Justin Welby: Political leaders should treat opponents as human beings

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Justin Welby speaks on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme as part of a special show guest edited by Dame Emma Warmsley
By Emily Atkinson
BBC News

The Archbishop of Canterbury has urged politicians not to treat their opponents as enemies but fellow human beings.

Speaking to the BBC, the Most Rev Justin Welby warned Britain’s leaders to avoid divisive topics.

But he said our capacity “to disagree deeply and not destructively” is cause for hope.

Later, he will deliver a new year’s message reflecting on global conflicts and his wishes for a “peaceful 2024”.

The archbishop’s intervention came during an interview for BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, which is being guest edited by Dame Emma Walmsley, chief executive of pharmaceutical company GSK.

Globally, 2024 will see more than half of the world’s population heading to the polls, with votes scheduled in nations including in the US, Taiwan, India, Pakistan, South Africa and South Sudan.

The next general election in the UK must be held before the end of January 2025, but it is up to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to choose when to call it.

Mr Welby said: “Democratic elections are, effectively, reconciled civil war. Reconciliation is about the process in which we can differ hugely, but not destructively.”

He noted that, up to the late 18th Century in Britain, its leadership was decided by “[standing] on the nearest big hill and… killing each other. That’s not what we’re proposing”.

The archbishop added: “But what we have, which gives me hope in this country and a number of others, is the capacity to disagree deeply and not destructively. We’ve demonstrated that for decades – centuries in some cases.”

He said this would be the “challenge for this year” as he urged leaders to “forswear wedge issues” that render their opponents their enemies.

“Actually, we have to say: ‘My opponent is never my enemy. My opponent is always my fellow human being. We disagree profoundly, we disagree on incredibly important things, but they’re human’.”

In his new year’s message – which will be broadcast on BBC One at 12:55 GMT on Monday – Mr Welby will speak of hope for a “peaceful 2024” and reflect on the wars between Israel and Hamas, and Russia and Ukraine.

He will say: “Jesus Christ tells us to stand with those suffering because of war, and to seek to make peace. And we trust in God who promises peace, with justice.”

Mr Welby will also speak of the central role the military played at the Coronation of King Charles III and how it “embodied” the theme of “service”. Speaking from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, he will note the same commitment to serve in Jesus.

During his new year message, Mr Welby will reflect on the Coronation of King Charles III in May

He reiterated this sentiment during his interview on Today, in which he urged the government, businesses, industries and communities to strive to be “our best human”.

This, he said, comes “when God is at the heart of our lives, when we serve and don’t seek to be served”.

He focused in particular on family, which he described as the “building block” of society, adding: “When they struggle, all of us should be concerned.

“It’s where we learn forgiveness, good social habits, to love one another despite each other’s failings. It’s a beautiful thing.”

The archbishop also spoke of being “hopeful” for the year ahead and for a healthier society in the UK.

In a nod a to AA Milne’s Winnie-the Pooh stories, he described himself as “more of an Eeyore than a Tigger,” adding: “Eeyores always assume that something’s about to go wrong. Tiggers bounce.

“But why I’m hopeful for this coming year in our nation is because we have an extraordinary story of overcoming the greatest obstacles – of rising above our worst selves, of coming together when we need to.

“There is no problem so bad in this country that we have not shown the capacity in the past to overcome it.”

Mr Welby was among those recognised in the New Year Honours list on Friday. He was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (RVO) for his personal service to the Crown during the Coronation at Westminster Abbey in May.

Awards of the RVO are in the King’s gift and are bestowed independently of Downing Street to people who have served the monarch or the Royal Family in a personal way.

The archbishop conducted the service for the Coronation and was tasked with anointing and crowning King Charles and Queen Camilla.

You can hear the interview with Justin Welby on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday 1 January between 06:00 and 09:00 GMT or listen on BBC Sounds.

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