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

France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt