being a paragon. And I think you know it’s important in any society that you have that judicial approach. Of course our judiciary was essentially to a large extent religious in its approach. Israel’s judiciary now is very much so. I mean it’s a completely independent judiciary in the Supreme Court and it would certainly follow religious principles but not necessarily religious law. And I think that helps strengthen and maintain what it sees as infringements of human rights, particularly for example minorities in Israel. For example, when Arabs have been mistreated that would be upheld as being abhorrent in Israeli law by that court.

Do you think that that State here in the United Kingdom interferes too much or not enough in the lives of individuals?

We have a very interesting situation in Britain because we still have an Established Church. The Queen is the defender of the faith and she’s an Anglican. And we have in Parliament 24 bishops, 2 archbishops and 22 bishops who are the senior bishops in the Anglican Church, the confession. And whilst there’s been massive discussion about removing them from the House of Lords under Constitution reform because religion no longer plays a part in our society nobody’s bitten the bullet and I think unless there’s a major reformation of the House of Lords they will remain in the Upper Chamber, as I think they should. I mean my view the Anglican church’s presence in the House of Lords is not only justified but an advantage. Because I think that what the Anglican bishops do is to present a different focus on the ethical issues which are often considered, particularly in the upper house so we deal much more with many ethical issues. In fact the best debates in Parliament are the ethical debates generally. Assisted dying would be a very good example. The use of embryos for human research, those would be….perhaps animal….animal experimentation those things would be and are regular ethical debates which we have in this country. And I believe we have…..and now this sounds very chauvinistic but I believe that we have those debates at a higher level than most European governments. I think they’re much more rational, much less strident, much more authoritative and much more cautious, without being if you like, how shall I say that, without preventing a freedom of expression.

Occasionally there are interesting conflicts in this respect my interest in Parliament first really was in 1985, when there was a massive attempt to restrict and prevent embryo research, human embryo research. Which is when I started really getting active politically, I mean not in party political terms. Enoch Powell brought in a Bill called the Unborn Child Protection Bill which had it passed would have pretty well prevented in vitro fertilisation from working. Now, that Bill was hugely supported by Catholics, who made a massive presence in Britain and who actually were getting a sizeable majority of the electorate on their side, who hadn’t really thought about the issues and what it really meant, in why people like me believe embryo research is important. However, we’re also a society which uses contraception and it became increasingly obvious that a free society, a single religious denomination such as the Catholic denomination should not be able to impose its deontological view on legislation, where individuals only are affected and not society. And in my view that’s one of the reasons why I think to some extent the Catholic church lost some ground in Britain. It did so because it didn’t, it wasn’t able to argue constructively in a way that wasn’t actually seen to be quite intolerant of something which needed toleration.

Contraception was a key issue, but it also let the door in for very, very liberal laws on embryo research which are more liberal than almost any other civilised country in Europe, probably America too. In fact we regulated embryo research but we are able to do research we certainly can’t be done in Germany, can’t be done in Italy is much more limited in France and so on, it’s certainly more limited in Switzerland. Even though those countries may not actually be particularly religious, none the less, religious influence on the political system. Now you can understand why that happened in Germany, Germany of course was very sensitive because of what had happened by 1945, but I think it was very interesting to see bishops in the House of Lords certainly not objecting to either contraception or embryo research.

And that I think was helpful, it was certainly helpful to me and I think that, again and again I found a huge amount in common with the Anglican bishops who were looking at the……and you could argue okay that the Anglican religion doesn’t stand…it’s weakness is that it doesn’t stand for anything. Well I think that isn’t true. I think that is something which is often said of it. I think that it has its problems and of course they’re going through a massive issue at the moment which is the issue of the ordination of women. Which Judaism actually has brushed under the carpet. And we’ve escaped massive argument about that but it will crop up eventually, but somehow in the Anglican confession it was more important I think than it is in Judaism.

One final question if I may within this part of the interview, when do you think the state should interfere with people expressing their religious or ideological convictions? Through actions or lifestyle choices?

Well I think you see it comes back to Richard Dawkins which is why I started with Richard Dawkins, to my mind science and religion are in many ways expressions of the same doubt about our existence. We explore the universe because we don’t know where the universe is going, what’s beyond it, what the nature of matter is..what the nature of the human mind is….all those are scientific questions about which we’re uncertain and we try to investigate. Religion is about our spiritual uncertainty and for many people it’s a very important cohesive force. In my view although people have called it the root of all evil, in my view it’s very far from that. In my view on the contrary… know the history of religion. Even the 30 years war, the 30 years war is seen as a religious war and everybody says well it was Catholics against Protestants you’ve got erm Frederick on one side Elector of Palatine and Ferdinand on the other side and Spain somewhere fiddling around with its Catholicism trying to involve the Hapsburg monarchy with the need to impress Catholicism and so on on Europe. But actually, ultimately, it really wasn’t about that it was about power. As soon as Denmark and Swede got involved it was nothing to do with religion, what they’re interested in really is their assertion of something quite different. And I think again and again we always see wars in Europe as being religious, wrongly.

I’ve got off the track a bit with this but my point is this and it is relevant, because in my view both religion and science are compatible and I think complementary. Because they are to deal with the exploration of things that we don’t understand around us. So they’re about uncertainty. But having said that, when religion becomes certain then it’s as dangerous as when science becomes certain. And I would argue that scientific certainty is very dangerous for our society and I think religious certainty is very dangerous as well….because it’s what breeds the fundamentalist element, which we see in all religions. So you might see fundamentalists erm Jews on the West Bank of Israel demanding that this is their God given right to be on that particular piece of land without negotiation. Equally, you might see religious Christians demonstrating outside an abortion clinic in Middle America, saying that this woman has no right to have a termination of pregnancy and the doctor should be stoned.

Do you think that living in a Parliamentary democratic society makes it easier or harder for you to live in accordance with your faith? Is there any other form of government which you would consider preferable to a democracy?

No, I don’t think I would actually. I think I like the British democratic system. I think it’s preferable on the whole to most European democracies. I think it’s more meaningful. I prefer it to the American system in many ways because I think the American system is strangely polarised and also very insular. American society is insular and their democracy is insular as well. It’s very much even now limited to what’s best for America, it’s quite true. And in Israel I would argue that a problem for Israel has been proportional representation which has let the strong voice of religious parties have too much in say in democratic issues. Israel is not really a religious society, you know one tenth of Israel is probably practising Judaism in a real sense, they’ll be more people who think of themselves as Jewish in a slightly more loose sense, but I don’t think and I think Israel’s a very interesting example. Israel is a true democracy unquestionably and a true parliamentary democracy but it finds it difficult to function as a democracy because of the alliances that coalition governments need to make. And so therefore you end up with uncomfortable decisions about things which are populist.

Which we avoid in a two party system which we have in Britain and I rather hope that we loose the Liberal Democrats at the next election, I think that we do better with a straight fight between two parties in Britain. I’m not a great friend of coalition politics and that may seem quite a long way off your question but I don’t think it is, I think it is quite relevant. And I think that whilst we see people groaning at the bishops in Parliament sometimes, it is interesting that in both Houses of Parliament the session starts with prayers. In the House of Commons it’s with a minister of religion who is appointed to the Commons and in the House of Lords we have the bishop for the day whose on duty that day. And I think that’s symbolic. And I have no doubt that when Charles is finally crowned as King of England he’ll be crowned in Westminster Abbey, he will receive the orb and sceptre and oil in a tradition way which represents absolutely the Christian element in our democracy, which I think offers at the very least stability.

And in my view rather more than that, it’s an expression of more than just stability in our democracy. So I think the two are intertwined in Britain. And I think for all the difficulties we have at the moment and what’s happening with the issue of more power to English people to decide their own views in an increasingly devolved government. All those things are true, but they won’t actually I suspect change the fundamental nature of how we think about democratic principles in Britain.

Well, part of it has already been dealt with but just to go back to this very important theme. Is it a good or bad thing that the democratically elected body, Parliament has the final say here in the United Kingdom in making and changing law, or should in your view be limits to the ways in which the UK Parliament can make or change the law? In other words, we’re probably thinking of the relationship between Parliament and the judiciary. Should judges have the power to strike down legislation as in other jurisdictions, the United States and other European countries?

Well, it’s a very tricky question. In my view the convention constitutional position is the supremacy of parliament, which I think has to be right, I would agree with that. And of course the judiciary does actually effectively interpret law, because of course it will go through what Hansard has said it will go through what the House of Lords has said and it will take a view about what the House of Lords meant in a debate. So in a sense the judiciary does that. Where of course the issue may fall down is perhaps when individual ministers, particularly prime ministers and home secretaries decide that they want to interfere with things like sentencing. And in my view, that’s a very dangerous principle. I think that has to be left to the people who are most expert and have actually listened to the evidence in court and I regret that politicians from time to time, usually for populist reasons have wanted to impose harsher sentences on prisoners or accused individuals or convicted individuals on the grounds that that’s what the people wanted. But you know the ultimate example of this in Britain must be surely the death penalty. We got rid of the death penalty of this country a long time ago even though at the time there was no question that the majority of the population wanted it. So in a democracy Parliament decided that in spite of their being a democratic principle that they represented the people of Britain they voted against the death penalty in both houses. I think that’s a very good example of how sometimes the supremacy of Parliament sometimes is a very good issue and I think that that has to be right.

Otherwise I think you have chaos. Have I covered your question? I think I probably have.

Do you think that an understanding of democracy as the will of the majority of the people is a problem for minority groups? Do you think that parliamentary democracy is inclusive of all groups and citizens in society or is it difficult for some people to participate?

Not enough but it’s getting there. We have increasingly numbers of Muslims in Parliament for example. We have a number of black people who we wouldn’t have had before, twenty years ago. So we are including minority groups, religious or not. There are a large number of Jews in Parliament, far more actually than are in proportion to the population. There may be reasons for that, maybe it’s to do with demography and they may be coming from particular educational backgrounds or whatever or it may be that Jews are quite interested in politics I don’t know. I think that it crops up from time to time that they’ll be assertions made about a piece of legislation which are primarily driven by the private religious views of an individual, that must always happen and it may not be right way to go about things. But on the whole I think that Parliament sees its way through these issues and arrives at collective decisions in that respect which are quite effective.

Do you think that it’s problematic that member of the House of Lords are not elected by the citizens?

No, on the contrary, I think it’s an advantage. I think that it would be disastrous for this country to have an elected House of Lords. And I think the problem with the House of Lords is that there are too many of us, and I think it’s not taken seriously. But it’s worth bearing in mind that during the last session of Parliament, this government, for all its faults and there are numerous examples of knee jerk responses from our prime minister in my view-and that’s not really a political thing, Tories would agree with that-was not defeated once in any vote in the House of Commons. But the government was defeated over 100 times in the House of Lords so the response of David Cameron our prime minister, was the response which Tony Blair had, which as to try and pack the House of Lords with more like-thinking people. That it my mind is a misuse of our democracy.

The House of Lords has a very important function which is not well understood, it makes it very clear that it will not vote against a political decision or a bill which has been in a Parliamentary manifesto and therefore has been the subject of an election. It operates the Salisbury convention, so for example what is very interesting the moment this week, it what happens about devolution of Wales, Northern Ireland and England from the United Kingdom. Because of that’s not tested and not relevant to the Salisbury convention. I think David Cameron is going to have a lot of problems with the House of Lords. He’ll find that the House of Lords is not ready to lie down and have its tummy tickled, because he’s a made a snap-decision about what he sees as being appropriate in the Scottish election. I think it may be very difficult for him, but I think it’s an interesting example of where the House of Lords may actually have a great deal of wisdom. And in general when you look back at the history of the House of Lords in the last…I’ve been there almost two decades now. I was appointed by John Major in 1995, so it’ll be 20 years next year. You look back on the 20 years and you think it’s actually been extraordinarily good on a number of issues.

I remember vividly the two night debate we had, two days and two nights continuously debating the asylum bill which Tony Blair introduced. And we defeated the government. I was a member of the Labour Party and there a principle there of habeas corpus-there was a notion of the fairness of that legislation and the view was that if the police can’t get it right in 30 days then they’re incompetent. And the government didn’t want us to have this and fought this and fought this and fought this and eventually gave way to the House of Lords. So I think that the House of Lords is in many ways much more democratic than the House of Commons which is ruled by the whip system. You might belong-I belong to the Labour Party in the House of Lords, but there’s no sanction when I vote against my own side. And nor should there be.

Yes, there is far more freedom

That independence is an important part of that democracy. And I think that the bicameral system is quite a good example of how democracy can work with that expertise, so I don’t have any guilt about not being elected. And actually, if we had elections I’d resign.

That’s brilliant, two final questions within this theme if I may. You have already shown your whole hearted support to the presence of the Church of England hierarchy or bishops in the House of Lords what about having representatives of other denominations?
Yes, well I agree that that sounds right. And it’s something which is often debated and a lot of people feel it’s quite wrong that the Archbishop of Westminster for example, or whoever is the leader of the Catholic church in Britain, it would have been Cardinal Heenan at one point of course, is not in the House of Lords, although Heenan made it very clear that he didn’t want to be in the House of Lords. So, there certainly is a case for that representation, however there are quite a lot of lay Catholics in Parliament, perhaps the senior Catholic is the Duke of Norfolk of course. That may not be adequate for the Catholic church, maybe it feels it would like to see more official recognition.

The Jews have never hung out for the Chief Rabbi to me a member of the House of Lords, although of course the last two Chief Rabbis have both been members. Lord Jakobovits of course was, and he was probably a Tory at heart. And Jonathan Sacks, probably was left wing at heart really, although they were not political, they both sat on the cross benches. But they were not sent to the Lords on the basis of their religious representation, but more on their ability to handle ethical problems which were an issue. I think Jonathan Sacks unquestionably justifies that. Jonathan in my view, I would say this ‘cos he’s a friend of mine, but I would argue that he’s one of the greatest intellectuals of our generation. It’s not for nothing that he got a double-first in philosophy at Cambridge. He’s got a stunning mind and for all his faults, I think he’s a brilliant exponent of how we should think about human rights.
The problem comes down to the Muslims of course who are going to be increasing in Britain, we have what 3 million, something like that now, so what representation do they have? Probably not enough. We have quite a lot of Muslim MPs we have more members of the House of Lords who are Muslim but again we don’t have an Imam or an official Muslim presence. And you could argue, that there should be, but then of course the nature of the House of Lords is that now, with the loss of the Supreme Court, there’s no one expertise which is represented formerly, except the Church of England. That’s the only exception. So we don’t have the Law Lords. I mean, some of them might come into the House of Lords because they’re jolly clever and interesting people. But we don’t have representations from the medical profession, the scientific profession educationalists you know from a whole range of disciplines that we might have, in a formal sense, though they’re there informally.

I think if I was going to reform the House of Lords, I would want to ensure that there was a better appointment commission. To my mind the appointment of members of the House of Lords is seen too much to be a matter of patronage, and I think that’s deeply worrying. My private view and I don’t mind you writing this but it’s not something I want to say in the House of Lords very much. In my private view, I think there are a number of members of the House of Lords who might ask themselves really, whether they justify their presence there. They’re ex-political figures who have been put there because they are out of the way of the House of Commons, or they’re people who’ve been put there because they’ve done a favour to the current prime minister, perhaps given money to a political party, whatever. To my mind that’s not a good use, but actually all political systems are to some extent a bit corrupt. The level of corruption in Britain is pretty minor compared to many.

What in your view does Judaism teach about controlling people with power and keeping a check on abuse of power by rulers?

I think that Jewish tradition, way back, is undoubtedly opposed to kingship, kingship is not seen as something that worked and actually of course, by and large it didn’t work very well. Most of the kings of Israel were pretty corrupt. I think when the kingdoms of Judea and Samaria were finally abolished, there weren’t tears shed by Jews. It was the destruction of the Temple that actually was the watershed, which of course is still a watershed which effects Judaism now. But we don’t kind of pray or celebrate….the return of Jewish kingdom

No, no-one’s pining for a king

No, it’s not a caliphate, we’re not interested in that kind of approach, we don’t want a top down approach. And of course, that’s partly the very structure of Judaism. Judaism is not a top down religion. So the individual local rabbi is the person who advises you best and may actually advise you…my advise you against what is stipulated…..may interpret the Jewish law to suit the circumstances. So for example, there have been many examples where Jewish rabbis have made it quite clear that the official law should be broken to ease the suffering of people for example. And I think that’s a very well established principle in Jewish law, you have to take the law to suit justice. And actually, that notion of justice is quite a Jewish notion. What’s interesting about courts is that they don’t deal with justice they deal with the law, you know, in the secular sense. Courts are not in the whole interested in justice, although of course we have the scales outside the Old Bailey and so on. But actually, the notion of Mishpat is central to Judaism, this notion of justice is one of the three tenets of Judaism. Erm…..know what the Lord requires of you, to deal with loving kindness and mercy, respect justice and walk humbly in the way of your God. Those are the three points that are made in…..I think that’s the prophet Micah, which some of comes as a constant theme way back.

And I suppose kind of relating to that, what is your view of secular law? Is it important always to act within the law of the State or are there occasions when?

Yes, it’s essential. If you don’t act within the law even if you don’t agree with it, you run the risk of having anarchy. It’s as simple as that, and if you don’t agree with the law then you have every right to try and change it and in a free society you can demonstrate against it. We have that wonderful privilege which was not available to people in the Soviet Union or in East Germany or Nazi Germany, we have that ability to protest and to alter it. But we shouldn’t break the law. Except of course in cases of emergency when you’re going to do something which is better, there’s a notion of justice where you might save life.
So for example, I think it was perfectly justified for me when my daughter was bleeding during pregnancy and she needed her baby delivered urgently, to drive 8 miles across London at about 50 miles an hour breaking every speed limit and going through every red light. That’s breaking the law and of course it’s dangerous and I’m at risk in doing that, by to my mind it was justified because she would have lost that child. And now of course, had I killed somebody it would have been a different issue. But one has to be aware that you try to break the law responsibly, so you take that into account.

And I think we all break the law from time to time. The real issues of where law is very difficult to interpret of course is obvious, the law for example about how we decide what is a just solution in a matter of conflict. And that would be still one of the biggest arguments in our society. We had a debate on whether we should go in and bomb Syria two years ago. People now think that perhaps we took the wrong decision in Parliament, I don’t know, I mean it’s a very difficult decision, you know, what is just? At what point do you regard yourself as acting in self-defence or the defence of people on the ground at the risk of killing them.

Do you think that there is a moral or religious obligation to be an advocate for the vulnerable even if they’re not members of the….

Well there certainly is in Judaism. And I think there is in Christianity as well. And I think there is in Islam. The vulnerable are seen as being absolutely deserving, I mean there’s a notion in Judaism, it’s part of tzedakah, of charity. And of course in Arabic the word’s almost the same. Charity of course is what drove the Christian church to establish hospitals and places of refuse in the Middle Ages. So that notion of helping the vulnerable is absolutely imprinted in monotheistic religions, based I think on the principle that we are made, well the Hebrew is b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of God, that actually humanity is…there’s a sanctity to humanity and that must mean that we have to try to preserve human life at all costs. The greatest ethical principle is the notion to protect human life and that of course means exactly the answer to your question, which is not a Jewish thing, it’s a universal thing. Although I think of course, Judaism was the first on the map with it. Because before that you had the Babylonian and Assyrian laws which really argued literally an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. If somebody blinded you, you blinded them…..which is not of course how the Biblical view sees it. So I think that is important.

Do you think that we’re reasonable in this country about treating all human beings on an equal footing?

No, of course not. We’re not bad, and we don’t have a brilliant record, we don’t have a bad record. All societies are racist and actually in Britain, one of the biggest issues is how we treat handicapped people, we don’t always value them. But I think Britain’s enactment of laws to liberate marriage for example, same sex marriage, are a good example of how…. 15 years ago that would have been unthinkable, it would never have got through the House of Lords….it wouldn’t have gone through the House of Commons but it wouldn’t have got through the House of Lords. There were a few homophobic speeches, but nothing very serious. So I think that society constantly improves, it becomes more tolerant.

Is there anything generally that you’d like to say to us about religion and freedom?

Well, I mean Jonathan Sacks says you don’t have to be religious to be moral, but it can help. So his argument is that religion, and I agree with this I think, is basically a framework for behaviour it’s a skeleton, it’s an approach, and for me as somebody who’s not deeply committed to the miniscule aspects of practise, I mean I don’t work on the Sabbath and I tend to keep the dietary laws and so on, but those things aren’t a superstition, basically the acceptance of a framework which is probably rather irrelevant and somewhat irrational but you keep a framework because actually it’s rather like keeping the law when it’s…..even when you probably don’t need to because that is a kind of discipline that you get, that becomes part of your behaviour. And whatever the reason for those laws, whether they are religious or secular to some extent you can’t really choose them, you have to accept that that is part of the framework under which you live.

Robert Winston is a medical doctor and pioneer, best known for his work on human fertility. He is also a popular broadcaster and communicator, having done much to further the popular understanding of science and presented a number of radio and television documentaries, including the acclaimed BBC series ‘Walking with Cavemen’. He is an expert in ethics and also an Orthodox Jew who makes an active contribution to societal debate and the House of Lords.