The Bishop’s vote in Tynwald: Tynwald decides

In two earlier posts – linked below – Peter Edge, Professor of Law at Oxford Brookes, commented on the earlier debates in Tynwald on the position of the Bishop of Sodor and Man. In a cross-post from his own blog, he reports on the conclusion to the debate.

On 21 February 2018, Tynwald voted on the Third Report of the Select Committee on the Functioning of Tynwald. This report, which I have discussed previously, made three recommendations:

(1) that the Tynwald Management Committee should be responsible for overseeing the CPD Programme for Members of Tynwald;

(2) that the Lord Bishop of Sodor and Man should retain his vote in Tynwald, and have the same rights and duties as to voting as other members; and

(3) that the Isle of Man Government should establish an independent review to examine and report on emoluments of Members of Tynwald, having regard to a number of foundational principles.

This note focuses on the second recommendation.

The recommendation was the subject of extended, and intense, debate. As well as the option put forward by the Select Committee, Mr Shimmins proposed an amendment that would remove the vote of the Bishop in both Legislative Council and Tynwald; and Mr Harmer an amendment that would have the Bishop keep his vote but, uniquely, give him a right to abstain in a vote (although the Lord Bishop had a de facto power, exercised by leaving the Chamber before a vote).

Mr Shimmins’s amendment was lost, with a very close vote in the Keys (11:13), and in the Council (3:5, the Lord Bishop having left the Chamber at the point of voting). The recommendation of the Select Committee was passed with the same ratio – indeed, with exactly the same members losing the vote in both cases. Mr Harmer’s amendment was lost even more closely, with a 12:12 split in the Keys, and a 3:5 split in the Council, while not mapping exactly onto the main vote. I will summarise the arguments put forward in debate by reference to those who supported, and those who opposed, the Lord Bishop retaining his vote, and consider the important speech of the Lord Bishop separately.

Supporters of the Bishop’s vote

The Speaker, as Chairman of the Select Committee, introduced the Report. He argued that “whilst the Island continues to identify itself as a Christian nation there is a justification for the Bishop’s role in Tynwald”. He also considered that “it has been made quite apparent that the loss of the Bishop’s vote would mean the loss of the Bishop”, citing the letter from the Archbishop of York.

Mr Robertshaw saw the lack of parallels in other legislatures, highlighted by Mr Shimmins, as an irrelevance: “The last thing we want to do is run around saying ‘Me too’”. He saw the Lord Bishop as representing a moral and ethical dimension – something that could be achieved in other ways, but that traditionally in the Isle of Man was through a Christian representative. He put the Bishop’s vote in the context of the broader Manx constitution, stressing that the Bishop was one vote in LegCo, and that the Keys had primacy.

Mr Baker echoed Mr Roberrtshaws emphasis on Manx distinctiveness – “We need to be proud of the Isle of Man and we need to be confident in ourselves, and actually need to set our own path”. He feared that the voice of the Bishop would be lost if the vote was removed, because the Diocese would cease to exist, and stressed the responsibility of Tynwald if that was the case. He also rejected an argument that the Bishop made Tynwald undemocratic, pointing to the Lord’s Spiritual in Parliament.

Mr Cregeen also rejected, in even stronger terms, any arguments based on parallels with other countries, seeing it as “chipping away at the things that make us special”. He also doubted whether the vote of the Bishop was an important matter to the Manx people.

Mr Cannan took a different tack, suggesting that the debate was a good moment for the new Bishop to reflect on whether “he is best serving the interests of the community, and of the Church and of the respective faiths, by being inside this Court” or from outside. He argued for retention of the status quo, but to return to the issue in 12 months time. Given the closeness of the votes, this is particularly significant.

Mr Malarkey indicated he had been undecided on the vote, but he was not undecided on whether the Isle of Man should have a Bishop. He linked the loss of the vote with the loss of the Bishop, and was concerned that a large section of Tynwald had not had enough experience of the contribution of the Bishop to judge that loss properly. He also rejected comparisons; “Why do we want to be the same as Jersey and Guernsey? We have a history of being different”. He feared the immediate loss of the vote would lead to the loss of the Bishop, and argued that “if you are on the fence, slide off the fence and wait for two or three years”. Again, given the closeness of the votes, if this argument influenced other members, it may have been particularly significant.

Mr Harmer was convinced that the loss of the vote would lead to the loss of the Bishop, and that the Diocese was “fundamental to our sovereignty, it is much more fundamental to our identity and it is much more fundamental to our sense of place that we will lose something of ourselves”. A vote to retain the Bishops’ vote would “support history, support and keep our identity and sovereignty”. Mr Harmer cited Lord Lisvane’s support for the Bishop’s vote.

Mr Boot was unconvinced that the Bishops vote was a significant issue to Manx people. He feared that a loss of the vote would lead to a loss of the Diocese; and rejected what he saw as arguments from Jersey and Guernsey that the Bishops’ vote made the Isle of Man less democratic. He stressed the “tradition and the mythology that goes with it” of Tynwald – “I am not trying to undermine it all the time and [do not] believe that we will be a better democracy if we destroy some of the traditions that we have”. He also cited Lord Lisvane’s view on the Bishop’s vote.

Mr Quayle noted that the appointment process of the Lord Bishop had involved consultation with him as Chief Minister. He stressed that the vote of the Bishop, as part of LegCo, could be overruled, suggesting that this could not happen in the Lords Spiritual (a striking assertion queried by Ms Edge), and echoed suggestions that the Bishop’s vote was not important to Manx people, and read this as “a silent majority who are content”. He also rejected comparisons drawn with other jurisdictions, “We are unique, where we do what we want and where we believe what is right, we do it”.

Mr Cannan saw the loss of the Bishopric following the loss of the vote as crucial: “the loss of the bishopric on the Isle of Man would be too high a price for our cultural, spiritual and historical identity”.

Mr Skelly posed a tension between “evolving democracy or dismantling tradition”, seeing this as the nub of the debate. He also stressed the contribution of the Lord Bishop not only in Tynwald, but also “outside this Court”, clearly fearing that a loss of the vote would lead to the loss of the Diocese, with effects well outside the legislative process.

Opponents of the vote

Mr Shimmins criticised the Report as under-researched, and had commissioned his own comparative research from Tynwald Library. He referred to the narrowness of ecclesiastical representation in Parliament, and the absence of official religious representation in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland, as well as Canada, Australia, Scandinavian countries, and the other Crown Dependencies. The closest parallel was with the Lords Spiritual, but he stressed the higher proportion of Tynwald’s vote represented by the Lord Bishop. He also considered the Report to be out of step with “public opinion …. unbalanced”, and referred to “many proud Manx people who find this tradition irksome”. He recognised that the loss of the vote might lead to the loss of the Diocese – he would regret this, but “it is a decision for the Anglican Church; it is not a question for this Hon. Court”. He also stressed the importance of democracy as opposed to “status and hierarchy and rank”, seeing the role of the Keys in electing a normal MLC as essential to democratic legitimacy for “everyone who votes on our laws”.

Mr Hooper took up this last theme, arguing that every voting Member of Tynwald should have been elected either directly or indirectly. He criticised the Report for not discussing this issue. Mr Hooper noted the link between the diocese and Manx status and influence, but criticised the Report for lack of evidence for this point, particularly in comparison with Jersey. Mr Hooper was more sanguine over the loss of the Diocese, but echoed Mr Shimmins in stressing this was a matter for the Church, while the vote was a question for Tynwald. He finished by emphasising the democratic principle, and calling for the removal of the vote as removing “the last vestiges of feudal rule from this Hon. Court”.

Mr Ashford similarly read the letter of the Archbishop of York as not completely categorical on the Bishop losing his diocese along with his vote. He also expanded on a comparison with Jersey in the letter, noting that Jersey had removed the vote of the Dean in 1948, “so you could say we are 70 years behind the curve … it has been tried and tested elsewhere”.

Mrs Caine described the Committee Report as “out of step with the mood of this Hon. Court, or perhaps I should say the mood of this Hon. House”. She did not see the Archbishop of York’s letter as “a clincher”, and objected to the reference in that letter on Manx identity, and “it’s moral and ethical responsibility for the life of its people”. She noted criticisms of the indirect election of MLCs, but thought that “no one on this Island has any say in who is appointed Bishop”. She saw the vote of the Bishop as “patently undemocratic in terms of one unelected person’s influence in this Hon. Court”. She was comparatively unconcerned over the possible loss of the Diocese – “ if the amendment before us today is supported, and the threat carried out to downgrade the Diocese of Sodor and Man, I will experience a very small pang of regret for the loss of tradition, but give a silent whoop of celebration at the evolution and modernisation of this parliament”.

Mr Peake noted that the Lord Bishop was “chosen by one religious organisation with little public influence of accountability”, in contrast to the directly and indirectly elected Members of Tynwald.

Mr Thomas was a strong supporter of the voice of the Lord Bishop, but not the vote. He noted the range of options for the Manx Church even in the event of the loss of the Diocese. He also noted that, given the vote of the Lord Bishop had at times been decisive, “there is a risk involved in that”.

Mrs Poole-Wilson stressed the democratic issue. She noted that the Lord Bishop was a much higher proportion of Tynwald than the Lords Spiritual of Parliament, and that their position as an MLC was more powerful than that of member of the House of Lords. She echoed Mr Hooper’s scepticism that the loss of the Diocese would impact on the Island’s status and influence. She argued that the ability of Tynwald to change “and make decisions about the issues we are debating today speaks powerfully to our status and sense of nationhood. It is this ability that makes us special, that makes us different”.

Mrs Corlett made a brief contribution, where she stressed the importance of an election process to give a voter legitimacy: “This for me is not about religion or faith, but it is about something just as fundamental: it is about democracy”.

Mrs Beecroft identified as a formerly very strong supporter of the vote of the Bishop, but had come to the conclusion that losing the vote would empower the voice, by allowing the Bishop to speak more freely in Tynwald.

Mr Allison noted that the loss of the vote would reduce the power of the Bishop, and may have consequences; but the loss of the Diocese would be a decision for the Church, and “should not necessarily stop us from the right decision today ,in terms of democracy”.

Ms Edge noted that on a number of occasions the vote of the Lord Bishop had been decisive, and found it difficult to comprehend why, given other voting members were elected, this should be the case.

The Lord Bishop

The Lord Bishop did not vote on his own vote, choosing instead to leave the Chamber before the vote. He did, however, make an important contribution to the debate, which Members on both sides of the debate valued.

The Lord Bishop emphasised the importance of the Diocese to Christianity –“the diocese is the basic unit the Christian community, not the parish but the Diocese”. He saw Jersey and Guernsey as fragile because they were “geographically distinct but looked after pastorally from somewhere else”. He noted discussions over the continued existence of the Diocese during the creation of the Diocese of Liverpool in 1875 and suggested that if this were the case, a visit by the Bishop every five or six months might be the result.

The Lord Bishop was careful to distance himself from any suggestion that other Members of Tynwald were unable to contribute a moral dimension, but did stress a special role for the Church:

“With the best will in the world the Church has in the past cultivated and always wished to cultivate a moral and ethical understanding that many people do not have time to cultivate for themselves, and I think that is what I would regard myself as bringing to the Legislative Council”.

This is not an uncontroversial position, but in constitutional terms it is particularly interesting as the Lord Bishop emphasises a special expertise, and perhaps inadvertently moves the position of the Lord Bishop in Sodor and Man closer to that of the (non-voting) Attorney-General than might have been anticipated.

The Lord Bishop also stressed Manx involvement in his appointment. Although recognising this was not the same as being elected, he emphasised that there had been a lengthy consultation and that members of the Manx Church had been appointed to the Crown Nominations Commission. He did not, interestingly, mention the discussions with the Chief Minister which the Chief Minister recounted.

He saw a strong link between establishment and his place in Tynwald:

“if one has establishment of the Church then a corollary of that is the involvement and engagement of the Church within the everyday processes of legislation and government”.

Similarly stressing Anglican distinctiveness, he referred to the importance of the parochial system:

“I am interested in everyone who lives on the Isle of Man and any member of my clergy is interested directly and completely in anyone who lives their parish. It has to do with pastoral care which is exemplified, as I say, through representation in the structures of government, of education, which is why we have hospital and university chaplains for example, and health care and elsewhere”.

Finally, he saw an organic link between Christianity and the Manx (and UK) states: “the democratic process on which we rightly set so much store has been generated by the Judeo-Christian tradition and for that reason it seems to me that to separate those two things is a complex and complicated thing to do”, referring on a number of occasions to the “spiritual deposit and tradition” of the Manx Church.

First thoughts

It was a very close vote, particularly in the (dominant) House of Keys. Given a number of suggestions that the issue could be returned to in the near future, we may see this issue returned to in the short term. This may be particularly likely if newly elected members of the Legislative Council favour removal of the vote. The closely divided Keys seems a long way away from the special majority required to over-ride a Legislative Council veto on any legislation required to change the vote.

The detailed arguments on both sides were well discussed in the debate, and the closeness of the vote reflects the difficulty of balancing the different issues in play. Some members of Tynwald who identified legitimacy strongly with election – particularly direct election – seem to have found the decision easier than their colleagues. If we find the indirect election of most MLCs return as a live issue, the position of the Bishop is likely to be impacted by any significant change in their position.

The approach towards comparative data was interesting. As I have discussed elsewhere, Tynwald has come a long way from the deferential adoption of UK models as “the state of the art” which they should loyally follow. Members of Tynwald using comparative data to inform their argument were, as Mrs Poole-Wilson made explicit, using it to inform the exercise by Tynwald of national power. A number of members, however, found reference to a range of models from elsewhere as counterproductive and, if I may gloss the debate slightly, unpatriotic. Considering the experience of other jurisdictions can be very useful, particularly where those jurisdictions seem to have gone wrong. The Lord Bishop carried out just this sort of exercise when he referred to the fragility of Jersey and Guernsey which he associated with their lack of a Diocese. It will be interesting to see if his comments are picked up in Jersey and Guernsey debates, particularly in ecclesiastical circles.

Peter Edge

Cite this article as: Peter W Edge, “The Bishop’s vote in Tynwald: Tynwald decides” in Law & Religion UK, 6 March 2018,

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