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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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