Nothing left for Protestants

In his earnestness and abstemiousness, the new Prime Minister is drawing on roots deep in the Labour

Does the seizure of the Labour leadership north and south of the border by Presbyterian progeny signal the revival of religion in British public life? Both Gordon Brown and Wendy Alexander are self-consciously "children of the manse": happy, we are told, to bring their Protestant sensibility to bear upon public policy. Whether it is opposing supercasinos, or rolling back cannabis liberalisation, or calling for a "coalition of conscience" against the atrocities in Darfur, the Presbyterian ethos of "giving witness in life" has returned to the higher echelons of government.

But this is eyewash: the Protestant mindset has rarely played less of a role in Labour politics than now. A movement that once owed more to Methodism than Marx has lost sight of its religious prehistory. Thanks to the fashionable, secular fundamentalism of writers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and the unattractive evangelism of the US "moral majority", the British left has systematically abandoned the progressive Protestant voice. Labour's sense of mission is poorer as a result.

The Protestant inheritance has long been divisive. From the outset, the Reformation contained within it radical and conservative readings. While Martin Luther's split from Rome in 1517 offered a template of rebellion, his stress on scriptural authority (sola scriptura) gave the Bible's conservative edicts new force. Particularly attractive to authoritarian Protestant princes was Romans 13:1 - "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God." Here was godly sanction for state autarchy - a Protestant tradition of conservatism that would eventually find a British voice in "Church and King" Toryism.

But a reading of the Book of Acts could lead believers in a different direction: "We must obey God rather than man." For those Anabaptists in 1530s Münster and Calvinists in 1550s Edinburgh who decreed that their governments were in opposition to the rule of God, the response was revolution. Indeed, much of modern resistance theory - the duty to overthrow despotic authority that inspired revolutionaries in 1640s England and 1770s America - stems directly from the Protestant tradition.

Along with this came a focus on equality. In place of the inequitable hierarchy of the Catholic Church, Luther posited a "priesthood of all believers". But, his poorer followers were not slow to ask, why not social justice together with spiritual equality? In the beautiful words of William Tyndale, the genius translator behind the King James Bible, "As good is the prayer of a cobbler as of a cardinal, and of a butcher as of a bishop; and the blessing of a baker that knoweth the truth is as good as the blessing of our most holy father the pope." This was the socialist imperative of Protestantism, which would inspire generations of radicals, from the peasant leader Thomas Müntzer in 1520s Germany to the Methodist revival of 18th-century England to the civil rights mission of Martin Luther King, Jr.

With the scriptural reasoning came a culture of resistance and triumph. The Christian narrative of redemption, chronicled majestically in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, was transposed into the political realm. Socialism, a religion of humanity, was susceptible to this spiritual paradigm. So the most successful recruiting sergeant in the British socialist canon, Robert Tressell's Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, can only be understood fully as part of the Protestant tradition. In his charity and ascetic holiness, Frank Owen is a missionary operating in the darkest heathen terrains. His lonely, arduous work converting the fallen philanthropists - the hapless painters and decorators of Mugsborough - to Marxian socialism is a chronicle of sacrifice worthy of any biblical parable.

This tradition, of equality, duty and intense literacy, was Labour's religious preamble. For, uncomfortable as this may be to today's secular enthusiasts, the Labour movement from its earliest days was joined at the hip to Protestant Nonconformity. Its foundation place, the Congregational Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street, London, was a monument to one of the defining moments in Puritan history - Charles II's ejection of Dissenting ministers from the Church of England in 1662.

Early membership of the Independent Labour Party found its strongest support in the Nonconformist chapels of West Riding, County Durham and South Wales. The spirit of Dissent was felt keenly by its first leader, James Keir Hardie, who regarded socialism and Christianity as philosophical bedfellows. "The impetus which drove me first of all into the Labour movement, and the inspiration which has carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, than from all other sources combined," he explained in 1910. "The Labour movement in its very essence is essentially religious."

Clean living

Of particular inspiration for Labour's founding fathers was the Puritan example. Calvinist in theology, the "godly sort" of the early 17th century had been the motors for both the founding of the American Commonwealth and the energy of the English Civil War. Their moral rectitude and political certainty were rediscovered in the 19th century, as a statue of Oliver Cromwell was placed before parliament. In a transparently Puritan vein, Hardie began as a temperance campaigner and regarded abstinence, clean living and even vegetarianism as prerequisites for the life of a true socialist. Ramsay MacDonald was similarly infused with Roundhead spirit and in 1912 published "A Plea for Puritanism". "With the Puritan, character must always count," he lectured the troops of the nascent Labour movement. "The Puritan can no more ask what has private character to do with public life than he can ask what has theft to do with honesty."

The cult of abstinence continued into the 20th century in the fastidious form of Stafford Cripps and in the equally ardent teetotaller Tony Benn. Indeed, Benn's childhood memoir, Dare to Be a Daniel, is a celebration of the Puritan spirit: his early days were spent listening to Old Testament tales from parents who lived next to the Tate Gallery but never went inside. Benn's obsessive diary-keeping is a product of the Puritan impulse: a combination of personal vanity with an obsessive commitment to record every hour and justify it to God. But Benn himself is in denial about this Puritan genealogy. Talking to me last year among the pews of Burford Church in Oxfordshire - commemorating Levellers' Day - he insisted that the Labour Party was a secular institution born of a collective of workers, trade unionists, socialists and intellectuals. The Dissenting tradition had been politely excised.

His voice is a common one. Despite the church service that will begin this month's Labour conference, Protestantism is largely absent from the modern party's policymaking and ethos. Of course, Christian groups play a role around the edges - notably in the Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History campaigns - but the still, quiet voice of Puritan struggle has been lost. An ambitious young backbencher would be far wiser to join Labour Friends of Israel than the Christian Socialist Movement. Moreover, among leading figures within the party's powerful Scottish caucus, Catholicism often plays a stronger card.

Grinning popes

This spiritual amnesia is strange, given the intense religiosity of the last Labour leader. But Tony Blair's Protestantism was of an ecumenical, Anglo-Catholic nature (witness his Cardinal Newman gift to an indecently grinning Pope) and wholly devoid of the grinding self-doubt central to the Puritan soul. There was certainly a Manichaean tinge to his geopolitics - with its arcs of extremism and its existential struggles against Islamism - but little historic connection to the "Good Old Cause".

Brown is different: raised in the precepts of the Church of Scotland, he is a Puritan in the greatest sense of the term. Despite dismissing the label at a recent press conference with a misquotation from Mark Twain ("It [London] was no place for a puritan, and I did not long remain one"), his seriousness and even dourness shine through as readily as Maggie Thatcher's Methodist make-up. Visitors to Downing Street these days find an air of closed-door, hushed studiousness in contrast to the more gregarious Blair days. Only someone with Brown's Calvinist inheritance could conjure the slogan "Make Work Pay". He also seems to be thinking more broadly about the Protestant sensibility, citing the anti-Nazi Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his recent book Courage: Eight Portraits, and looking closely at the attempt of the Democrat evangelist Jim Wallis to revive progressive Protestantism in America.

But Brown is in the minority. Today, we don't want morality from our politicians: the examples of Pat Robertson in the US or Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland make many on the left instinctively wary of faith-based politics. Yet there remains so much unique to the Protestant tradition - its calling of autonomy and equality; its culture of education and literacy; and its genealogy of struggle - that the left should cherish. To abjure this inheritance for a knee-jerk, left-liberal atheism is a product of both historic illiteracy and intellectual arrogance. Instead of denying its Protestant past, the Labour movement should lift up its eyes and reacquaint itself with the party's founding principles.

Tristram Hunt's TV series "The Protestant Revolution" begins 12 September at 9pm (BBC4)

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Why Boris and London deserve each other

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The Brexit odd squad

The Brexiters are resilient and have the support of some unlikely foreign allies. Can they really topple the political establishment and lead Britain out of the European Union?

Look at the troops arrayed on the Leave and the Remain sides in the June referendum and you might think that our continued membership of the European Union is assured. On the side of staying in the EU are Britain’s four living prime ministers, the International Monetary Fund, the Treasury, most members of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, the Trades Union Congress, the Confederation of British Industry, the governor of the Bank of England, the head of the NHS, Britain’s three largest trade unions and the US president. Leave has Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and the contested ghost of Margaret Thatcher.

Yet few expect the final result of Britain’s In/Out referendum to be as asymmetric as that roll-call would suggest. At the top of the pro-EU campaign Britain Stronger in Europe, there is no doubt: it could lose.

So what – and who – is responsible for the unlikely appeal of Brexit’s “odd squad”? And how do they work together when their side is so fractious and its big personalities seem so uninterested in teamwork?

The story begins on the morning of 20 February, when David Cameron summoned his cabinet to announce the results of his EU renegotiation and ask his ministers to support Britain’s continued membership of the Union. Those who did left by the front door; the six dissidents were asked to leave by the tradesman’s entrance.

Nipping out the back were the full cabinet members Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale, plus the employment minister, Priti Patel, who has the right to attend cabinet meetings. They soon reconvened at Vote Leave’s headquarters, a nondescript tower block in Westminster, where they posed with a giant sign bearing the campaign’s slogan “Vote Leave, take control” – a sight more reminiscent of a group of local councillors vowing to protect a bus lane than the upper reaches of the British political class.

Then again, the cabinet Leavers are not, on the whole, an impressive bunch. Villiers and Grayling were among the casualties of the formation of the coalition government in 2010, moving from their briefs to make way for Lib Dems, and both had to be content with junior posts until the 2012 reshuffle. Since then, Villiers has been a competent if uninspiring operator in Northern Ireland. Grayling was widely held to be a failure at the Ministry of Justice and now serves as Leader of the House of Commons, historically the antechamber between full cabinet rank and the wilderness.

As for Whittingdale, he is that rare creature in Whitehall: a secretary of state for culture, media and sport who does not regard the post as a stepping stone to bigger things. As the recent white paper on the future of the BBC showed, the golden thread of his thinking is scepticism: towards the EU, the BBC and regulation of the press. He was Margaret Thatcher’s last political secretary in Downing Street and, after becoming an MP in the 1992 election, he set up meetings between the former prime minister and his fellow new boys from the 1992 intake – meetings that John Major blamed for fanning the flames of Eurosceptic rebellion in the dog days of his premiership.

Priti Patel also has impeccable Eurosceptic credentials. She cut her teeth as a press officer to the Referendum Party, set up in a doomed attempt to secure an In/Out referendum in 1997. Following William Hague’s election as Tory leader and the adoption of complete hostility towards the single currency, she joined the Conservative Party, becoming an MP in 2010.

She is best known for contributing to Britannia Unchained, a series of essays by Patel and four of her fellow 2010-ers (including Dominic Raab, widely expected to run for the Tory leadership next time). The book was intended to provide the intellectual ballast for a revivified Thatcherism, though the only part that attracted headlines was the claim that British workers were “among the worst idlers in the world”.

This dubious crew of ministerial heavyweights has grown marginally more likeable since Duncan Smith’s resignation as work and pensions secretary. Yet it is not his six-year tenure as a minister but his two-year stint as Tory leader that has left the biggest mark on the Brexit debate, with his former hires among the loudest advocates for a Leave vote – including the founding editor of ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie, now at Gove’s old newspaper the Times. (In the unhappiest periods of Cameron’s first term, when the Prime Minister was frequently criticised by Montgomerie in that newspaper, Cameroons would mutter about the irony that one of their sharpest critics had served as chief of staff to the least successful leader of the Conservative Party in its history.)

As for Michael Gove, though he is loved by lobby journalists, he remains a hate figure in the country at large and particularly among teachers, as a result of his belligerent tactics during his time as secretary of state for education.

***

The last of the senior Brexit-supporting Tories didn’t leave through the back door that morning because he hadn’t yet declared his position. That came the next day, in a media scrum outside his home in Islington, north London.

The former mayor of London Boris Johnson is still Britain’s most popular politician, surviving crises and scandals that would have left others dead in the water. He is also the only politician whom the Remain campaign truly fears. But Johnson is not a wholly congenial presence among Britain’s Brexiters. Although he is a far more adept planner than his dishevelled appearance – or his paper-thin record at City Hall – would suggest, he can be difficult to manage. His  weekly Telegraph column has largely been turned to cheerleading for Brexit but Vote Leave’s biggest gun doesn’t always point in the direction its chief strategists would like.

During Barack Obama’s visit to the UK in April, Johnson became embroiled in a war of words in which he suggested that the president had an ancestral dislike of Britain because of his “part-Kenyan” heritage. Having made this racially charged argument in the Sun, he extended the story needlessly by giving a similarly robust interview to the Daily Mail, much to the frustration of staffers at Vote Leave.

So there you have it. An unpopular firebrand, an unsuccessful former Tory leader, four relative nonentities and a blond bombshell who is considered clever but uncontrollable. It is less a huddle of Big Beasts than a grotesque menagerie – and these are among the sensible, mainstream voices on the Leave side. The other politicians who can get on to the Sunday shows to talk Brexit include Nigel Farage, who is adored by the four million people in Britain who voted Ukip in last year’s general election – and hated by the remaining 42 million. Yet he is a national treasure compared to George Galloway, formerly of Labour, who secured just 37,000 votes in the mayoral election. An unkind observer might say that none of the Brexit-backing politicians can stop traffic: half of them because they are unknown and the other half because most people would quite like to run them over.

There are also few compelling figures from business, sport, entertainment and science backing Brexit. Ian Botham is a rare celebrity Outer. “Cricket is a game where you achieve the greatest success when you are confident in your own ability to go out and stand proud,” he wrote in the Sunday Times. “Britain has that spirit.” In April, a slew of acts withdrew from a gig in Birmingham after finding out that it was organised by Leave.EU. Only Phats & Small, whose last hit was in 1999, refused to pull out.

Then there’s the infighting. To give just one example of the ongoing civil war, Vote Leave – the officially recognised campaign group for Brexit – believes Farage is so toxic to its cause that it regards his invitation to appear in a TV discussion alongside Cameron as an establishment stitch-up. “ITV has effectively joined the official In campaign,” said a Vote Leave statement to journalists on 11 May, written by Dominic Cummings, the campaign’s director. “There will be consequences for its future – the people in No 10 won’t be there for long.”

***

In the light of all this, why are the pro-Europeans so worried? Many feel that the current campaign is beginning to remind them of a nightmare year: 2011, when Britain voted decisively to reject electoral reform by moving from first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote (AV). Around the time of the 2010 general election, polls had shown that Britain was in favour of the change by a 27-point margin. But on 5 May 2011, more than two-thirds of voters said No to AV, which ended up more than 35 points ahead.

What undid the Alternative Vote was a ruthlessly effective campaign against it – one that was almost completely fact-free. No2AV focused relentlessly on the cost of a new voting system; poster after poster made reference to its illusory price tag of £250m. “He needs bulletproof vests,” intoned one illustrated with a picture of a soldier, “NOT an alternative voting system.” Another came with a picture of a baby: “She needs a new cardiac facility, NOT an alternative voting system.”

As one veteran of the pro-AV campaign recalled recently: “It was impossible to fight. How do you repudiate it without repeating it? We never found a way.”

That appeal to economic interests was so powerful that Vote Leave has come up with a similarly memorable figure: the £350m weekly cost of Britain’s EU membership. This has been debunked by fact-checkers such as Full Fact, which estimates that the UK pays roughly £9.8bn a year once money back is taken into account. Regardless, Vote Leave keeps quoting the figure – and no wonder, because the chief executive of Vote Leave is also the architect of No2AV’s crushing victory: a 38-year-old LSE graduate called Matthew Elliott.

Despite Vote Leave’s anti-politics flavour, Elliott is a Westminster insider and well connected in the wonk world. He is the founder of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the most high-profile of a close network of think tanks that are a proving ground for a rising generation of right-wingers. The Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute together form what one alumnus jokingly calls a “Sorbonne for neoliberals”.

Much of Vote Leave’s staff is drawn from another Elliott creation: Business for Britain. The group was set up ostensibly to lobby for David Cameron to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU but was in reality designed as a Leave campaign in utero. Accordingly, many of its early recruits have ended up moving across.

Elliott is regarded as having a keen eye for talent and for being generous with his time. At each organisation where he has worked, he has taken care to bring on promising protégés. Alumni of the Elliott school include Susie Squire, who spent two years at the heart of Cameron’s administration as press secretary; Nick Pickles, head of UK public policy at Twitter; and Dylan Sharpe, the combative head of public relations at the Sun. Most of his favourite employees have three things in common: libertarian politics, a cut-throat instinct and loyalty to him personally. Those who have worked for Elliott largely speak highly of him.

The same cannot be said for the second leading player in Vote Leave who has the Remain side worried: Gove’s former henchman Dominic Cummings. David Laws – who, as a junior minister, worked closely with Cummings when he was at Gove’s Department for Education – describes him as a “grade-A political Rottweiler”. “As well as being bright,” Laws writes in his memoirs, “Dom Cummings was also blunt, rude, impatient and tactless.” According to friends of both, without Cummings’s encouragement, Gove would have been a mostly silent presence in the Leave campaign because of his close friendship with Cameron.

The former special adviser’s commitment to anti-Europeanism is a long-held one – his first job in politics was at Britain for Sterling, which lobbied against Britain joining the European single currency in the 1990s. Thereafter, he worked for Iain Duncan Smith during his brief and unhappy leadership. A former staffer from that time remembers him as an “abrasive presence”.

After Duncan Smith’s removal as Tory leader, Cummings retreated to his native Durham, where he helped to engineer victory for the No side in the referendum on whether to give the north-east its own devolved assembly. It was the tactics used in that referendum – an endless focus on costs, coupled with personal attacks on the credentials of the Yes side – which were taken on and extended by Elliott during the AV contest. Those tactics are once again on display in this referendum.

That partly explains why, on the Remain side, Cummings is respected and feared in equal measure. Yet his confrontational approach often proves his undoing: for instance, he understood the importance of giving a cross-party sheen to Vote Leave (not least to secure the official campaign designation), yet his conduct led to the departure of the Eurosceptic Labour MP Kate Hoey. “We live in a world where people get things by being nice to each other,” reflects a former colleague of Cummings, “and Dom doesn’t really work like that.”

Hoey’s walkout set the ball rolling on another, less dramatic exit: John Mills, Labour’s largest private individual donor and a Brexiter of many years’ standing. He feared the Vote Leave brand had become irrevocably Conservative. (Unlike Hoey, Mills remains on speaking terms with Vote Leave.)

Friends say that, for Elliott, who has been “planning this [campaign] for some time”, Cummings’s disposition is a price worth paying for his tactical nous. It was Cummings who was the architect of Vote Leave’s two-pronged strategy: claiming that the money we now pay to the EU could go towards the NHS, and suggesting that Brexit will allow us to cut immigration by “regaining control of our borders”.

The perceived cut-through of the latter message with older Labour voters was behind Vote Leave’s big tactical gamble. On 8 May, an official statement by the campaign declared that leaving the EU would also entail leaving the single market.

That decision is unlikely to find favour with big businesses that rely on international trade but it does allow Vote Leave to make strong and unambiguous claims about cutting immigration. If we are outside the European Union but inside the single market (as Norway is), we would have to accept free movement of labour. If we leave the single market, however, we could introduce a points-based entry system, or even finally achieve Cameron’s otherwise impossible cap on net migration.

Upset business but win over small-C conservative voters: it’s a big risk for the Brexiters to take. It represents a throw of the dice by Cummings, who sidelined Nigel Farage precisely in order to minimise the campaign’s focus on immigration. But with the vote scheduled to take place on 23 June and a repeat of last year’s refugee crisis in the Mediterranean looming, security and borders are likely to be at the forefront of voters’ minds. For all that those on the Brexit side have denounced Cameron for running a repeat of “Project Fear”, they know that they have to make change less terrifying than maintaining the status quo.

***

In their quest to take Britain out of the EU, the Brexiters have a simple, if high-stakes, strategy. They want to appear to be the underdogs (hence their repeated complaints about the government’s £9m pro-EU leaflet) and as a scrappier, grass-roots campaign taking on the might of the establishment. Naturally, this image doesn’t reflect an unvarnished truth: the press has been largely onside and senior editors and columnists are very willing to take Vote Leave’s calls.

There is also no concern about keeping the lights on. Arron Banks, the insurance magnate who bankrolled Ukip at the 2015 general election, might have refused to fund Vote Leave after it triumphed over his favoured vehicle, Leave.EU – he has called Matthew Elliott “Lord Elliott of Loserville” and threatened to sue the Electoral Commission for naming Vote Leave the official voice of Brexit – but insiders say that the campaign’s financial position is nothing to worry about.

If Vote Leave wins, it will have scored an extraordinary victory – and, it should be noted, defied the hopes of most of our allies in the rest of the world. The politicians backing Britain’s continued membership of the EU include not just Barack Obama but his likely successor, Hillary Clinton, as well as the prime ministers of Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

There is a vanishingly small number of international politicians who back Brexit. Like the inner core of Vote Leave, they are overwhelmingly drawn from the right-wing fringe – US Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and the French National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, who, unhappily for the Brexiters, is expected to visit Britain to support their case.

The only foreign leader who seriously supports a British Leave vote in June is a man praised by Nigel Farage and whose country Dominic Cummings spent several years working in: Vladimir Putin, who, as far as British voters are concerned, is even more toxic than Farage, Galloway or Gove.

When Britain’s odd squad looks abroad for allies, its options are few – but this ragtag collective is far from beaten. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad