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.

 

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Theresa May's Article 50 letter fires the Brexit starting gun

But as well as handing over a letter, Theresa May hands over control of the process. 

So the starting gun will be fired, and the Brexit process will begin. The delivery of the letter from Theresa May to Donald Tusk is a highly symbolic moment. It is also, crucially, the moment when the Prime Minister loses control of the process.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Brexit process to date has been the remarkable degree of control exercised over it by Downing Street. Brexit means Brexit, declared the Prime Minister, and since that day it has been her who has defined what precisely it does mean. After a quarter century of bitter division over Europe, culminating in a referendum where the Parliamentary party was split down the middle, she has managed to unite the overwhelming majority of the Conservative party for a “hard Brexit” that very few claimed to support a year ago.  As an impotent opposition and ineffective Tory opponents watched on, she has made it clear from the first that Britain will leave the single market and, almost certainly, the customs union. Rumours from Whitehall suggest that, whatever the concerns or doubts of line departments, these have been ignored or over-ruled.

Now, however, the Prime Minister has lost control of the process. Inevitably, given the relative strength of the parties’ negotiating positions, both the agenda and outcome of the talks will be determined largely by our European partners. It is of course true that they have an interest in preserving trade with us, as do we with them; nor do they have any interest, either economic or political, in “punishing” us for the sake of it. That being said, our interests and theirs are far from aligned. They have other priorities. Not allowing cherry picking among EU rules is one. Ensuring Britain pays its fair share is another.

And, while it is in neither side’s interest for the talks to collapse, we have considerably more to lose. May’s claim that “no deal is better than a bad deal” may play well with the Daily Express, but is has not gone down well with UK business. As the economics professor Jonathan Portes sets out here, the consequences of “no deal” would go far beyond the mere imposition of tariffs; the economic impacts would be significant for other EU countries, and very  severe indeed for the UK.  There are increasing signs that ministers are, belatedly, appreciating the risks, and are anxious to avoid such an outcome.

So both sides want a deal – and the UK, at least, needs one. But several hurdles stand in the way. In the first place, there is the vexed question of money. Britain, as our partners are concerned, has outstanding liabilities that must be paid. The British government may accept some of these, but is sure to quibble about the sums. Discussions of money are never easy in the EU, and the task of figuring out what a net contributor to the budget might owe at a time when discussions over the new 5 year funding programme are about to start will be no exception.  Nevertheless, if it were simply left to the civil servants, no doubt an acceptable compromise would be reached. The bigger  issue  is whether Mrs May  is prepared to take on some of her own backbenchers – and, more importantly, sections of the UK press – to sell a deal that will inevitably mean that the UK writes a sizeable cheque.

Second, there is the question of how to ensure the "frictionless" trade of which the Prime Minister has spoken. This makes eminent sense on one level – why make trade more difficult with the partner that buys 44 per cent of our exports? On another, though, it is hard to see how she can deliver.

I for one simply lack the imagination to see how we can be sufficiently out of the customs union to allow us to sign our own trade deals, while sufficiently in it to avoid customs checks and tariffs. For another, it is difficult to foresee conditions under which the EU would allow us to enjoy any of the benefits of the single market – whereby states accept each other’s rules and standards – without the oversight provided by the European Court of Justice.

And finally, since all parties now seem to accept that the prospects of concluding an “ambitious and comprensive” trade deal by March 2019 are vanishingly, there is the question of what happens then. The government has talked about an “implementation phase”; but how do you have an “implementation phase” when you do not know exactly what you are trying to implement?

It could just be me. I may simply not have fathomed the subtle devices that might allow these circles to be squared. But it does seem clear to me that doing so would be far from straightforward.

And then, of course, whatever is negotiated needs to be approved. Forget for a moment the continent, where there has probably never been a worse time to try to get a free trade deal approved by 27 European parliaments. The Prime Minister will almost certainly have parliamentary problems here in the UK.

The Labour party has adopted a position whereby they will vote against any deal that does not provide the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the single market and customs union,” to quote Keir Starmer. If the other member states are to be believed, the full benefits of membership are, and will be, only available to members, so this is will simply not be the case.

Labour, then, will probably end up voting against the bill. What Tories opposed to either Brexit or to leaving the single market might then do is anyone’s guess. It may be that, by autumn of 2018, they feel sufficiently empowered  - either because of a shift in public opinion, or because of indications of falling economic confidence, or, conceivably, because of declining faith in the Prime Minster – to make common cause with the opposition.

Under such circumstances, May might face the real possibility of defeat in Parliament. Which in turn poses the question as to why she would she risk putting a deal that might be rejected to a vote?

It seems to me that she would have very little incentive to do so. If she cannot get the kind of deal that seems, on the surface, impossible to get anyway, surely better, from her point of view to simply walk away? Blaming the Europeans for failure would be all to easy. And holding a snap election on a patriotic ticket and opposed by the current Labour party would guarantee a healthy majority.

Two years is a long time in politics. And much that is unexpected will doubtless transpire during the negotiations to come. Do not, however, discount the possibility that it might all go wrong. 

Anand Menon is director of The UK in a Changing Europe and professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King's College London.