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1 July 2002

The lesson the Prime Minister forgot

Nick Cohen talks to Peter Thomson, the guru who guided Blair to the Christian socialism of John Macm

By Nick Cohen

Most of the slogans from the nativity of new Labour are rotting down in the compost bin of history. “Stakeholding” and the “Third Way” briefly baffled some of the best minds in academia and journalism (not a hard task, I grant you), before being abandoned by the party or mocked to death by its critics. Only one ideological concept survives. The belief in the “rights and responsibilities” that flow from belonging to the community is invoked as often today as it was in the mid-1990s.

If sluttish mothers want the right to receive child benefit, they must meet their responsibilities to the community and send their children to school. The unemployed must take whatever menial work the community, as represented by the job centre, can offer or lose their right to the dole. The rich must . . . well, the rich don’t have to do anything, not even pay taxes, but we’ll leave them alone for the time being.

When cynics accuse Blair of being chaff in the wind, he replies that he has an unshakable and non-negotiable passion for the community. “Our values are clear,” he declared to the Christian Socialist Movement last year. “The equal worth of all citizens, and their right to be treated with equal respect and consideration despite their differences, are fundamental. So, too, is individual responsibility, a value that, in the past, the left sometimes underplayed. But a large part of individual responsibility concerns the obligations we owe one to another. The self is best realised in community with others.” In his ill-judged speech to the Women’s Institute a year earlier, Blair managed to stammer out: “At the heart of my beliefs is the idea of community. I don’t just mean the villages, towns and cities in which we live. I mean that our fulfilment as individuals lies in a decent society of others. My argument to you today is that the renewal of community is the answer to the challenges of a changing world.”

His meanderings appear too banal to be worth discussing. No one believes that a man can be an island unto himself, not even Margaret Thatcher. Wags dismiss Blair’s “community” as an empty word: a concept as slippery as oil on glass. For Blair, however, the meaning is precise. The community is generally the state. Benefits to the poor and the civil liberties enjoyed by everyone are no longer absolute rights, but negotiable concessions that may be withdrawn by the community if the recipients do not meet their responsibility to uphold the communal standards set down by his state.

The story of how Blair came to his harsh communitarianism has been told without criticism in several instant biographies and scores of articles. The public schoolboy went to Oxford and messed about with dire student rock bands. He was a typical young man of his time and class until he met Peter Thomson, an Australian graduate student and militant Christian. Blair found in Thomson a “spellbinding” figure. Thomson found in Blair an acolyte whose unformed and apolitical mind could be directed to the work of John Macmurray, a communist who became a Christian socialist philosopher. Macmurray’s writings turned Blair from a raw youth into a man with the ideas to lead his country.

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“If you really want to understand what I’m all about, you have to take a look at a guy called John Macmurray,” said Blair, just after he became Labour leader. “He was influential – very influential. Not in the details, but in the general concept.”

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The dominant political emotion of the mid-1990s was to raise an unquestioning cheer for a Labour leader who could at last get rid of the Conservatives. But a few cautious souls did want to know what Blair was “all about”. It was plain that he cut all intellectual links with the right of the Labour Party as much as with the left. He gave every sign of regarding Labour history as an idiotic error from start to finish. Macmurray’s ideas apparently filled the ideological space left by the death of the Labour movement. They may have commended themselves to Blair in two respects.

First, the precis of Macmurray’s thought peddled by the incurious press – that individualism starved people of a feeling of community – was unthreatening and a welcome antidote to the Tory belief that there was no such thing as society. Second, that was all the press and virtually every intellectual historian knew about Macmurray. No one was likely to point out that there was a little more to the philosopher than communal hugs. As Sarah Hale of Sussex University notes in the current issue of the Political Quarterly, Macmurray was a media don and popular philosopher from the 1930s to 1950s, but “is unremarked and unremembered” today. His obscurity hides the undoubted truth that, if he were still with us, he would abhor the Blair government.

One of the few who did know Macmurray’s work and follow his precepts was Thomson. The day after Blair came to power in 1997, he told the Times that his comrade would follow Macmurray’s ideas of community based on the divine gift of friendship. “There’s so much to be said . . . to tell people that this is for real, that they can trust this bloke. Something happened yesterday. People said: ‘Let’s work together for the common good, to build a more civilised society.’ These are spiritual concepts.”

Thomson has worked in an inner London parish and for the Bishop of Stepney, and still does many good and charitable works. He is an open man. When I asked about what parts of his and Macmurray’s teachings he could see in Blair’s policies, he didn’t do what most prime ministerial friends would have done and slam the phone down.

“Tony learnt about the importance of community and society, but that’s about it,” he said.

“But,” I replied, “surely there was more to the Christian socialism you shared than ‘the importance of community’. What do you think Macmurray would have thought about all this cutting of benefits to the poor?”

“Well, I don’t think Tony’s ever tried to use Macmurray as a source of social policy and I don’t want to comment on his policies. But I would say that the communitarianism of today can cross a line and end up like vigilantism – not that it’s not well-intentioned, but these things are very tricky . . . they can take away notions of freedom of choice.”

Thomson assured me again that he didn’t want to comment on specific policies. Then he followed up his warning about “vigilantism” and the threat to “freedom of choice” by saying that the state was “teetering on the brink of collectivism” and threatening the individual. These seemed like pretty specific comments to me. Thomson has come a long way from his spiritual raptures of May 1997, but stayed close to the Macmurray who Blair says was the greatest intellectual influence on his politics.

In her piece in the Political Quarterly, Hale quotes Macmurray at length to show that his definition of “community” was the exact opposite of Blair’s. For the forgotten philosopher, community “is the idea of a relationship between us which has no purpose beyond itself; in which we associate because it is natural to human beings to share their experience, to understand one another, to find joy and satisfaction in living together”. What Blair means by “community” – society, the state – is external and compulsive, the exact opposite of Macmurray’s community of spontaneous, unforced fellowship.

To make matters worse – or better – Macmurray was absolutely opposed to restricting the welfare state on any grounds. “Getting rid of unemployment, providing hospitals and recreation grounds and better schools for the poor and so on is very necessary but is no substitute for personal morality. It is a matter of bare justice, and it has got to be done . . . What the unemployed need is not pity from a distance, but their bare rights as members of an astonishingly wealthy community.” There is no mention of rights being dependent on the poor proving they are responsible and deserving.

As for the related notion that the individual must serve the state, Macmurray said it treated human beings as “animals, not persons”. We “have to stop the false idea that it is a good thing to serve society and its institutions”, he cried, in language that would get him expelled from new Labour. “It isn’t. It is an evil thing.” In Macmurray’s ideal world, people care for each other not because they are forced to, but because they want to. A philosophy further away from Blairism has yet to be invented.

Why, then, did Blair say that if you wanted to understand him, you must understand Macmurray? Perhaps he meant it at the time. Perhaps the caveat that Macmurray’s influence dwelt “not in the details, but in the general concept” was a lawyerly get-out. Perhaps Blair assumed that every political leader needs the gravitas of a political philosophy and picked a half-remembered name from his student days, assuming that no one would check. The Prime Minister has form in this respect. When he wanted to present himself as a working-class lad, he pretended he had seen Jackie Milburn play for Newcastle. When he wanted to pretend he’d had a daring youth, he claimed he’d tried to stow away on a plane to the Bahamas. Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe he did read Macmurray once. If he did, he shows every sign of having forgotten every word.