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 age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood