Does it matter what our leaders believe?

The polite compromise between religion and state has served us well.

When the question of the pope's visit to Britain came up in last week's leaders' debate, commentators declared themselves surprised. They didn't expect religion to intrude into the discussion. Now the story of the offensive memo written by a junior Foreign Office staffer about the pontiff brings the subject even further to the fore.

James Macintyre was right to mention "an aggressively secular mindset" behind the memo on this site yesterday. He attributed it to Whitehall, although he could have equally ascribed it to large parts of the Labour Party, not least those who agree with the Labour MEP Mary Honeyball, who questioned in 2008 whether "devout Catholics" should even be on the party's front bench. (In that context, I was glad to hear the Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy show a little more respect to an institution to which over a billion people belong in Sky's Holyrood leaders' debate yesterday. Murphy was polite enough to refer to the pope as "His Holiness".)

But does it matter what our leaders themselves believe - and does it affect their conduct in office? Nick Clegg has declared that he is "not a man of faith", although his wife is a Catholic and their children are brought up as Catholics. David Cameron says he has "a sort of fairly classic Church of England faith, a faith that grows hotter and colder by moments," and in which he found solace after the death of his disabled son, Ivan, last year.

Gordon Brown, famously a son of the manse, "invoked God to attack the Conservatives' 'unfair' inheritance tax cut for richer voters" in an interview with the Independent on Sunday yesterday.

As even the one non-believing leader of our three main parties, Nick Clegg, talks of "Christian values" being central to Liberal Democrat policies,atheists could be forgiven for feeling a little worried. No sign here of French-style robust secularism. The "God" vote clearly counts.

Whether any of this actually translates into government action, however, is more open to question. Margaret Thatcher was a Methodist - although when I interviewed their General Secretary in 2005 he was keen to downplay any association. Others have dismissed her faith still further, and it may well be true that she was not religious in any intellectual, enquiring sense. But her Methodist upbringing certainly reinforced her brand of conservatism. In his magnificent biography of the former prime minister, One of Us, the late Hugo Young argued that for Mrs T, "religion was put to the most useful service it could perform... it reduced to simple issues of personal morality highly complex questions of social and economic behaviour." Young quotes her as saying: "The essence of Methodism is in the Parable of the Talents. All that helped to build a middle class in this country, a middle class with a conscience." Concludes Young: "So the founder of Methodism marched side by side with the founder of Thatcherism."

Significantly, pretty much the only two religious leaders she had time for - the Bishop of London, Graham Leonard, and the Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits - could both be relied on to provide theological backing for her political positioning. But Mrs Thatcher was frequently accused of misreading and misunderstanding the gospels. It was during her period of office that the description of the Church of England as being "the Conservative Party at prayer" ceased to seem to be true. Much of the moral opposition to her policies came from the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, and the highly outspoken Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins (about whom the Tory cabinet minister Lord Hailsham once said: "I much prefer the word of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, because they were there and David Jenkins wasn't.")

While religion may have backed up Mrs Thatcher's beliefs, my guess is that her sense of certainty would have survived without it, having plenty of other sources of nourishment, including her mentor Keith Joseph and the works of Friedrich von Hayek. (As opposition leader, she once thumped a copy of Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty onto a table at a meeting and declared, "This is what we believe".)

Going further back, the index to Jim Callaghan's autobiography, Time & Chance, makes no reference at all to popes, archbishops or Christianity. But the former Labour prime minister was brought up as a devout Baptist, and met his wife, Audrey while both were teaching Sunday school. The Biblical quotations that open Callaghan's memoirs speak to a time when such phrases were commonly recognised and it was unexceptional to use them. It is interesting, too, to note how he described the first occasion on which he took his place in the cabinet as premier: "I felt somehow that I'd become a guide to lead the nation into the future, and at the same time a trustee for all that was best in our past. Without being too pious about it, it was almost a religious sensation."

I think the rather unsensational truth is that the religious leanings of both Gordon Brown and David Cameron are within these traditions. They provide them with anchors to different strands of British faith - Presbyterianism and Anglicanism - both of which have long histories, spaces and roles in our societies. Both have their own communities, but both, too, are the established churches of their particular nations; and as such, they have long accommodated, indeed, are structured precisely to accommodate, the separation between church and state. They are no threat to secularism in Britain today.

There are, of course, religions that have greater trouble allowing for parity between man-made and God-given law. (And in this, I must grudgingly concede that while I think Ms Honeyball's tone aggressive, there is something in her point.) If the three main political parties were led by a Roman Catholic, a Muslim and an Orthodox Jew, we might be having a rather different discussion. As it is, there is no sign of religious dogma in Downing Street, just more of that Great British fudge. It may be difficult to define or defend, but the muddling, polite compromise between religion and state has not served us too badly in the past. If it were to disappear, we might find we missed it.

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Facebook.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Getty
Show Hide image

No, the Brexit vote wasn't just about immigration

The data shows that most voters want a fairer society. Labour must fight for this in the Brexit negotiations. 

The result of the UK referendum to leave the European Union has shaken the political establishment to its core. As I have argued since then, it should be a wakeup call to all political parties.

Some have also argued that the referendum result is having international repercussions, with the election of Donald Trump to the White House cited as "Brexit Plus Plus". With the imminent election in France, and Germany’s later this year, responsible analysts are trying to understand why people voted the way they did and what this means. Too often, there are knee jerk explanations without any evidentiary justification to back them up. 

Analysis of who voted to leave shows the majority of people who voted to leave live in the South of England, and 59 per cent were from the middle classes (A, B, C1). Only 21 per cent of people in the lowest income groups voted to leave.

Analysis of why people voted as they did is more complex. This includes an increase in Euroscepticism particularly from older, middle class voters; concerns about globalisation and the impact on jobs; inequalities and being left behind; and new voters who didn’t vote in the 2015 General Election, for whom immigration was a concern. When this analysis is overlaid on analysis of that election, some themes emerge. The attitudes and values of the majority of the British public are firmly rooted in the desire for a fairer society, based on principles of equality and social justice. Although immigration played a part in the election and referendum results, perceived competence, being "left behind" and disillusionment with the direction of change were the key drivers.

Whether people voted to remain or leave, they did so because they believed that they and their families would be better off, and the majority who voted believed they would be better off if we leave the EU. Labour accepts and respects this. We have said that we will vote for Article 50, but we intend to hold this Tory government to account to ensure we get the best possible deal for the country.

In his speech last week, Jeremy Corbyn set out the issues that Labour will hold the government to account on. We have been absolutely clear that we want tariff-free access to the single market, to ensure that Britain continues to trade openly with our European neighbours, and to protect the cost of living for families struggling to get by. Getting the best deal for the UK means that we must continue to have a strong relationship with our EU neighbours.

Under my work and pensions portfolio, for example, we know that 40 per cent of pension funds are invested outside of the UK. If we want to guarantee a dignified and secure retirement for our pensioners, we must ensure that savers can get the best returns for the investments they make.

We also know that many of the protections that have until now been offered by the European Union must continue to be guaranteed when we leave. Provisions that secure the rights of disabled people, or that protect worker’s rights are an essential part of British society, enhanced by the EU. These cannot be torn up by the Tories.

Defending these rights is also at the heart of our approach to immigration. The dire anti-migrant rhetoric from some parts of the media and certain politicians, is reprehensible. I reject this scapegoating, which has fear and blame at its heart, because it is not true. Blaming migrants for nearly seven wasted years of Tory austerity when they are net contributors of over £2bn a year to the economy is perverse.

Of course we need to respond when public services are coming under pressure from local population increases. That’s why Labour wants to reinstate the Migration Impact Fund that the Tories abolished. We also need to ensure new members of communities get to know their new neighbours and what’s expected of them.

We believe that migrants’ broader contribution to British society has too often been obscured by the actions of unscrupulous employers, who have exploited new arrivals at the expense of local labour. A vast network of recruitment and employment agencies has developed in this country. It is worth hundreds of billions of pounds. Last year over 1.3m people were employed in the UK by these agencies. In 2007, 1 in 7 of these people came from the EU. We should ask how many are recruited directly from the EU now, and offered precarious work on very low wages whilst undercutting local labour. Labour will put an end to this practice, in order to protect both those who come here to work and those that grew up here.

Importantly, however, we cannot let our exit from the EU leave us with skill shortages in our economy. Our current workforce planning is woeful, particularly for the long-term. We need to reduce our need for migrant labour by ensuring our young, and our not so young, are trained for the jobs of the future, from carers to coders. Again, the Conservatives have undermined people’s chances of getting on by cutting college funding and the adult skills budget.

Unlike the government, Labour will not shirk from our responsibilities to the nation. Our plans for Brexit will respect the referendum result, whilst holding the Government to account and delivering a better future for all our people, not just the privileged few.

Debbie Abrahams is shadow work and pensions secretary.