There follows a transcript of former Minister Lord Frost’s appearance on the Irreverend podcast, where he talks lockdowns, masks, Net Zero, free speech, the Online Harms Bill and more. Watch the podcast here and listen here. The Irreverend podcast is hosted by Church of England vicars Daniel French, Thomas Pelham and Jamie Franklin. From the episode blurb:
Until recently David Frost has been at the heart of the U.K. Government and has been deeply involved in seminal moments in British history including the Brexit negotiations and the Covid crisis. A deeply principled man, he quit the Government over his opposition to further Covid restrictions and has subsequently said publicly that he believes that lockdowns are a serious policy error. In this special interview, he addresses in-depth the Covid crisis and the real reasons for the Government’s response to it, the use of behavioural psychology, the relationship of the Government to the U.K. media, Brexit, the green agenda, free speech and the Online Harms Bill. We also speak about the Church of England and its failure to take the opportunity to offer hope in the midst of fear.
Jamie Franklin (JF): Well we’re delighted to welcome to the show Lord Frost, David Frost. Thank you so much for coming on to Irreverend and joining us for this discussion.
Lord Frost (LF): It’s great to be here. Fantastic to be here. Looking forward to our discussion. The three of you and this podcast has been so important to me over the last year, as you’ve kind of talked about things that others really have not and have talked about things in a way that others haven’t, so it’s just great to be on, so thank you.
JF: Well, I can hardly believe I’m hearing you say that!
Thomas Pelham (TP): It’s extraordinary really isn’t it, given that we’re no longer two curates and a rascally voice, as you were dismissively named weren’t you, Daniel, by His Eminence Welby? But sort of a group of rather un-influential clergymen who, I guess we just tried to do what we could when we saw an injustice, but the rest of the church seemed to remain rather silent, with notable exceptions. But I’m not quite certain how we’ve got here in a sense, you know?
Daniel French (DF): I think it’s fascinating, in that yesterday the Times leaked this document from the Church of England about its restructuring, this constant need to get the perfect top-down solution and this kind of maybe shows what three guys, three vicars can do with an iPhone!
JF: So before we talk about ourselves too much, I’m sure Lord Frost that the absolute majority of our listeners will know who you are already, but for those who don’t, or perhaps aren’t fully aware of who you are and what you’ve been up to, can you give us some idea of who you are and in particular what your role has been in Government over the last couple of years and you know, perhaps more broadly?
LF: Sure, absolutely. Well, I’ve spent most of my professional life as a Diplomat, so I’ve been posted mainly in the nicer end of places one can go, and I finished up as Ambassador in Denmark and that was all great. I left the Civil Service about 10 years ago as I got kind of frustrated with the way it worked and in particular frustrated with the direction of travel on Europe and I went off to run a big trade association, a scotch whisky association, for three years. And then more by luck than judgement I was put in touch with Boris, with the PM as he now is, and I went to work for him, first when he was Foreign Secretary. I stuck with him when he left and came back in when he became Prime Minister and since then, over the last two and a half years, I’ve been the EU Advisor. I picked up the EU negotiations in the slightly messy state they’d been left by Theresa May and our predecessors and got us out of the EU. People may agree or disagree with that, but anyway we did it, and since then been dealing with some of the loose ends as a Minister until I left last month, the proximate cause of which was the decision to bring in the Plan B restrictions that I’d said I wouldn’t live with and I didn’t and that’s why I’m here now.
JF: Yeah. So, in many ways you’ve really been at the very heart of Government, deeply involved in the central issues, like as you’ve just said, Brexit and Covid, so you’ve been at the heart of Government at pivotal moments in what will turn out to be significant aspects of British history?
LF: Yeah, I think so, I think, you know, the last two and a half years certainly have been a period like no other. The first six months or so after Boris became Prime Minister nobody knew what was going to happen, you know, almost literally day to day, whether the Government were going to survive or not and how. But I think we did our historic duty which was to deliver on the Referendum result that people had voted and whether you agreed or disagreed, we thought the right thing was to make it happen. So that’s what we did, and it has been an extraordinary experience and I think it showed up the strengths of the way British Government works, and many of the weaknesses. And, of course, we haven’t been so reflective about it as we might have been because we were overwhelmed by the pandemic almost immediately afterwards, and that’s where everything has been since then.
JF: Yeah. Go on Tom, you go.
TP: It’s quite noteworthy actually, you’re sort of thinking back, and I think you’re right. Leaving the EU was something that I was quite passionate about for quite a long time. Ever since I was a student actually. Mostly, and we might talk a bit more about this later, to do with what I feel the incompatibility of the common law and civil law systems, and I think that’s an incompatibility that the pandemic has shown actually. I remember Matt Hancock, we’ve said it before, but I believe he told Cabinet, “We’re gonna have to be adopting a sort of civil law system through this period,” which already got my hackles up actually, because I think common law has protected the freedoms of the citizenry, the subjects of Her Majesty the Queen, for many, many, many centuries. But the point you make about the pandemic wiping out quite how much of an achievement that is, or diminishing it, is quite sad. And it’s also quite worth reflecting that back when Boris was first Prime Minister, we had all that trouble with, shall we say, an unruly Parliament and we cursed the parliamentary powers, in the sense of ‘why aren’t the Executive a bit stronger’? And then we got to the pandemic and the balance swung dramatically the other way. The Executive were discovered to be over-powerful and Parliament without the sufficient artillery to counter it. And there’s something there maybe, have we lost a sense of the balance of our constitution, is the question I guess I want to ask you?
LF: It’s a big question. I think what went wrong in 2019 was almost a kind of Cromwell-style takeover. Parliament decided to have a go running the country, or at least EU policy, itself, without being accountable to anybody. And our system just can’t work like that, and I think that’s why it just didn’t last for very long. I think our system is basically an adversarial one, it depends on organised political parties. It depends on manifestos and being committed to them and delivering them. I think the problem with the pandemic was we didn’t have any organised opposition, so nothing was tested. The Government found it very easy to get through all kinds of controversial stuff and it was only the growing unease I guess around people like Steve Baker and others that eventually, it was impossible to stop the debate entirely, and again eventually in our system it came out.
JF: So, lots of people, certainly lots of people who listen to this show, I think there’s been a sense of, which I share myself, a sense of shock really over what’s happened over the last couple of years. People who voted Conservative and lots of people who would be in the pews in Church of England churches could never have imagined they’d have a situation where the Government would be telling them who they could and couldn’t see and the various other unimaginable things that have happened over the last couple of years. That’s been shocking in itself but then there’s also been this sense that the Government and politicians in general have been moving towards this sort of homogenous kind of globalist agenda, which takes in things like COP26, the Net Zero agenda, you know the woke agenda and identitarian politics, and indeed a more authoritarian approach to Government in general, which Tom says is far more Napoleonic in tone than British. So, lots of people are looking at this thinking how on earth have we got to this stage? And as you say although things with Covid appear to be ramping down, there are still other things which appear to be authoritarian and quite worrying, like, I would cite, the Online Safety Bill, which I think is quite worrying in some ways. Could you, Lord Frost, help us to understand your perspective of being an insider to all this? What exactly is going on in politics to cause this drift?
LF: I think it’s a really good question and it goes to the heart of where things are at the moment. I think there’s no doubt that there is a very strong globalist current if you like, in the world that is around COP26 and all sorts of other things, and the kind of assumption that the right solutions to everything are international, they are international treaties, leaders getting together and so on. And I don’t think you need to resort to any kind of conspiracy theories about this. I think it’s just leaders spend all their time talking to each other, and certainly for Western leaders if you want to be thought of as a kind of decent, right-thinking person, you tend not to get too far away from what all your peers think. So that’s why the path of least resistance is to go along with climate policies, for example, or to fall in line with received international thinking on things. And I think that’s why national democracies are so important because it’s the push back. One of the frustrations we had in the EU was that national democracy didn’t matter. Whatever we decided at elections, if that wasn’t EU policy, if it wasn’t EU law, there wasn’t anything you could do about it. It’s less extreme internationally, globally, but it’s still there, so, national democracy is really important as a way of keeping people in touch with what the man or woman in the street thinks about things, and how they see the world. That’s what we achieved, I think, after Brexit, but it’s just the beginning.
DF: Would you say that the pandemic has highlighted something within the EU system, that now we’re out of the EU, we see a collection of nations who seem to relish, particularly relish, the powers, mandates, centralisation, it seems to highlight something which really goes against British way of thinking. Now we have obviously had lockdowns, but I just get this feeling that they are going to be in for it for a lot longer than we are.
LF: Yeah, I mean, certainly what you see across continental Europe is really quite worrying, they’ve gone a long way further in vaccine mandates and lock downs than we have and there seems to be generally a lot less political push back against it. There are more people on the streets arguably, in some places, than there have been here, but that’s probably a function of the fact that the political classes aren’t voicing any of this, so people don’t have any alternative. The whole EU system was really designed to stop inconvenient popular opinion from disrupting what governments wanted to do. It’s overt. That’s not a conspiracy theory, that’s what Monet and others wanted to do, to build the organisation. But the problem is, the more it’s got integrated and the more powers it’s taken on, the closer it gets to the core of national life and what’s really important to people, and you start getting this reaction. I think the vaccine thing in the EU is a really good example of where all the EU leaders just thought ‘obviously we’ll be able to do this better at EU level than at national level’. They didn’t really test it. They allowed Von der Leyen and her team to get on with it and it proved a bit of a mess. Meanwhile we got on with it and got ahead of the game. And I just think that’s so important, and actually the EU itself would probably have come to better decisions if it had had a few more of the Europeans saying ‘Hang on a minute! We’re not so sure about this!’
JF: Can I ask a question specifically about the beginning of the lockdown and how this all happened? Tom, just before we were recording was saying, what’s the thing about Toby Young’s theory about Boris, Tom?
TP: Toby Young, of course, I believe he knows Boris through school, or something doesn’t he? They were pals. He maintains, it’s the big debate on the Delingpod isn’t it, is Boris Johnson essentially trapped? Is he a Libertarian, liberal Prime Minister who doesn’t like what’s happened but what he is being forced to do it by realpolitik and is itching to let us out? Or is there more buy-in from him? I suspect the answer’s not quite simple and binary like that because these things never are. But obviously there’s the collegiate nature of Government and there are other Ministers, Michael Gove, Matt Hancock, who are obviously in different places entirely, though Michael Gove has recently apologised actually, so maybe hopefully he’s moving away from it. So, is the Toby Young thesis correct? Is that where we are?
LF: So, I don’t think a Prime Minister can ever be, kind of captured by the system, the PM always has the power to decide what they want and ask for whatever information they want and come to their own conclusions. So, you know if there are failures, I think that’s part of the reason why. I think, I mean, I wasn’t in every meeting in the very early days of the lockdown because we were trying to get going with the talks with the EU. But I do think Boris was resisting it but there simply wasn’t enough hard information. Nobody knew for sure in March quite how dangerous it was. Nobody really knew how fast it was spreading and so I don’t find it that surprising that in that moment if one erred on the side of caution. It’s more what came after. And for 12 months the repeated refusal to interrogate the models, to look at the evidence, to think about, hang on, is it as bad as we said? Are some of the things we thought about it at the start still true? And to adjust the position. That’s what I found most frustrating as far as I could tell and that’s why I got so sort of depressed from seeming to be going round the cycle again at the end of last year and luckily, we managed to stop ourselves somehow.
TP: Well, I don’t think it’s just luck is it, I mean, the hundred in Parliament and indeed arguably your own resignation I think were not luck, they were organised resistance at the highest level, so I think you can take some credit for our freedom actually Lord Frost, I say that seriously.
JF: Can I just ask one extra question here. I hear what you’re saying about the beginning of the pandemic, and I remember I listened to your Planet Normal podcast, and you were talking about the way, you know, Boris was sort of looking for other information and it sort of wasn’t there right at the beginning. The thing, I mean, I hear what you’re saying, and I accept it, but I remember very early on reading an article by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian of all places, talking about the way that Neil Ferguson’s track record was absolutely appalling in predicting outcomes from pandemics. And that was very early on, in the first couple of weeks of the lockdown I think, and that raised significant questions in my mind. That sort of information, particularly, I think, about mathematical models, that was all available. So, it does still seem a little bit odd that Boris didn’t have somebody in his ear saying, ‘why don’t you get a second opinion?’ Or something like that. What’s your view on that?
LF: So I think, I mean, there were people saying that and it’s hard to remember now just how weird it seems and seemed at the time, and we’ve all got used to it now. But at the time I was just incredulous, and you know, we looked at the Italians and the French and others doing it and thought this can’t possibly happen here, and yet it did. I think it just, but I think what was happening across Europe was part of it and it would have taken a huge amount of political courage, very high risk/reward to have got it right like the Swedes did. But if we’d got it wrong it would have been disastrous, so I think there was risk aversion, and I don’t really blame him. I think it was how quickly we came out of it all that was, in my view, the real problem here. We just sort of got stuck.
TP: Yeah. We did, didn’t we? Because I remember three or four weeks in thinking the goalposts have shifted, haven’t they? Because obviously Boris was still ill, recuperating, and his Ministers didn’t feel able to bring us out on their own, and yet, we had a clear peak before the lockdown had come in and the NHS was demonstrably within capacity, even at that peak. So, at that point one would have maybe hoped that the leadership could’ve been there to take us out really quite quickly and we wouldn’t all be complaining about this two years later. But Boris was ill, who knows if he hadn’t caught it, or had a milder dose, who knows where we’d be now?
LF: Yeah, it might have made some difference, I think. I’m not sure. I think once governments have taken big decisions like that, the tendency is to look for evidence as to why it was the right thing to do, rather than admit you got it wrong. And even two years later we can see that. You know, even now, virtually every country in the world has tried a lockdown, and yet to me there is still no conclusive persuasive evidence that lockdowns really prevent the spread of the virus or do more harm than good. Surely, you’d be able to expect to see that now after two years if there was evidence. And yet, the establishment still finds it really hard to admit, globally, not just here. And this refusal to kind of interrogate what you did and look at evidence, it’s quite a common government thing I think, it’s just that this was such a massive thing and it brought it home to everyone that this was a big problem in the way Government worked. And we’re sort of stuck with it a little even now.
JF: Yeah. It’s the so-called sunk-cost fallacy.
LF: Yeah, exactly.
JF: So you’d say that, because there’s been a lot of speculation about that, you’d say that has quite a lot of explanatory power, once the initial decision has been made?
LF: I would say so. I think just reluctance to admit that, you know, we got things wrong, and, at each occasion, the second and the third lockdowns, it’s just been the safest thing to do, and nobody has wanted to go out on a limb against it. And that’s sad.
DF: I thought it was interesting, particularly in the first lockdown, to see how many civic institutions and grand bodies, from say the police, teachers’ unions, healthcare workers, schools etc., seemed to go completely overboard on this. And I always used to wonder, why aren’t they being reined in? You know, police officers with drones on moorlands.
JF :That was near me, in Derbyshire.
DF: In the middle of absolutely nowhere. Police going around beaches.
TP: Enforcing guidance!
DF: Or school unions being so over the top in terms of taking the supposedly safest option. I find that kind of betrayed something, it revealed something that since the Blair revolution we’d lost part of our nerve as a society. Particularly the police, I found that very interesting that here was an organisation that two or three years ago was, whether it’s right or not, moaning that they wanted more resources to handle crime and yet suddenly they found all the energy to arrest granny having a birthday party! Presumably those County Lines hadn’t disappeared during lockdown.
TP: Quite the opposite.
DF: Criminals hadn’t stopped doing crime, and yet the energy seemed to suddenly go to this sort of authoritarian mode. I found that bizarre, that in this country we didn’t sort of pull back on that and say ‘Come on, light touch chaps’.
LF: Yeah. I found, and I think you Daniel wrote an article in the Mallard last year where you said it had been unnerving and I thought, when I read that, it was exactly what I thought. It captured it. And there was something deeply weird about the whole experience and I was trying to sort of work out what it was that was so weird, and I think there are two aspects to it. But one of them is definitely what you mentioned. The way that everybody suddenly swung behind the messaging, all of civil society, including the Church, obviously to a large extent but as you say everyone just sort of, they seemed to see their role as being an echo chamber for the Government and oversimplifying everything, it feeling kind of disloyal to question any of this, and the whole thing about banging pans on your doorstep and so on. I mean, it just felt quite totalitarian and, in some ways…
DF: Like the duct tape on the children’s benches.
LF: Yeah. And it felt worse because it was, in inverted commas, for a ‘good cause’. Normally totalitarianism is for bad things, and everybody knows they’re kind of bad. But it made it worse that we were all in this together and it was for our own safety. It somehow made it even harder to challenge. And that’s one of the things I found so weird.
DF: Very contrary to the meme that was popular for the last decade of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.
DF: I noticed it has disappeared.
JF: Panic and Stay at Home.
TP: Panic and change everything. But this is something that’s worth talking about really because the way that the public swung behind it wasn’t just chance, was it? It was actually part of, there’s a Government agency whose job is to nudge and to use and develop psychological techniques to help nudge and control us. There’s no other way of putting it, that’s what they do. Whether that’s a benign thing like ‘lose a few pounds’ or whether arguably not such a benign thing as ‘become terrified of a virus’ and react in a completely over the top way. It’s there and it’s been exposed a bit now, hasn’t it? But did you come across them at all?
LF: I didn’t directly, I think the nudge way of looking at the world is fairly deeply embedded now. The unit had existed for 20 years or more, sorry 10 years when this started.
TP: It was Cameron wasn’t it, yeah?
LF: We had already had minor key ways of using it, don’t put chocolates at tills in supermarkets kind of thing and so on. So, I think it was sort of quite already embedded in the way people thought about things, so some of it just happened naturally. Again, I don’t think there was a secret plot to turn the British population into robots. I think they probably just used a lot of the things that were there. The Government was scared that people wouldn’t obey so they over-egged it a bit. And then pulled back and it’s obviously gone in really deeply. I remember having conversations with people about that particular case, the drones in Derbyshire and all the over-aggressive policing we saw and saying, ‘Why are we doing this? Surely we don’t need to do this?’ And people saying well, no, we do, because the law is in place, and we must stand by the police to enforce it. So, it just was deeply strange, the whole thing was just strange.
JF: Laura Dodsworth says in her book that she thinks the use of behavioural psychology is actually undermining of the entire democratic process because it affects people on a subconscious level. And therefore, it’s arguably unethical, but it’s certainly the case that we should be having some kind of national debate about it. Do you agree with her analysis?
LF: I do. I wouldn’t go as far as she has in her book. I think it is a bit over-egged. But I do, I’ve never liked this sort of behavioural psychology way of looking at things. I think governments should, a politician’s job is to have ideas and persuade people of them, not to try and trick people into doing things that they think are in their interest because who says they are in their interest? Your value judgement at the centre, you’re imposing it on others, and I don’t think you should do that without actual debate about things. It should be out in the open.
TP: It’s this sort of reversal of, I’m reminded of the Collect from the Book of Common Prayer, the prayer for Her Queen’s Majesty, where in the Communion service there is this wonderful clause, duly considering whose authority she hath, where the people pray for her. And it’s interesting that even in the time of when it’s written, of quite absolute power of the monarchs, there’s acknowledgement of where the authority is coming from. It’s actually the people whose legitimate authority is invested in the Queen, and now is invested through the Queen into Government. And so actually what this nudge unit does is, it inverts that authority doesn’t it? It turns them from our servants, because governments are fundamentally the servants of the people, to being our masters, where they can decide.
LF: I think so and I just don’t think, I mean, it’s partly a product of governments trying to do too much and too many things and feeling they are responsible for the safety and wellbeing all the time, and therefore they have to take the measures that they feel they need to make this happen. And I just think it probably has gone a bit far. We need a bit more debate about this. I don’t think it’s the only thing that underlays the problems with lockdown though. I think there was a lot more to it in the different strands that produced the problems that we got.
JF: A related issue is the relationship with the corporate media and the Government. I can’t remember what the exact figure is, but I think there’s been over a billion pounds spent on advertising by the Government over the last couple of years with the U.K. media. I might be getting that figure wrong, but it’s an awful lot of money. Is there an ethical issue there about the Government having so much control over the mainstream media and therefore the closing down of any kind of significant debate over these issues?
LF: I think there would be if it had been sustained. I think the, I mean, obviously all this money that’s been spent has been quite helpful in the short run to media that had financial difficulties in places. But I do think that, again, in the early months there was a war-time atmosphere almost, and this feeling everyone should get behind the Government, and if Government have to spend a bit of money, then fine. That was how it was. It hasn’t lasted though, and I think the dissent has come in papers like the Telegraph and the Mail somewhat, the creation of GB News. It’s turned out there’s a massive audience for these opinions, so it hasn’t really been possible to kind of hold the line on this. The debate will out and in the end, media responds to it.
JF: And that’s something we in a very small way have benefitted from as well. I think it relates to this whole area of freedom of speech and freedom of expression and I think that is one of the things that people found so disturbing over the last couple of years. The sense that any sort of questioning or any speaking out a different opinion about these things was somehow, not only was it not in error, but you were somehow being irresponsible and wrong and maybe even you were doing something illegal. That was a very disturbing thing to feel. And, segueing into a more contemporary issue, it seems to me that we might have a residue of this with the Online Harms Bill that’s being proposed at the moment, which appears to me to lump in criminal activities with activities which are not criminal. So, this is to prevent the proliferation of video tapes of violent crimes for example online. But also, to prevent the spread of ‘Covid misinformation’. Where do you think we’re at with the question over freedom of speech and public debate in this country and do you have concerns about the Online Harms Bill?
LF: I mean, I do. I think in a way this was the other thing I found so disturbing about the last two years, the way opinion has been, it would be an exaggeration to say it has been controlled, but it’s definitely been policed on social media to quite a large extent. Again, one of the odd, unnerving things about this was the way official opinion has just switched over on certain questions, like in the early days, masks didn’t work. Now masks do work. Even though as far as I can see the evidence is pretty marginal at best on that. Or the whole thing of the lab leak. Suddenly that became okay to talk about again and I think it will prove to have been very short-termist for the Government not to have criticised that much more strongly and stood up for freedom of speech and the right to debate things and the right to accurate information, because next time there’s a major crisis of any kind, whether it’s health or whatever, the value of Government information has been weakened. People aren’t sure whether they are getting accurate information or merely what the Government wants to communicate at that point and that is really a problem I feel.
TP: It sort of gets worse though, it hammers into the whole cornerstone of what you are allowed to know because science is fundamentally an adversarial pursuit isn’t it? You have a hypothesis, you try and disprove it, is actually the right way round I believe, you try your darndest to disprove it and you try your darndest to prove it and other scientists have a go as well. But if you suddenly find that the Government are policing Covid misinformation, you can be sure that the universities will get behind that. Suddenly those research grants won’t be going to those who are questioning the Government line, will they? Because that’s misinformation. But our knowledge base will crumble if we do that.
JF: It’s even more extreme though isn’t it because it’s criminalising the speech as well, so it’s very extreme. Sorry, Lord Frost, I didn’t mean to interrupt.
LF: No, I do, I do have worries about the Online Bill I must admit, and I’ve not properly looked at the detail yet, partly because it keeps changing, but to me there’s a difference between trying to stop something happening online that is unarguably illegal offline and trying to stop things happening that aren’t illegal, but it’s convenient. I’m not sure we’ve got that line right, as far as I can tell, with this Bill. The whole misinformation seems to have become the new word for ‘fake news’. Maybe fake news got a bit boring so there’s a new word needed now but I just don’t buy the concept. I kind of buy it at a simple level like, there’s a fact whether something is red or blue for example, but at the sophisticated level where you’re having political debate, whether something is correct or not sort of depends on what you’re trying to do. It may be correct for one purpose and very bad for another purpose, so that’s what political debate is about. So, I just don’t think you can bring quite the same standards to this as you do for objective reality. You have to keep talking about it.
DF: And isn’t it the case that, particularly in British history, minority views, or you might even say heretical views, have been ones in the end that have come round and saved us. It is that lone scientist or historian or politician who has called out something and then after a period of time people have retrospectively said, ‘Yeah, this was the prophetic voice that we needed to hear’. And it seems like the policing of all speech and information at that level, we lose something as a society. We lose maybe our innovative edge. That’s my own view.
LF: I don’t believe you can have a free society, a successful, modern society, if you don’t allow people to debate things as freely and fully as possible. It feels like a real, I think it’s a really bad sign that we are letting social media get away with this.
DF: I’ve noticed that in that respect those on the edge of some of the Covid debate whereas before cranks would have been seen in a benign way, as part of the British culture that we have these mad dogs and Englishmen types, but now they’re quite vicious, those who have real minority opinions are pushed down vilified and othered. I find that particularly disturbing and anti-British.
LF: I agree, and I think one of the effects is that it marginalises people who are not cranks but just have a different opinion and you can see this happening, that people are forced to the extremes all the time because if you’re going to be condemned for a reasonable opinion then you end up talking to people who have been condemned for all sorts of other maybe less reasonable opinions, and everybody gets in their echo chambers. You can see that on masks. I’m always baffled by the attachment of the medical establishment to masks, but anyway, I think the reasonable thing to say about masks is that possibly there is a very marginal benefit. I don’t think that is outweighed by the downsides of having masks and that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to debate. So, I definitely come on one side of that debate. But the effect of the way it’s been, has forced everyone into the extremes so that for one bunch of people wearing a mask is virtue-signalling, and for another it’s quite the other, and if people can’t talk to each other and engage with each other, then it’s a very bad sign. We won’t get the best solutions and it’s a very bad sign for a cohesive, normal free society, I think.
JF: How do we encourage re-engagement would you say? I mean, there’s been an awful lot of damage done to civil discourse. Do you have any thoughts on that? How do we do some repairing?
LF: So I think there’s, some of it is probably, there isn’t much we can do about and the only thing you can do is kind of ignore it, you know sort of Twitter wars and this sort of thing, and pile-ons, you’ve just got to delegitimise it. I think politicians can do a bit, by not playing the tactical game of gotcha all the time themselves. The media not playing that. I think politicians now have an ability in formats like this to talk at length, get their views across. Try and get people to understand the nuances and the ins and outs and the trade-offs and it surprises me that more politicians don’t use this format because it’s very clear from the market of people like Jordan Peterson and so on that there’s a massive market to hear proper discussion about things and engage with it. So, I think probably politicians have got to take the lead a bit on this. I don’t think the mainstream media will very easily. Communicate the arguments, explain why you’ve reached your decisions, treat people like adults and say some things point one way, some things point another way, this is what we’ve decided to do. And try and get people to understand.
TP: I just wanted to sort of briefly dip back into the Online Safety Bill. One thing that I’m surprised that the Conservative party aren’t a bit more concerned about is that when we have eventually, presumably, another Labour party or a Liberal Democrat party who are far more interested in policing speech than say the Tory party traditionally is, the moment you’ve got the door open to this sort of idea, I would be worried that a party might take it a bit further, maybe someone associated with the Black Lives Matter movement might suddenly think that criticism of that kind of political movement might become part of the narrative that you’re not allowed to do this misinformation. But is there a problem in the values, in the core of the Conservative party? Are they losing a grip of what they were is the question?
LF: No, I think actually there’s quite a degree of simmering unease I would say about this Bill that hasn’t properly surfaced yet and I think partly it’s that people don’t want to be at endless war with the leadership. We’ve just had a massive trauma over Covid and all of that and so on, so the appetite to take up something else and start another civil war is low. So, I think that’s part of it. But I do think there’s quite a bit of unease and I think it may yet bubble over. I think there is also the worry that nobody wants to get on the wrong side of the argument, of people saying, ‘Ah, okay, so you’re in favour of violence on the internet?’ and so on. So, it’s very easy with the simplified political debate we have to find yourself having become stigmatised. But I don’t think this debate is over yet, is my guess. I think a lot of people see this as probably quite problematic, and I personally think the best thing would be to go back to the drawing board on it and do it properly. But we may have to do the best we can.
JF: Yep. Can we talk a little bit about the role of the Church Lord Frost? I want to ask you what your view is on the role that, I suppose, specifically, the Church of England, has taken over the last couple of years, in particular with the Covid crisis but in various other political crises as well. What’s your take on that to begin with? And then, what would you like to see Bishops in the Church of England, and leaders more generally, saying and doing over the next couple of years or so?
LF: I say anything with caution because obviously I’m not a regular churchgoer, it’s not my institution and I know more about some things than others. I would say, I was trying to think, how would I characterise myself for the purposes of this podcast and I kind of think of myself as a, I don’t know whether this concept exists but, as a sort of non-practising believer if you like. I kind of intellectually accept lots of Christianity as an explanation of the world and the rich tradition that goes behind it but I’m put off by the church itself and certainly what I found over the last couple of years was, at a time when, I don’t think I was unusual in this, at a time when you’re forced to confront questions of life and death and normality and what was life all about, the Church just wasn’t there and the Church seems to have been quite slow in getting back there as well. I’m sure it varies but a sort of reluctance to open the doors, reluctance to get back to normal on services, does seem to be massively variable depending on where you live and local enthusiasm. So that’s one thing. When I wanted the Church to say something it didn’t seem to want to say anything. I just feel massively disappointed and frustrated by that. I think the other thing that struck me was just the, a bit what we were saying earlier, the sort of shallowness of the messaging and the way the Church became an echo chamber for public health and avoiding risk. And when you think of the depth, 2,000 years depth of Christian theology and explanation of the world and this is what you get, it just seems so disappointing. So that’s what I feel, and I think there are others like that who really want something serious and aren’t getting something serious.
DF: I wish I could take that clip and just play it on a constant loop because Tom, myself and Jamie have been, I think it’s no understatement to say, overwhelmed by the number of emails and letters and I suspect our other halves say, ‘Oh, here’s another fan mail come through the post again’, and what you have said is almost word for word the letters that we receive several times a week in the post and certainly almost daily in email. This sense, I think Tom Holland the historian has picked up on this as well, this disappointment that when the moment came for the Church to speak into the narrative of fear with the message of hope we instead got this health and safety echo chamber, and the whole supernatural medicine in a sense that we had to offer was put to the side and it’s very frustrating because I can write about this and say it to colleagues, and watch them roll their eyes and say ‘Oh, you know, he’s overstating it’. Our feeling, looking at the nation as a whole that quite a few people have felt what you felt Lord Frost, and the Church missed, or is missing, an incredible opportunity to engage. We’ve also had lots of emails from people who had a movement within themselves towards re-engaging with Christianity. They might describe themselves as post-agnostic and then have struggled to connect with the local church because a) it locked them out or b) because the Minister just doesn’t seem that particularly fired up by their new-found faith. So, thank you for what you said because I think that underlines what we’ve experienced.
LF: That’s so interesting. It’s, I just think, you know, again, the whole Jordan Peterson phenomenon side of things just shows that people want something to engage with. They want seriousness when most of public life is pretty unserious and trivial. And the last two years have been a time for seriousness. I mean, if we’re not serious then, when are we going to be? So, I don’t think the Church has been unique in this, just, I wanted more really. And yet we’ve got this, the church seems so much to reflect the day-to-day political pre-occupation and be very managerialist and doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining Christianity to everybody else. And I’m lucky in a way, I think I’m one of the last generations that was taught the doctrines of Christianity at school and went through university and so on. A lot of people just don’t seem to know. The fundamentals are simply not there, and it feels like a huge failure and disappointment.
TP: I think part of the issue is that in all seriousness the Church has done its best to, you quite rightly spoke about 2,000 years of ethical thinking that we could have brought to this and yes I think we can, but the church has done its best to forget its past in the last say 30-40 years, that’s seriously been a project of liberal Protestantism which infested the Church of England in the 60s and 70s and 80s, and so we lost our liturgy that had that direct connection with the past. We lost a lot of the structures of the church that spoke to me. We also lost a sense of Anglican identity in our training and in our ministry, in pursuit of ecclesiastical union. Which is all very well, but there’s a sense in which the Church of England has lost part of its soul and has rejected part of its birthright and is giving quite thin gruel to a lot of parishes around the country. This was a problem before the pandemic, and I think the pandemic has highlighted it. We have leaders who found something that they believed in more than the resurrection of Christ, which appears to be ‘stay at home, wear a mask, and wash your hands’. It’s sad.
JF: Yes, it’s very sad.
DF: The mental health landscape is quite awful subsequently and faith can speak very directly into that with the message of hope and transcendent truths. I’ve noticed even this last couple of days that Synod is talking about mental health, using mental health jargon, fair enough, but it’s talking about mental health in the context of mental health, rather than mental health in the context of spiritual health. And that strikes me again, as Tom was saying, as a kind of progressive virus, like a computer virus has gone through the Church to poo-poo the spiritual.
TP: You’re getting in the realm of those people who are set aside to perform exorcisms. The chances are, if you go to your spiritual, I can’t remember what they’re called in modern jargon, but the sort of people who might be experienced with praying for relief from evil, and the chances are you find someone that doesn’t really believe that what they’re doing is necessary, or that there are any evil entities that affect people. And you know, you’re thinking, well, Christ spent most of His life, an awful lot of His life, casting out demons. I mean, I’m not saying that we ought to return to a position where we ignore the advances of health care and psychology and the way that that can help people, but to completely abandon the idea that people can be affected by evil beings that are not human is to abandon, again, that sort of heritage. That’s one example.
LF: A sermon/essay by C.S Lewis that I’m sure you all know, Transposition, where the concept is that any higher thing, if you try and express it in the lower thing, will initially look like the lower thing, and it takes discernment to realise that they’re different. And these seem to me to be quite good cases of that. That sometimes they are just mental health issues, but sometimes there’s a lot more to it. And if you are using the same secular language about it, then you’re missing something really important. Like when you hear a Beethoven symphony playing the piano reduction, it’s sort of the same thing, but it sort of isn’t. That’s not what it was about.
JF: Yeah. Do you think that there’s a sense in which the Church is not, I’m speaking specifically about the Church of England here, is that we’re not really fulfilling our role as an established church? What I mean here is that it seems to me that we’ve been acting as a, more as a state church during this, certainly the last couple of years, where we’ve just been kind of ratifying the diktats of the state. Really, it seems to me that the difference between a state church and an established church is that an established church is attempting to have some kind of benign and leavening effect on society, and I would say in this instance as well, political life. So, we do seem to have a problem, or at least a, well, I would say, it very much appears to be a problem with ethics in public life and we’re all sick to the teeth really of talking about Partygate and all this kind of stuff, and certain other things as well, Matt Hancock and various other, well, Neil Ferguson is another example, and so on, and so forth. And there’s, generally speaking, high levels of cynicism about ethics in public life. Is this another area where the church has missed a trick, where we could have had something to say to help almost, to bring that leavening effect, and again, we haven’t done it?
LF: Yeah, I think so and I think there are various ways of this. I think, what does being an established church mean? It’s that in some ways that it’s recognition of the belief that in a good society there should be a spiritual, religious, element to it and that a well-run country, that is a good element of making people feel at home in that country, and respected and so on. But that obviously isn’t the point. The point of Christianity is it’s real or not, and if it is, how does it affect your life? And I think some of that maybe to get across would be good. This isn’t just about what’s convenient or about what’s effective for society. But is it true and can you try and live your life like that, or not? That sort of idea seems to have been lost and some of the basic concepts of fallen man and original sin, might in a theologically aware society, bring to some of these problems of day-to-day ethical behaviour. People aren’t at that starting point. That’s why I say if people don’t understand the doctrines, it’s very hard to bring that to some of these problems when people aren’t at first base. But that’s basically what I think, the established church, it is important to society, but that isn’t the point of the Church. The point of the Church is to lead people to how the live their lives, to something better.
JF: Well, I mean, I suppose we should assemble some Bishops and get you to have a word with them.
TP: Well the obvious one is that letter from the Bishop of London, isn’t it? Where she comments on looking to spring with hope and we were thinking, we don’t look to spring with hope, we look to Christ risen promise with hope, not to the season. It wouldn’t go amiss in a public statement to have a little bit of Christian theology. It doesn’t have to just be a cut and paste of a Government press release.
LF: No, you’re right.
JF: Lord Frost, we don’t want to take up too much of your time. We thank you for being so generous. Perhaps we could ask a final question. I’m interested to know what’s next for you now that your Government responsibilities are finished for a time. What’s coming up for you personally?
LF: So, I’m not sure yet. I’ll do a bit of writing and journalism, I hope. Not just about Europe and Brexit. I’ll try and range a bit more widely. I’ll do some work with some think tanks. I think try and speak a bit, this sort of thing, so I want to remain in public life. I’m not desperate to, not that the opportunity has arisen, desperate to go back into Government. I feel I’ve learned quite a lot over the last decade or two and I’ve become quite reflective myself about all that’s taught me and how things ought to be done, and I’d quite like to get some of that across and try and shape opinion on things. So that’s probably where it’s going to take me for a bit, I think.
JF: Well I think we’d all, I’m sure Tom and Daniel would agree with me when I say that I hope that you have a massive influence and that sensible and reflective and deep voices like yours are heard more widely in society because it’s certainly what we need at the moment.
LF: Well thank you, I’ll do my best and I think this has been a really interesting conversation just to sort of develop thoughts that I don’t normally get space to talk about and it’s been great, so thank you for having me and it’s been wonderful to talk and well do stay in touch.
JF: Yeah absolutely, you’re welcome back any time of course.
DF: Thank you for your encouragement.
LF: No, you’ve done an amazing job really and I think you reach many more people than you realise and, just keep it up.
JF: Thank you so much. Well Lord Frost, on that note we’ll say thank you and goodbye for now.
TP: God Bless.
LF: Yeah. Thank you very much. See you again.