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 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