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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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What Jeremy Corbyn can learn from Orwell

Corbyn’s ideas may echo George Orwell’s – but they’d need Orwell’s Britain to work. It’s time Corbyn accepted the British as they are today.

All Labour Party leaderships since 1900 have offered themselves as “new”, but Tony Blair’s succession in 1994 triggered a break with the past so ruthless that the Labour leadership virtually declared war on the party. Now it is party members’ turn and they, for now at any rate, think that real Labour is Jeremy.

To Keir Hardie, real Labour had been a trade union lobby expounding Fellowship. To the Webbs, real Labour was “common ownership” by the best means available. Sidney’s Clause Four (adopted 1918) left open what that might be. In the 1920s, the Christian Socialist R H Tawney stitched Equality into the banner, but during the Depression young intellectuals such as Evan Durbin and Hugh Gaitskell designated Planning as Labour’s modern mission. After the Second World War, Clement Attlee followed the miners (and the London Passenger Transport Board) into Nationalisation. Harold Wilson tried to inject Science and Technology into the mix but everything after that was an attempt to move Labour away from state-regulated markets and in the direction of market-regulated states.

What made the recent leadership contest so alarming was how broken was the intellectual tradition. None of the candidates made anything of a long history of thinking about the relationship between socialism and what the people want. Yvette Cooper wanted to go over the numbers; only they were the wrong numbers. Andy Burnham twisted and turned. Liz Kendall based her bid on two words: “Have me.” Only Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have any kind of Labour narrative to tell and, of course, ever the ­rebel, he was not responsible for any of it. His conference address in Brighton was little more than the notes of a street-corner campaigner to a small crowd.

Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy’s dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a “burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive”. Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and “squashily pacifist” leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat”. And though Corbyn, as “a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist” (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see “The Lion and the Unicorn”, 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn’t just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.


Trouble is, this line of attack not only misrepresents the Labour leader, it misrepresents Orwell. For the great man was not as unflinchingly straight and true as some people think. It is impossible, for instance, to think of Orwell singing “God Save the King”, because he, too, was one of that “dreary tribe” of London lefties, and even when he joined Labour he remained ever the rebel. As for Corbyn, for a start, he is not badly dressed. He just doesn’t look like Chuka or Tristram. He may look like a threadbare schoolteacher, but Orwell was one twice over. Orwell was never a vegetarian or a teetotaller, but, like Corbyn, neither was he interested in fancy food (or drink), he kept an allotment, drove a motorbike, bicycled, cared about the poor, cared about the environment, loathed the empire, came close to pacifism at one point, and opposed war with Germany well past the time when it was reasonable to do so.

In Orwell’s thinking about socialism, for too long his main reference point was the London Marxist left. Not only did he make speeches in favour of revolutions, he took part in one with a gun in his hand. Orwell was far more interested, as Corbyn has been far more interested, in speaking truth to power than in holding office. His loyalty was to the movement, or at least the idea of the movement, not to MPs or the front bench, which he rarely mentioned. There is nothing in Corbyn’s position that would have shocked Orwell and, should they have met, there’d have been much to talk about: belief in public ownership and non-economic values, confidence in the state’s ability to make life better, progressive taxation, national health, state education, social care, anti-socially useless banking, anti-colonialism and a whole lot of other anti-isms besides. It’s hard to be sure what Orwell’s position would have been on Trident and immigration. Not Corbyn’s, I suspect. He was not as alert to feminism as he might have been but equally, few men try to write novels from a woman’s point of view and all Orwellians recognise that Julia is the dark hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In truth they are both austere types, not in it for themselves and not on anyone else’s expense account either. Corbyn won the leadership because this shone through from the very beginning. He came across as unaffected and straightforward – much as Orwell tried to be in his writing.

Except, as powerfully expressed in these pages by John Gray, Corbyn’s politics were made for another world. What sort of world would he need? First off, he’d need a regulated labour market: regulated by the state in partnership with a labour movement sensitive to what people wanted and experienced in trying to provide it. He would also need capital controls, a manufacturing base capable of building the new investment with Keynesian payback, an efficient and motivated Inland Revenue, a widespread public-service ethos that sees the country as an asset, not a market, and an overwhelming democratic mandate to get things done. In other words, Corbyn needs Orwell’s Britain – not this one – and at the very least, if he can’t have that, he needs the freedom to act that the European Commission forbids.

There’s another problem. Orwell did not trust left-wing intellectuals and spent half his life trying to work out their motivations as a class who spoke for the people, went in search of the people, and praised the people, but did not know them or believe in them. True, Corbyn says he wants to be open and inclusive, but we know he can’t possibly mean it when he says it will be the party, not him or the PLP, that will decide policy, just as we knew it couldn’t possibly be true when he said he’d turn PMQs into the People’s Question Time. Jeremy hasn’t changed his mind in forty years, appears to have great difficulty (unlike Tony Benn) in fusing socialism to national identity or experience (Hardie, Ben Okri and Maya Angelou were bolted on to his Brighton speech) and seems to think that not being happy with what you are given somehow captures the historic essence of socialism (rather than its opposite).

Granted, not thinking outside the ­circle is an inherent fault of the sectarian left but some of our most prominent left-wing journalists have it, too. Working-class support for nationalisation? Good. Right answer! Working-class opposition to benefit scroungers and further mass immigration? Bad. Wrong answer! Would you like to try again? In his essay “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus” (1947) Orwell reckoned that left-wing intellectuals saw only what they wanted to see. For all their talk of representing the people, they hated the masses. “What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group . . . there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry . . .”

The game is hard and he may go down in a welter of knives, yet Corbyn still has time. He may go on making the same speech – on the benefits of apple pie to apple growers – but at some point he will have to drop the wish-list and get on the side of the British people as they are, and live with that, and build into it. Only the nation state can even begin to do the things he wants to do. The quicker he gets that, the quicker we can see if the latest incarnation of new Labour has a future.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis