Religion, law and the constitution

Balancing beliefs in Britain

How would you describe yourself in terms of religion or belief?

I’m a very religious person. I was brought up with Christian values and I think that it is very important to have a religious belief. Although in terms of Creationism, I am believe in scientific doctrine, I believe in Darwinism. I try to marry the two, there is nothing wrong with having a belief in God, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t question what the Bible says in relation to how we were created and how life was created.

Is this a tradition that you grew up with?

Yes, most families that come from the West Indies have a strong religious belief. I had to go to Sunday school very regularly and although I don’t go to church as regularly as I should, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a strong belief in God because I always do.

And what made you stick with this?

Out of personal choice. When you grow up and reach an age of maturity you have a right to make choices. I’ve always believed that God has played a strong role in the development of my life, and I strongly believe in Him.

Would you describe Great Britain as an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?

It always has been, it always has had a tolerant and a belief towards welcoming and providing a haven for the oppressed. Some may argue that in the light of current political thinking and views of society, whether that is now being questioned with the influx of immigration and people coming in from countries such as Syria. We appear to have some sections of British society questioning whether we are being over-tolerant in allowing these people in, but I don’t think that detracts from Britain overall as being a tolerant society.

Have you ever encountered any challenges living in accordance with your own beliefs?

No, I can’t say as I have. In Britain we have freedom of belief, freedom of worship, freedom of expression. I can’t see anyone stopping me or anyone else living in accordance with their religious view or beliefs.

Has the Humans Act and an increased awareness of human rights been a positive, negative or neutral development for our society?

I think it’s been a positive thing. Again, you have the reactionary right wing press and certain members of society, especially when they feel it’s been over-used, for example by the prison population. But human rights extends to all members of society, and if somebody’s fundamental human rights have been breached, even if they are on the outcasts of society they still have the right to actually pursue any breach of that right.

And how does your Christian faith tradition regard human rights?

If you’ve got Christian beliefs which mean practicing tolerance, then obviously it’s going to respect one man’s right to exist, one man’s right to freedom, so I think that the two are compatible. Because Christianity, although it didn’t do so in the Middle Ages, especially in terms of the Spanish Inquisition, but I’m talking you know about present day Christianity, because society has become more and more tolerant has the centuries have progressed. I think that it has played a large part in respecting human rights laws and respecting the position that everybody, especially in a tolerant society like Britain has a fundamental right to existence.

Do you regard living in a Parliamentary democracy as a good thing? Is there any system of government which you would prefer?

I’ve always lived in a society of freedom, I could not comprehend living in a society where my right to express my opinion, to cast my vote was severely curtailed because one person or political entity dictates otherwise. So Parliamentary democracy, democracy as a whole must be a fantastic concept, because everybody has a right to have a say in relation to the way in which the county is government, which obviously has a direct impact on how we live our lives. So democracy must be the best form of government.

Do you believe that you have a personal responsibility to vote? Is that a moral duty in your view?

I think if you live in a Parliamentary democracy you can be apathetic. If you take what is going to happen tomorrow in the U.S. Presidential election, the biggest democracy in the world. The people are so split, because it is based not on real policies between the two candidates, but political muck-raking and attempts to pull the rug from under candidates. And what you may find is that apathy may run so deep in a divided society that it may bring in the wrong candidate. And when I say that, I mean that I hope that Donald Trump does not win.

Do you think that it is a problem that members of the House of Lords have some role in the law-making process, even though they are not elected?

This unelected body, they are part of the unwritten Constitution and the way in which laws are passed. We have a three stage process, the House of Commons, which is a body by and large responsible for engineering legislation, which has to scrutinize. Unless you bring in an elected House of Lords then I don’t see any reason why you can’t have a second chamber, which can scrutinize and check to ensure that the executive doesn’t simply pass laws without having proper checks and scrutiny. So although we are talking about a body which is unelected, they are drawn nowadays…’s not like back in the 18th/19th century where they had a complete right of veto, because the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1945 have severely curtailed the delaying the rights of the House of Lords, because eventually it will be passed after one year. Which is not to say that the House of Lords doesn’t play an effective role in scrutinizing, to ensure that legislation isn’t simply passed at the will of the executive. It goes back to Baron Montesquieu’s theory in relation to checks and balances, so that the executive doesn’t exceed its powers. The legislature and the judiciary scrutinize to make sure that nobody exceeds the law.

Is it a good or a bad thing that senior Church of England bishops have a guaranteed place in the House of Lords?

I don’t see why not. The whole point of the House of Lords is to have people from all ranks and points of society, so the Lords Spiritual do have the right to sit in the House of Lords and comment. The views of the Archbishop of York and Canterbury are important in questioning any excesses of the executive, so yes.

What responsibilities does your Christian teach faith come with the exercise of power?

With power comes responsibility and it should be used responsibly. Living in a democratic society, people in power have a responsibility to use it not for their own selfish gain, but for the common interest. That may seem like a wishy-washy idealistic approach but it is correct in my philosophy and view.

What responsibilities do all citizens owe to society?

All citizens are subject to the Rule of Law, and we as citizens must adhere to and observe it. Otherwise there would be chaos, and people who are strong taking advantage of the weak.

Would you say that our politicians reflect society as a whole in terms of gender, age, sexuality, race and social class etc.? And if not, is there anything which can or should do about it?

It is better now than 40 years ago. There is one thing that I am personally pleased with is that women are at the top of most civilized, democratic societies in the world. Angela Merkel is the most powerful female figure in Europe, we’ve got Theresa May who is the current Prime Minister, and hopefully President Clinton will be elected tomorrow. The one thing which I am pleased about is the rise of women, and them playing a prominent and rightful role in society.

Is there anything further which we should do to encourage diversity or does it just have to be a natural process which filters out?

If you live in a tolerant and democratic society, where people’s abilities count as opposed to their class background, sexual orientation and the colour of the skin…’s important that talent counts more than anything else. I’m not interested in whether I’m being represented by an MP who is a woman who is bisexual can came from a working class background, whether or not that is the case is irrelevant, is she has got the talent to represent me then that’s good enough for me.

Has there ever been a political situation that you have felt so strongly about that you have wanted to take action to change?

I stood in the 2005 election as an independent candidate. I used to be a staunch Labour supporter, not so much now. Because my politics are to the left of centre, not extremely left-wing, I’ve always believe passionately in the Welfare State and supporting those less fortunate and not able to live well in terms of basic needs. I’ve always been a passionate supporter of that. The biggest betrayal for me as far as the Labour Party was concerned, was when they took away free tuition for students. I still have a gripe about that and that was why I stood in the 2005 election. I think that it would be hypocritical for a government which 40 years previously had the benefit of free education, and now following the American model. I think that sometimes, American doesn’t provide a good model. Now we are going to saddle future generations with intolerable debt. I felt so strongly that I decided to stand for election.

In your experience of dealing with public authorities, has there been an appropriate awareness and respect for your beliefs, and any needs which might arise from them?

I have not come into any direct conflict in relation to my religious beliefs and public authorities, so that hasn’t really affected me in any way, shape or form. But I can imagine that other religious groups may have a different to tell, but that isn’t for me to say. I for one haven’t had my religious beliefs compromised or involved in any direct conflict.

Is it important for you personally always to act within the law, and why or why not?

It is important not just for me but for every member of society to act in accordance with the Rule of Law, because if you don’t then how can society function? Government, individuals, anybody must be subject to the Rule of Law……without that society cannot function.

Do your religious beliefs require you to speak out against injustices affecting third parties, especially the weak and vulnerable?

Not just because of my religious beliefs, if I see injustice I’ll speak out against it. For me personally, the two do not go hand in hand. You do not have to have a religious belief to recognize injustice when you see it, and if you do see injustice then I think that it is incumbent upon people living in a tolerant society or in positions of responsibility to actually voice their opinion in relation to justice.

In your perception is the Rule of Law applied equally to everyone in UK society, or are there some groups which experience preferential or prejudicial treatment?

Yes, I do think that it is applied equally. Certain sections of society may have a particular advantage because of their membership of the political or economic elite, but regardless of whatever elite you belong to, no-one is above the Rule of Law. We all are all subject to it and accountable for own conduct. That is why you see large multinational companies being taken to court and rich bankers being held to account and in some cases prosecuted, they are not above the law, nobody is.

How do you feel about the general trend towards an increase in police powers over the past 15 years? Has this been a necessary evil to cope with a changing world, or an overreaction?

Obviously, it’s a balancing exercise. On the one hand the police do a good job, on the other hand there has been a trend towards laws being passed which have to some extent eroded human rights. But speaking as a professional lawyer, it is important to have laws so that nobody is above the law in relation to any conduct which could be perceived as criminal. But by the same token, those laws must be seen not to be arbitrary, unfair or reactionary. It is a balance in my view. But laws are there to ensure that conduct which is criminal is covered and that there are no loop-holes.

Is there anything which you would like to add?

I am proud of the English legal system which I am a member of and I think that it has been a beacon and an example for other societies around the world, especially in relation to the quality of our legal profession and the independence of our judiciary. The one thing which has concerned me over the years, especially in relation to the gradual erosion of Legal Aid, is that more and more people are denied access to proper representation and justice. I do publically funded work and I think that it is a crying shame that people are denied justice on the grounds that they cannot afford it. And that cannot be right living in a democracy.

Shaun is a barrister and television personality. He has been a practising barrister for over 32 years with extensive in a wide range of serious criminal cases from murder, money laundering, firearms and drug trafficking. He has also lectured in Environmental Law, Health & Safety and Road Transport Law.

Shaun has regularly appeared on television quizzes winning the coveted Mastermind title in 2004 and regularly appears as “The Dark Destroyer” on the hugely popular ITV Daytime quiz show, The Chase.

Shaun also devotes a lot of his time to Social Enterprise Work speaking in schools, colleges and other institutions especially in some of the most deprived parts of the country.