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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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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