Meet Miliband's new guru: Tim Soutphommasane

The young Australian shaping Labour's thinking on patriotism.

In tomorrow's New Statesman, I profile Tim Soutphommasane, the young Australian intellectual shaping the Labour leadership's thinking on patriotism. I interviewed Soutphommasane (pronounced Soot-pom-ma-sarn) in Wesminster in June after he addressed an intimate Commons seminar organised by Jon Cruddas and attended by several senior Labour figures, including David Miliband. A few days later, he met with Ed Miliband.

Soutphommasane's thesis, elaborated in his book Reclaiming Patriotism: Nation-Building for Australian Progressives, is that the left must promote a common national identity if it is first to win and then retain power. "One of the reasons why you need to have a cohesive, collective identity in any liberal democratic society is that you need to have a sense of fellow feeling in order to redistribute resources."  Since societies have become more diverse, he said, "You can't take it for granted that citizens will have an identity in common or will be willing to contribute to the common good, and so you have to work hard to ensure that people feel like they belong to a community."

Yet too often, for fear of appearing "racist" or "xenophobic", the left has vacated the field and allowed the right to define national identity in starkly conservative terms.  He told me:

There can be more than one kind of patriotism. For a lot of people, patriotism is, by definition, an exclusive and a very nasty sentiment, when there can in fact be a very appreciative and generous love of country, one in which you can criticise your own country when you think it’s in the wrong. That’s the kind of political community, I think, that the left should try and work towards – one that’s mature, one that’s reflective and one that’s more deliberative.

Still only 29, Soutphommasane, who is of Lao-Chinese descent, is currently a columnist for Australian paper the Age, a lecturer at Monash University (he holds a PhD from Oxford) and the author of two forthcoming books, The Virtuous Citizen: Patriotism in a Multicultural Society and Don't Go Back To Where You Came From: Why Multiculturalism Works. He has also served as an adviser to Australian foreign minister Bob Carr and believes that Labour has much to learn from the successes and failures of its Australian brethren. The Rudd-Gillard governments, he said, "have great achievements to their name – the apology to the indigenous people, the establishment of a carbon pricing scheme, the creation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, a massive school-building programme – but they’ve lacked a nation-building story, they’ve lacked a nation-building project."

For Miliband and Labour, he argued, "the task of rebuilding and reshaping the British economy after the financial crisis and after austerity is something that could be a patriotic project". It is this insight that has excited Cruddas, who told me that Soutphommasane’s concept of "nation-building" could act as a "framing device" for the policy review he is leading. "Labour only successfully appeals when it actually owns an alternative national story based around what a country could be," he said. "And that’s why we invited Tim into our policy review. Through the idea of ‘rebuilding Britain’ you could counterpose a sense of national obligational duty to one of managed decline."

In the early months of the coalition government, David Cameron and George Osborne sought to couch austerity in patriotic terms, employing the wartime-like slogan "we're all in this together". But the government's reckless reform of the NHS ("the closest thing the English have to a religion," in the words of Nigel Lawson) and its abolition of the 50p tax rate, an important symbol of solidarity, have deprived it of any claim to be acting in the national interest. The path is now clear for Labour to present itself as the truly patriotic party. Under the rubric of "national reconstruction" (to use Soutphommasane’s phrase), Labour could champion policies such as a National Investment Bank, a school-building programme, and a "solidarity tax" on the wealthy.

The response to Danny Boyle's Olympics opening ceremony revealed an unfulfilled appetite for a patriotism of the left that dispenses with imperial nostalgia and offers a progressive vision of Britain's past and its future. With its representation of the suffragettes, the Jarrow marchers, Windrush immigrants, the NHS and the CND, the ceremony presented a people’s history of Britain that the left instinctively understood and applauded. Afterwards, Toby Young wrote that he felt as if he had just watched "a £27m party political broadcast for the Labour Party".

I asked Soutphommasane how Miliband’s party could harness a new wave of liberal patriotism. "Sometimes political parties can let these moments do the work for them," he said. "But the patriotic goodwill generated by the Olympics does provide an opportunity for Labour. It is almost as though Boyle has managed to pave the way for a new chapter of British nation-building."

In 1945, it was Clement Attlee's promise of a "new Jerusalem" that propelled him into Downing Street over the war lion Winston Churchill. Nearly seventy years later, a patriotic vow to "rebuild Britain" could do the same for Miliband.

Pick up this week's New Statesman, out tomorrow, to read the full profile of Tim Soutphommasane.

Australian writer and thinker Tim Soutphommasane is emerging as an important influence on the Labour leadership. Sketch: Dan Murrell.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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