Reverend Rose: "The discourse around Brexit contributed to the death of Jo Cox. My greatest fear is it could happen again”
In 2010 Rose Hudson-Wilkin became the first woman and the first person of colour to be Speaker’s Chaplain in the role’s 350-year history. As she leaves the post, she talks to Sally Dawson about breaking with tradition, John Bercow’s legacy and why MPs have a duty to stamp out “yobbish” behaviour
Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin’s room, off the Speaker’s Court, is exactly how you imagine the office of a Church of England minister would look. Books lie stacked on old wooden tables amid a jumble of mismatched chairs – and a collection of clerical gowns hang on hooks behind her. It’s a cosy and traditional room, if a little gloomy. But Hudson-Wilkin is anything but dour or conventional.
There has been a Speaker’s Chaplain since 1660. William, Alan, John, Michael, Thomas, David, John, Trevor, Donald, Robert: these are the Christian names of the previous 10 occupants. Rose is number 79.
When she was appointed by the Speaker, John Bercow, in 2010, she became both the first woman and the first person from an ethnic minority to hold the role in its 359-year history.
Now they are both leaving – Bercow is resigning after a decade in the job – and Hudson-Wilkin is set to become the next Bishop of Dover. During his recent resignation announcement – as she watched on from her place under the gallery of the chamber – an already emotional Bercow responded to a point of order made by the Labour MP, David Lammy, by paying an apparently spontaneous tribute to his chaplain, describing Hudson-Wilkin as a “great servant of Parliament” who’d been a source of “comfort and inspiration” to him for nine years.
Did his words of praise take her by surprise? "Absolutely," she responds. How has it been to work with him? “Fabulous. It's been a great privilege to work with Mr Speaker and also to work here in Parliament.”
Hudson-Wilkin is not on social media, and I read aloud to her a couple of the comments on Twitter following John Bercow’s tribute – the reaction to his comments were for once (uncharacteristically for Twitter) overwhelmingly positive. I quote one journalist who’d tweeted, “I say this as an atheist, but Reverend Rose is one of the most remarkable people in Parliament,” and another tweet which spoke of the deep affection and regard the Palace police officers had for Hudson-Wilkin because “she's always here for us”. Rose seems genuinely moved and surprised – responding with a “that's lovely, thank you”.
As well as leading daily prayers in the chamber when the House is sitting – and conducting weddings and baptisms in the chapel at the weekends – the chaplain’s role is to pray for MPs in their work, as they wrestle with “huge decisions that impact on so many lives” – and also for the Palace staff: “I have to be there for them [the staff]”, she says with feeling. “To listen to them, to pray for them in their role because they too have a real sense of that this is history in the making and that they're part of it. And so yes, it's been amazing. And I say: ‘Thank you John Bercow for your foresight and thank you for thinking outside the box, for making it possible’.”
The “box” in this case involved a break with tradition – Hudson-Wilkin’s appointment did not conform to convention for a role which had, until then, also included the position of Rector of St Margaret's church (located opposite the Palace).
Bercow’s defiance of that protocol and his insistence at appointing Hudson-Wilkin had ruffled a few feathers at the time. Referencing the “bigot faction” who had objected to her initial appointment, Bercow used his Commons tribute to further denounce this opposition as “stupid, dim-witted, atavistic, racist and rancid”, concluding: “I was right, they were wrong; the House loves her!"
Was she aware at the time that her appointment was controversial? "I was aware initially that my appointment was controversial because the press had articles implying that my appointment was political correctness, which I found to be absolutely outrageous,” she says.
“From my perspective, I felt called, I had been accepted and I was just going to get on with the work. I've done that throughout my ministry. Everywhere that I have gone, I’ve always had that negative, 'We don't want her'.
“And even though I've known that that's been said, I have not allowed it to be a deterrent from going into the role, getting on with it and thoroughly enjoying it.”
Does she think that long-standing practices can act as barriers to people who come from non-traditional routes or are perceived as outsiders? “Traditions don't operate by themselves. People operate the traditions. Tradition said that women should be at home washing the dishes and cleaning the house. And we have questioned those traditions and we see women contributing in a big way to, not just in this society, but to the world at large and that the world is a much better place for the contributions of women.
“And if we continue to question it, then we will recognise that the world will be an even better place when people from all different walks of life are enabled – allowed even – to occupy leadership roles within society, within the church.”
Does she think that tradition can be used to deliberately exclude people? “Well, those with the intention to exclude certain groups of people, they will always do that. Whether the tradition says it or not. And so I wouldn't blame tradition. I would say we are intelligent and we who operate the system need to be willing to question the system and ask whether it is providing what we need for the 21st century and make the necessary adjustments.
She praises the Speaker for recognising this and “ensuring that Parliament asks the right questions and does not just say ‘this is the way we've always done things’”.
Bercow has divided opinion, particularly over his handling of Brexit, but having worked with him Hudson-Wilkin believes his legacy will be one of progressive reform. “When all the hype around Brexit has died down, history will recognise the amazing job that he has done across the board,” she says.
“I think Mr Speaker championing diversity is not about political correctness. We live in a diverse city. We live in a diverse country and I think that leadership within society and the church ought to reflect the kind of country that we live in. And if it does not reflect it, then I think we should ask questions.
“And that's what the Speaker does – he asks questions about ‘why and where are?’ And I think that it's very appropriate.”
Hudson-Wilkin says her top highlight was meeting Barack Obama – “he was just as handsome in real life as he looks on the television, and a beautiful soul” – but describes every moment as a “privilege”.
“It's been a wonderful, unforgettable experience…To serve not just parliamentarians, to serve the staff. To serve the security team.”
Have there been any disappointments? “If I had any disappointments it would be around the sort of language that we use. I don't like when we beat up on each other, when we call each other names. I think it is puerile, and childish and immature to do that. We need to be statesmen and women in the way we handle our debates. Our children are watching,” she says.
She describes the kind of language used during the Brexit debate in particular as “deeply unfortunate”: “History will show us that we've gotten it completely wrong. The kind of discourse that we had back in 2016 around Brexit contributed to the death of Jo Cox. I believe that very strongly. I think we need to be very careful. My greatest fear is that it could happen again. Politicians have a responsibility to be careful, however passionately they feel about the subject matter. They have a responsibility to temper their language and to think before using words. Because once the words are thrown out there – once this sort of the playground, yobbish behaviour is out there – you cannot take it back.”
The public she believes are also largely oblivious to the fact that, behind the scenes, many politicians remain amicable with their opponents even after fierce parliamentary exchanges: “Parliamentarians may – after they've had a tumultuous time in the Chamber – have a drink or cup of tea with each other, but those outside the House do not see that. They just hear the language on PMQs – and it takes someone who has not got all their faculties intact to take it to the extreme. And we could face another sad loss, as we did back in 2016.”
However high feelings are currently running, she says parliamentarians, the press and the people must “respectfully” come to understand that their point of view is not the whole picture – and agree to differ. Parliamentarians she says must agree to work across party “to find ways of healing and bringing back wholeness to Parliament, to our society and world”.
In contrast, she describes sitting in on the Youth Parliament – an initiative also introduced by the Speaker – as a “particular privilege”: “It is just, 'Wow.' I would love it to be mandatory for all our politicians to sit up in the gallery and watch and see how things could be modelled on our young people.”
Does she think there is a case for Votes at 16? “Why not? They are allowed to fight and die for their country. They have strong views, they are articulate and passionate. They want to be involved. Their voices should be heard.”
She’s concerned, too, about the increase in homelessness in Westminster, and the approach of the authorities to addressing the needs of those forced to sleep rough. Last week an email emerged from Hudson-Wilkin to the former Clerk of the Commons, David Natzler, in which she complained about the “ongoing stench” and “unsanitary conditions” in the underground entrance used by MPs, peers and parliamentary staff to access the Palace of Westminster.
Hudson-Wilkin says her comments “arose not only out of my concern for the safety and wellbeing of parliamentary staff, but also out of concern for those for whom this is their daily reality”.
“We may find it unpleasant and concerning to walk through the Underground station on the way to work or home, but for those who have to live like this – forgotten and overlooked by society – it is so much worse. Nobody should have to live like this.”
“‘Moving people on’ will not solve this issue and will not help those affected by homelessness,” she adds. “We must address the national and systemic problems that lie at the very roots of homelessness.”
When asked whether she thinks her background means she has brought with her a fresh approach to the role, she says she will leave it to others to consider what has been different. “I just know that for every role that I have fulfilled, I have fulfilled it in the 'Rose Way'. I am a woman, I am black, I am from Jamaica, and I have also got British citizenship. So I bring all of that to the table,” she says.
“I don't try to be anything but who I am. I am very comfortable in my gender, in my skin, in me. I won't change that for anyone. And so you know, those who welcome me will have me. Those that say no, then your loss.”