Gordon Brown speaks in Glasgow on August 22, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Gordon Brown has bared the socialist soul he hid as Prime Minister

Fighting against Scottish independence, the former PM makes the case for social justice far better now than when he was in office. 

Labour's Scottish MPs have returned to Westminster from the referendum battle to take part in today's vote on the bedroom tax (one of the issues that the Yes campaign has best exploited). Their number includes Gordon Brown, who delivered a lengthy speech on Scotland in the Attlee Suite of Portcullis House this morning. In reference to his now fleeting appearances in parliament, he started by joking that "an official tour guide is showing me round later."

Better Together has often been accused of being too arid and technocratic, of failing to make a passionate and emotional case for the Union, but that is not a charge one can lay at Brown. With the oratorical force that allowed him to so ruthlessly dispatch his political foes (Tory and Labour), he argued that the unique achievement of the UK had been to create and maintain a state in which risks and resources were shared between four nations for the common good of their people. 

"Whereas the European Union is a single market, the United Kingdom is a social market," he observed. "And whereas the Americans share equal civil and political rights, Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland have gone further by sharing the same social and economic rights": a UK-guaranteed pension; assistance when unemployed, disabled, or sick; free healthcare at the point of need; and minimum standards of protection at work, including a UK-wide minimum wage. 

He called for a new "statement of national purpose" which stated explicitly that "The Union exists to provide security and opportunity for all by pooling and sharing our resources equitably for our defence, security and the social and economic welfare of every citizen", and urged Ed Miliband to include this proposal in the Labour manifesto. He added that he would "personally" also like to see a formal commitment to "the eradication of poverty and unemployment across the UK and to universal healthcare free at the point of need". 

Brown derided Alex Salmond's claim to the progressive mantle, noting that the SNP's "only" tax proposal was to reduce corporation tax to 3 per cent below the UK rate, and that, unlike Labour, the party did not support a 50p tax rate for earnings over £150,000, a bankers' bonus tax or a mansion tax. The biggest beneficiaries of the corporation tax cut, he noted, would be the privatised utilities. "So here you would have Ed Miliband in England, and Wales, and Northern Ireland freezing energy prices. The Scottish National Party in government, not freezing energy prices, because they refuse to do that, not making the energy companies pay the obligation for renewables, which Ed wants to do, but giving them, not a windfall tax, which we did in 1997 on their profits, but giving them a tax cut worth several scores of millions of pound."

Listening to Brown, what was most striking was how he made the case for social democracy with far greater clarity and passion than he ever did while Chancellor or Prime Minister. Then, permanently terrified of vacating the imagined centre ground, he redistibuted by stealth and only introduced a higher top rate of tax after the financial crisis, when it could be justifed as an act of fiscal necessity, rather than distributive justice.

Brown attacks Salmond for planning to cut corporation tax, but during his Chancellorship the main rate was cut from 33 per cent to 28 per cent, and he declared in his 2008 Budget: "I want to go further. We will reduce the tax again when we are able". He certainly never considered anything as radical as an energy price freeze, or a mansion tax (and spoke of but never delivered a "statement of national purpose"). But out of office, Brown has bared the socialist soul he previously disguised. Today he even quoted the old Marxist saw about each giving "according to their abilities" and receiving "according to their needs". 

Ed Miliband's great criticism of his mentor was always that he was scared of his own shadow, too preoccupied with winning over the Daily Mail and the Sun to fight for the social democratic Britain he believed in. It was his growing sense of frustration at the limits of Brown's approach that in part convinced him to run for the leadership in 2010. Red Gordon's performance today was another reminder of the gap between what was and what could have been.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496