The New Statesman Essay - To uplift the souls of the people

Blair's call for moral purpose echoes a very old Labour theme

Why do politicians preach? One puzzle of end-of-millennium, end-of-history democracy is that office-holders or -seekers feel it appropriate, not merely to kiss our babies and plead with us for our votes, but also to tell us how we ought to behave.

Most of us simply take it for granted - as if political attainment had anything to do with being a superior person. On the face of it, a politician who delivers a sermon is a bit like a salesman who criticises your driving as soon as he has flogged you a car. Many people, however, treat it as part of the job description. The present Prime Minister - who has a good claim to be regarded as a bold and successful leader, but no particular reason to be seen, in personal terms, as anything more than a normally decent member of the human race - earned high praise for his speech at Bournemouth last month, in which he took what was widely seen as a strong moral lead. He spoke of the need for a "new moral purpose" that couldn't be left "all to the bishops". Citing Keir Hardie, he marked the Labour Party's centenary by declaring that "ours is a moral cause" best expressed through family life and that, moreover, "strong families cherished by a strong community" have become "our national moral purpose". He ended with a list of free-associated moral buzzwords ("The battleground. The new millennium") that brought the audience cheering to its feet.

More than other premiers, Tony Blair has made moral homily something of a trademark. He is not, however, the sole practitioner of this oratorical approach. Indeed, seldom a week goes by without one leading minister or another reminding us of the imperatives incumbent on us all: to be less feckless spouses, more dedicated employees, more thoughtful energy conservers or guardians of the environment. Sometimes the injunctions are addressed to the nation at large ("our national moral purpose"). Often they home in on a particular group - teachers who ought to work harder, parents who need to exercise more control over their children. But the underlying assumption is the same: high office is not merely to be regarded as a privilege and duty, to do with making decisions and regulating the affairs of state. It bestows a sacerdotal right to admonish, excoriate and give ethical guidance to the very people who put the holders of high office there in the first place.

The notion that political leaders, elected or not, have the right to lay down the moral law is an ancient one - long predating Blair, or democratic politics, or even Jesus Christ. In Britain, as in every European state, the authority of the monarchy was divine in origin, both by descent (Anglo-Saxon kings traced their ancestry from Wodin) and through consecration by the Church. The modern coronation service retains spine- tingling words that evoke ancient Germanic forests as well as the rolling language of the Old Testament. "And as Solomon was anointed King by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet," declares the Archbishop of Canterbury, making a sign of the cross with holy oil on the sovereign's hands, chest and head, "so be thou anointed, blessed and consecrated Queen [or King] over the Peoples, whom the Lord thy God hath given thee to rule and govern." At the end of the service, the congregation stands and shouts three times: "May the Queen [or King] live for ever!" - a biological absurdity, but a reminder, derived from earliest Anglo-Saxon and Frankish practice, of the monarch's god-like qualities.

During the Middle Ages, kings and priests battled over the dividing line between spiritual and temporal power. It was not until the 17th century that the spiritual authority of the monarch was definitively challenged. For a short time, autocracy and theocracy were combined in the person of the Lord Protector, who believed himself to be - in the most literal sense - the Almighty's earthly agent. After the Restoration and the Bloodless Revolution, the parliament-controlled crown changed in nature. In theory, it became no more than a constitutional convenience. In practice, supernatural powers continued to be ascribed to the occupant of the throne, and until well into the 18th century, "the king's touch" was widely believed to perform miracle cures.

Today, few imagine that touching Blair's raiment will cure the pox. Nevertheless, the propensity of prime ministers to make moral pronouncements of a kind that would never occur to a Swedish or Italian premier - or, for that matter, a president of the United States - owes much to the monarchical tradition of which our elective dictator is legatee.

There is here an important distinction to be made: between a use of language that routinely contains moral or religious idioms and a sermonising rhetoric aimed at persuading listeners to redeem themselves. For many centuries, everyday speech was imbued with phrases taken from the bible, and it was virtually impossible for any man of affairs to open his mouth or put pen to paper without invoking the deity. However, it was not until late in the Victorian period that a combination of spiritual and secular forces - religious revivalism, liberalism and socialism - reconstituted the Cromwellian belief in politics as an instrument of the divine will and gave it a new twist.

The People's William has a lot to answer for. The huge open-air congregations that turned out to hear Gladstone declaiming on the Irish Problem or the Armenian Massacres did not assemble for political edification or to help weigh rival party manifestos before casting their ballot. They came expecting to be swept up by a charismatic leader in a moral movement. As a result few statesmen have been held in greater reverence, and none has been regarded by critics as a more preposterous humbug - apart from the leaders of the new mass party the GOM did not live long enough to see emerge.

It is indeed fitting that the present premier should link his moral urgency with that of Keir Hardie - and not just because Hardie is regarded as Labour's founder. In a party of secular bible-thumpers, Hardie was the political preacher par excellence. He was also a gambler. From its inception, Labour was built on a wing and a prayer. In a way that wasn't true either of roundheads or of Gladstonian Liberals, British democratic socialists combined brave aspirations with a feet-on-the-ground acceptance that few of them would be carried out. Therein lay the true, and subtle, message of Clause Four of the 1918 constitution, which pledged the party to "social ownership" of just about everything - thereby providing inspiration to generations of comrades and causing little serious anxiety to capitalists.

As R H Tawney put it caustically, Labour, in declaring itself socialist, merely recorded a wish. The wish was never in much danger of being fulfilled. "The social revolution cannot be rushed," cautioned George Lansbury, the party's most radical leader. "It is impossible to transform a society as complex as ours from competitive behaviour to co-operative civilisation in a year, or even a century." The warning was apt. Sixty-odd years later, Labour has abandoned the attempt. What it has retained, however, is a tradition of moral entreaty, as a kind of geological trace.

From the start, the moralistic input into Labour was huge, often swamping other elements. The elitist Fabian Society focused on nuts and bolts and could be accused of neglecting vision. For most recruits and pioneers, however, vision was meat and drink. At times, the pioneering Independent Labour Party - Hardie's outfit - looked like a great, warm marshmallow of sentimental religiosity. The judgement that in Britain "the bible made more socialists than Karl Marx" contained more than a little truth. Many of the ILP founding fathers were non-conformist lay preachers - and those that weren't might well have been. British socialists have been dismissed as utopian. At times it would have been more accurate to describe them as mystical - taking the habits-of-mind of protestant non-conformity and applying them in a political setting.

Preachiness came with the territory. For example, there was the abortive but significant "Labour Churches" movement of the 1890s, an evolutionary missing link between socially concerned Christianity and atheistic rationalism: Labour Churches held meetings at which secular sermons were delivered, political hymns sung and the deity replaced by the labour movement as the object of veneration. At the same time, ILP pioneers drew heavily on their own religious roots. Philip Snowden - who began as a radical polemicist and ended up a fiercely orthodox chancellor under Ramsay MacDonald - made his name giving secularised lectures on "The Christ that is to be", while Bruce Glasier, another ILP leader, foresaw British socialism, like the risen Messiah, coming "as the very breath of April, full of sweetness and strength: and lo! In yet a while it will cause our valleys and cities to bloom anew with the glowing faces of men and women, and to be made glad with the music of children's feet." Fenner (later Lord) Brockway - an influential voice on the left until the 1980s - recalled being converted, Pauline style, by Hardie himself, and moving from one secular faith (called "the New Theology") to another, called socialism.

In 1907, the great socialist propagandist Robert Blatchford anticipated Tony Blair by more than nine decades: "the purpose of the socialist movement" in Britain, he said, was "to uplift the souls of the people . . . to weld the people into one human family". So it has continued to be, ever since - one reason why Labour has been able to lurch this way and that, as far as actual policy proposals are concerned, with astonishing rapidity.

Souls have been as important as bodies: the idea of socialism as a moral framework which, if adopted by enough people, would produce heaven on earth remains embedded in the rhetoric. Becoming a socialist had little to do with acquiring new opinions about nationalisation or the gold standard. Rather, it was about making a Christ-like commitment to a new way of life. It was about fellowship and about sacrifice. Above all, in Lansbury's words, it was about "the moral law which should have a freer play to mould and alter our lives" before any substantial changes could occur.

Moral reform of the citizenry had to precede, as well as be part of, the transformation of society. Such reform required justification by faith. The 1930s Socialist League - led by the Christian socialist Stafford Cripps - declared itself "an organisation of convinced socialists", ready to place "their devotion at the disposal of the movement for one specific purpose, the making of socialists".

In reality, there was a contradiction. As soon as Labour had enough convinced socialists at its disposal to be within spitting distance of power, it behaved with as much gritty attention to day-to-day practicalities as other parties. Long before Blair, a shrewd observer commented that all politicians may conveniently be divided into bishops and bookmakers - a view that seems to apply with peculiar aptness to the Labour Party where, indeed, the attributes of both callings are often to be found in the same individual. Labour today makes a virtue of its pragmatism. But it still likes to think of itself as a missionary force - "a moral crusade or nothing", as the arch-bookie Harold Wilson famously put it, in a speech that provided the unconscious reference point for Blair's remarks in Bournemouth.

Is the Conservative Party any different? No party has a monopoly on self-righteousness. All politicians like to take the high moral ground and issue platitudes to massage the consciences of supporters. However, there is a significant contrast, both of tone and objective. When Tories play the moral card, they do not seek to convert but to strike a chord. Both Thatcher's "Victorian values" and Major's "back to basics" were intended, not to take listeners to the promised land, but to provide reassurance. In her extraordinary personality, Margaret Thatcher identified instinctively with the cherished beliefs and prejudices of millions of ordinary voters, and gave forceful expression to them. She did not, however, preach a new morality. Rather, she embodied her own, caricatured, version of an old one.

In the end, Conservatives have usually been prepared to make the noises needed to gain votes. For Labour, on the other hand, winning on its own has always seemed a little tawdry. "There is no movement," MacDonald once put it, "which lays down with such uncompromising fidelity in secular affairs the creed that it profits a man nothing to gain the whole world if he loses his own soul." At times, hardship or national emergency have turned Labour homily into the language of exhortation. Cripps in the 1940s, urging the need to tighten belts, and Harold Wilson in the 1960s on the need to hold back wage increases, both made full use of the pulpit as an adjunct to - or substitute for - government action. Such occasions, however, have occurred against the background of a basic Labour unease, even guilt, about the actual possession of power that harks back to early visionary days. Ever since Labour first became a party of government in the 1920s, there has been a wrestle between the demands of gaining and retaining office, and of doing enough with it to make it seem worth having. Tories have not experienced the same conflict.

Tony Blair thus stands four-square in the mainstream Labour tradition. Despite attempts to distance himself from "old" Labour values, he has found himself singing very ancient Labour tunes. Indeed, so far from being "new", Blair's semi-religious emphasis on the concept of community harks back to chapel, co-op and union branch ideals that are many generations old - even if most modern listeners have lost sight of where they came from.

Labour politicians preach in order to dodge the real issues and because that is what their audiences still expect them to do, for deeply historic reasons. However, it remains an open question whether - in techno-obsessed, Euro-flabby, socially atomised, 21st-century Britain - the folk memories that give rise to such treatment will long remain.

The author is warden of Goldsmiths College, London