Does God vote Labour or Tory?

Paul Vallelysees difficulties for both William Hague and Tony Blair in their attempts to bring the D

God, as we all know, is an Englishman. Having thus resolved the nationality and gender issues, only one big question remains: is He also a Tory? William Hague would like to think so, as he made evident in his address to the Conservative Christian Fellowship last week. He has a steep hill to climb, though: for years, there were those who supposed God was a socialist; after all, the political economy of first-century Christians is often described as "love communism". Now that syndicalism and collectivism have disappeared, they regard God, a right- thinking chap, as new Labour.

Yet Hague is determined to launch a counter-attack and reclaim the Almighty for the Conservatives - or at least to reconcile his party and the church after the antagonism of the Thatcher years. The Conservative leader's text was full of sections that could have been cut-and-pasted from the word processor of the authors of the dreaded Faith in the City report of the Runcie era - with much talk about "the spiritual and social mission of the church" and the insistence that "the churches have valuable experiences from which politicians can learn".

That is not the only thing that would have given a Thatcherite computer a system failure. There was Hague's admission of "faults and misunderstandings on both sides" in the Thatcher-Runcie stand-off. There was his genuflection towards the church's favourite cause, international debt forgiveness. And there was his warm talk of our "neighbours" in the developing world - where he picked out for special mention Nicaragua, once the icon of seventies radical chic.

If the Conservative leader has seen the light, it illuminates only the road to his electoral Damascus rather than the surrounding countryside: his aim is purely to win church-goers, and the far greater number of passive Christian well-wishers, back to the Tory banner. There are some advantages to this shallow focus - witness the letter last weekend by bishops complaining that Tony Blair's proposed closed list system will rob voters of the ability to make decisions based on individual moral issues such as abortion or the arms trade. But Blair has been altogether more subtle.

Just before his landslide election victory Blair wrote to Cardinal Hume in response to the publication by the Catholic church of a document entitled The Common Good, which was widely interpreted as a "Vote Labour" call by Catholic bishops. The letter, which has never been published, acknowledged the common agenda between his vision for new Labour and the social teaching of the Catholic church as described in the bishops' document.

Students of Catholic social teaching can trace Blair's approach on a whole range of issues - from the rhetoric of stakeholding to policies on devolution, the minimum wage and welfare-to-work - to the explicit doctrines of the church to which the Prime Minister's family belongs and which he attends each Sunday. Indeed, the central question before Catholic social thinkers is the same one that exercises the architects of the Third Way: how the creativity and dynamism of market forces can be kept in balance with both notions of individual freedom and a sense of social justice that protects the vulnerable and creates a sense of common purpose in society. The present Pope, however, as Hague will be pleased to hear, has been at pains to insist that "the church's social doctrine is not a 'third way' between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism". In his 1987 encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, John Paul II goes on to say: "The church does not propose economic and political systems or programmes."

Despite this disclaimer, Catholic social writings do shed light on the Third Way; as do the writings of the thinker whom the Prime Minister has in the past cited as one of his foundational influences.

John Macmurray is a Christian socialist philosopher so little-known that he merits only a mention in the bibliography of John Passmore's magisterial A Hundred Years of Philosophy. He was not obscure in his day. He was the Grote Professor of Mind and Logic before A J Ayer and a radio broadcaster so celebrated before the second world war that he was attacked in the Tory press as "the red professor of Gower Street". What doomed him to academic oblivion was his refusal to join either the mainstream of British linguistic philosophy (which had rejected metaphysics in favour of formal logic and mind-games) or the continental tradition which had abandoned serious philosophical method in its embrace of existential angst. Yet, according to Blair, Macmurray "confronted what will be the critical political question of the 21st century: the relationship between the individual and society".

Macmurray had a Third Way of his own. He refused to accept the determinism of Marxism but also rejected the social irresponsibility of the individualism of the liberal tradition. His solution was to reject "the tyranny of apparatus" but, simultaneously, to emphasise the importance of the communal. As Blair put it: "He places the individual firmly within a social setting [and says that] we are what we are, in part, because of [each] other".

Community, he argued in Conditions of Freedom (1950), was prior to politics because "a democratic polity is possible only for a human community which has established a common way of life upon a basis of mutual trust". Real community has the same dynamics as friendship, which was "the supreme value in life, and the source of all other values".

There is nothing from the political philosophy of Burke or Disraeli or, more recently, Macleod or Butler, with its emphasis on individual freedom, to comfort William Hague in this. Macmurray's thinking is rooted in the philosophy of personalism which was developed by the French thinker Emmanuel Mounier in the 1930s. Macmurray was one of his interlocutors and is regarded as the leading British exponent of the tradition.

Personalism was a philosophy that rejected the split between mind and body which had dominated western thinking since Descartes; instead it celebrated the unity of the individual based on the notion that it is through creative action that human beings realise their potential. "The basic impulse in a world of persons is not the isolated perception of self . . . but the communication of consciousness," argued Mounier. "The adult only finds himself in his relationship to others." Human freedom and fulfilment do not consist in escaping from other human beings or in withdrawing from social obligations but in communicating, mutuality and sharing in a common life.

There is one other personalist philosopher with significant purchase upon modern thinking. A young philosophy teacher at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow began to take an interest in Mounier and the German personalist Max Scheler. In 1969 Karol Wojtyla published, in Polish, a new account of personalism, called The Acting Person. A decade later he became Pope John Paul II. Personalism has imbued his teaching ever since.

For Macmurray and John Paul II the Third Way is philosophical or anthropological rather than political or economic. Science, art and religion constitute three complementary ways of viewing the world; mechanistic and organic models of thinking are therefore incomplete without one that understands the world in terms of personality. "Persons not purposes are absolute," says Macmurray; "People before profit," says the Pope.

Blair takes care not to make links publicly with Catholic doctrine, for there are parts of it which might prove too demanding. John Paul II's personalism has brought to Catholic social teaching the insistence that work - in the broad sense of "creative human action" - is the quintessential human activity. Gordon Brown's signing of this week's European economic policy on job creation would go some way to pleasing the Pope.

But Catholic social teaching condemns as unethical Brown's continued use of unemployment as a tool to control inflation, with the benefit for the many falling as a disproportionate burden on the shoulders of an unfortunate few. Unemployment can never be, as Norman Lamont put it, "a price worth paying" because human beings cannot be used as mere instruments. A policy of full employment may suit Catholic social teaching, but it does not suit Labour or the Tories at present.

This is the risk that Hague takes when he tries to use religion to persuade the voters of Middle England to return to the Tory fold. He is wielding a double-edged sword. In an age in which capitalists will do almost anything to make money, scientists will acknowledge no limits on where they may push the bounds of technological achievement and democrats drift into a relativism in which morality is simply a way of expressing preferences, religion stands as a kind of nostalgic pennant for a time of mythic moral certainty. It is no surprise that the leaders of political parties want to appropriate something of that. As Macmurray suggested, the decline of religion and the growth of the state may be interlinked.

But to do it Hague will have to come up with more than a few general statements about how Judaeo-Christian ideas concerning the freedom and dignity of individual human beings chime in with Tory traditions about the importance of freedom and the need to protect it from the encroachments of the state. He will need more than a single-sentence reference to the "doctrines of creation and incarnation". And he will have to do better than a few half-baked suggestions about how the church might take over the running of children's homes. To make sense of it he will have to come to terms with the philosophical anthropology which undergirds religion in the way that Blair has attempted. And in the end he will probably find, as Blair has, that the demands it makes may be as wide-ranging as the quick-fix solutions it offers.

"The New Politics: Catholic social teaching for the 21st century" edited by Paul Vallely is published this month by SCM Press (£14.95)

This article first appeared in the 27 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, How the left hijacked the family

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times