Clean up Britain, but don't do it from the pulpit

Politicians should be promoting a practical, secular programmerather than indulging in spiritual waffling
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The Independent Online
Who was that hippie-ish guy who was so convincing about not mixing up religion and politics? Something, wasn't it, about Caesar and rendering? I forget. At any rate, he was right. Religion is unthinkable without spirituality; and politics is unthinkable with it.

Politics is a rough and worldly struggle for power. Imagine the chaos if John Major or Tony Blair really did run the country on Christian principles - the vigorous enthusiasm for disbursing higher-rate taxpayers of their riches in order to help their chances of salvation; the deep commitment to truth-telling that would make the party system unworkable. How would the House of Commons function if it were full of ardent cheek-turners?

Then there are the commandments against adultery and lust. If Western politicians strove to be Christian with as much sincerity as Middle Easterners strive to be Muslim, this would presumably result in London living under moral laws as tough as those of Tehran. They would also know that all other religions are Lies and a direct threat to the Faith, and Take Steps Accordingly. (Watch out, Bradford.)

But they don't, of course, mean that. Most politicians are, like most of their countryfolk, tepid contemporary believers, taking nothing too seriously and not expecting to be taken too seriously themselves. By ``Christian principles'' they intend one to understand only that they are generally well-intentioned and reassuringly traditionalist in a family setting.

Frances Lawrence says that she wants a national movement to renew civic values, and lets it be known that this is firmly based on her Christian faith. ``Based on'' we should have no problem with; if people gain inner strength and courage from religion, that is to be celebrated and admired. But if moral issues are to be translated into a practical political agenda, they need to be made secular and mundane. Legislating against certain classes of knives is a clear, secular political act; ``remoralising society'' is not.

Remoralising, indeed, re-anythinging, society implies a return to better times, which in this case means the Fifties, that relatively brief plateau of orderliness and social cohesion. As Peter Popham reports on page three of today's paper, it was a peculiar decade, shadowed by the war. Huge numbers of young men who might otherwise have been troublemakers had been killed or injured. Many more had been disciplined by service life. The state was, by modern standards, both large and powerful. And Fifties Britain led to Sixties Britain, so it wasn't quite as stable a decade as its admirers suggest.

Nor has any period in modern history been stable; accelerating change is our condition. It is our social burden and our private delight.

This hasn't stopped politicians locating the modern Fall in different decades. For the right, it was the Sinful Sixties, for the left, the Evil Eighties. Interestingly, each side uses the same word to attack the ``other side's'' decade of decadence. Conservatives criticise the selfishness of the Sixties, a time when ``my rights'' became paramount and duty was subverted. The left attacks the selfishness of the Eighties, when ``me, myself and I'' took precedence over community.

From outside the party prism, it's clear that both are right, but bigoted. Both the Sixties and Eighties were decades in which economic and technological change battered down the more deferential, statist and conformist societies that had come before. This has brought great liberation for some, and a terrible penalty for others. But there is no climbing back into the post-war womb.

There is no dark entropy at work, no inevitable falling apart. How many of us feel too liberated - personally too free? The big question for politicians is how a secular society based on the market, individual choice, a communications explosion and no settled religion or hierarchy, can be encouraged to emphasise belonging, duty, respect - those virtues idealised in our notion of the Fifties. Before then, human societies grew slowly and were rooted. They are no longer rooted; so how can we make our times more stable?

We can all think of bad ways. There could be an intolerant revival of fundamentalist religion; a new ideological Leader; a shrivelling impoverishment to drive us backwards; a shrill nationalist exit from Europe and the world. But it is one of the reassuring aspects of this decade that these all seem utterly implausible.

The benign answer is that politicians must now help form a social consensus about civic duty and public behaviour. Tony Blair and his too-quickly- dismissed new Labourites have been banging on about this for long enough. More recently, John Major jumped aboard the Frances Lawrence bandwagon. The difference, perhaps, is that Blair is readier to reassess the failures of his party in the Sixties than Major is to face up to the social deficit of the Eighties.

There is clearly some irritation in the Labour camp about the fact that, after years of talk about society and community, the Conservatives have so quickly seized Mrs Lawrence's newspaper-led initiative and jumped into step. That, though, is politics.

The important thing is that politicians should be arguing about a practical, secular programme - more teaching of civics, respect for the police and minorities, a harsher attitude to violence in the media, as well as in the street - rather than indulging in watered-down spiritual waffling. We can be more spiritual, more religious. And we can have a safer, more secure public culture. But they are entirely different things.