To listen, forgive and disagree well - Baroness Sal Brinton interview

In a series of interviews, we ask a selection of Christians about what inspired them to participate in politics, how they build relationships, where they look in scripture for consolation and inspiration, and how they flourish amidst the pressures of political life.

We start with Baroness Sal Brinton, President of the Liberal Democrat party. Baroness Brinton recently shared her story at one of our New Wine Seminars.  Here we publish an interview conducted by Dunstan Rodrigues in October 2016 where she speaks about what sparked her political interest, the primacy of listening and understanding to maintain political relationships, and the importance of forgiveness.

What sparked or nurtured your political interest?

I grew up in a political family. In the generation above my father was a cousin who was one of the first Labour life peers. So I grew up with Sunday lunch being political arguments. Mary Stocks was the only person who could beat my father in arguments. I discovered afterwards that she was a suffragist (as opposed to a suffragette). I can remember, aged eight, seeing her as a very grand, doughty old lady who seemed to be very stern. She was the person saying: ‘don’t forget you can do anything you want, don’t let anyone tell  you otherwise’.

So my political thinking was that you have to learn to debate and listen; you can’t just argue back because you’re going to get challenged on your views. And, of course, my faith came into that. I was not going to have anyone telling me what I was going to do – I wanted to investigate the truth for myself.

What are some of the challenges for Christians showing up in politics?

We have a fundamental flaw in this country: it has not been fashionable for politicians to declare their faith. In fact it has been positively frowned upon. And the people who dared to raise their head above the parapet in the past were quite often shot at as being extreme.

I suspect part of that is the remembrance of the Civil War - we kept state and religion a long way apart ever since then.  I am really going back that far! If you watch what has happened since in politics over the last few hundred years, we just haven’t mixed faith in politics. By contrast in America the state was founded by a group of Christians who had a very clear view about what they wanted. And it has always been acceptable in America to talk about faith and politics. To the point now where I think things have gone too far in the opposite direction…

But in the UK we have a more fundamental historical issue that we as Christians need to overcome.

How do you build political relationships with those who are extremely hostile to your point of view?

You have to work hard at it and you have to pray about it.

Here is an example of how I as a Christian related to Humanists.

During the single sex marriage bill, I spoke to an amendment (which didn’t succeed at the time) that would allow Humanist celebrants to take marriages. I spoke as a Christian and liberal saying: in our society, if certain groups can do it, why on earth wouldn’t we let the humanists do it as well? If we allow Muslims, Jews and Quakers to do it, why isn’t there a large body of belief who are serious about the commitment of marriage not being able to do it?

At the time, I was criticised for doing this. 

I feel as a liberal that I can use my Christian example to say actually there is a space in society that is different to going to the registry office and signing on the dotted line, and it means something to some people, and therefore we should allow them to do it.

So what is the key to building and sustaining relationships in politics, even when there is disagreement?

The first lesson in politics and probably the hardest one for any politician is that God gave us  two ears and one mouth and we should use them in that proportion.

Jesus was very clear that we live in a world that isn’t all about his teachings and about God. There are others who haven’t heard that message and don’t follow it. And, as a politician, my responsibility is to listen to and talk to the wider community; to the wider world.

In my example, I listened and understood what the technical problem was; I understood why a registrar-led assembly was not good enough for Humanists who wanted to mark the occasion more than permitted at a Registry wedding.

As politicians, we have a duty to raise the non-obvious. As liberals we are there to speak up for the voiceless. When I talked to fellow Christians, they said ‘I haven’t thought about it from that perspective’. A Christian speaking for a Humanist is quite an unusual thing to do, I think.

When you are faced with a difficult situation, is there any particular message or parable that brings you consolation and guidance?

Politics is red in tooth and claw, especially in Parliament but also outside. One of the things that most politicians feel is deep anger when others have traduced them in one form or another. Or said the things that they believe are completely or utterly wrong.

The key message is about forgiveness. Jesus said you have to forgive not just once, not just seven times, but seventy times seven. Actually it goes for me too – I’m just as guilty.

‘The key message is about forgiveness’

I have learnt that forgiveness is actually very difficult. It is quite easy for a Christian to say but harder to do. Every day I have to seek forgiveness for not necessarily being able to forgive easily. That is my big one – that verse is terribly important to me.

And the quote that goes hand in hand with that is what my Australian grandfather used to call ‘no worries’ - you all know to which quote I am referring* . Because politicians often over-think. I’m constantly reminded to set politics in God’s world and God’s environment and to remember that we are a very small part of that.

We need to ask for that reminder whether we are sitting in the House of Lord’s chamber or out somewhere speaking to a small group of people who may never have heard a Christian politician. We are a microcosm of God’s plan.

* Matthew 6 25-34