Sir Nicholas Winton at the ceremony in Czechoslovakia
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Leader: Lessons of the Kindertransport

On 28 October, the day Britain ­announced it would not support search-and-rescue ­missions aimed at preventing migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean, Sir Nicholas Winton, who is 105, was honoured at a ceremony in Prague.

When a senior minister speaks of our towns and cities being “swamped” by immigrants you know two things: that the government is rattled and that an ill wind is blowing through the land. Nations turn inwards when people feel unhappy and insecure. The outsider, welcomed in good times, is perceived as a threat, an agent of change, even of chaos.

The remark made by Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, has since been withdrawn. Apparently, he did not mean what he said. Mr Fallon is not a bad man but he has the buffoonish manner of a small-town alderman who doubles up as captain of the local golf club. And he is meant to be one of David Cameron’s more sensible and reliable lieutenants.

What is clear is that our politics is becoming ever more fragmented, with no one party able to command the kind of support that would guarantee a strong majority government in next May’s general election. This fragmentation is testament to the collapsing authority of the political class and to the havoc being wrought by the forces of globalisation: the free flow of capital and people, open markets, the dominance of a deracinated plutocracy, instantaneous digital communication. Ed Miliband used to say, in the depths of the Great Recession, that the latest crisis of capitalism had provided a “social-democratic moment”. It had created the space in which to build a new society and political economy and he would lead that change.

That was then. Today, with Labour’s poll ratings so poor, Mr Miliband is fighting insurgencies on several fronts – against the Greens and the UK Independence Party in England, and the Scottish National Party and an assortment of leftist pro-independence groupings in Scotland. The age of two-party politics is over and that, at least, should be welcomed.

Mr Miliband is also reported to have instructed his MPs to address the issue of immigration and engage candidly with voters about their anxieties. But we would caution him and his party against making a right turn and of indulging the prejudices of Ukip and its supporters.

On Tuesday 28 October, the day that Britain ­announced that it would not support search-and-rescue ­missions aimed at preventing migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, Sir Nicholas Winton (pictured), who is 105, was honoured at a ceremony in Prague. As a young man, Sir Nicholas had arranged for hundreds of Jewish children from Czechoslovakia to escape Nazi terror and find safety with foster families in the UK. Some of those whose lives were saved and who travelled to Britain on the Kindertransport were at the Prague ceremony.

Today’s refugees, whether they are fleeing war in Syria and Iraq, the torment of life in Gaza or the poverty of the sub-Saharan African interior, want no less than what anyone would want for their families: security and stability. So forlorn are most of those seeking to make the perilous journey from North Africa to southern Europe that they are compelled to submit to the demands of nefarious traffickers and risk their lives on the high sea.

The challenges of immigration and the mass movement of peoples will not be solved by Britain seeking to leave the EU or by nations closing their borders to refugees from failed or crumbling states. Nor will the pledge by the EU to limit search-and-rescue missions deter the desperate. The people will come or attempt to come.

The world’s population is seven billion; it is forecast to reach 11 billion by 2100, by which time the pressures of overpopulation and resource scarcity will be even greater. In an interview with the NS in 2009, ­David Miliband, then foreign secretary, said: “Foreign policy is ­inseparable from domestic policy now.” The interconnectedness of the world today means that analysis was broadly ­correct – and, consequently, we must not retreat into fearful ­nationalism and protectionism, but engage with the world in and through multilateral organisations. And as politicians talk of immigrants “swamping” our island, we should heed the example of Nicholas Winton, a true and compassionate ­humanitarian. 

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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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.

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