God may be dead - but not if you're a Conservative MP

It seems easier for Tories to 'come out' as gay than as godless, writes Paul Routledge
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IF YOU ARE a Tory, it is the ultimate political taboo.

There are 47 openly-declared humanists - people who do not believe in God - in both houses of parliament, but not one of them is a member of the Conservative Party. A Tory MP has admitted to being gay, but none will confess to being godless.

The 26 MPs willing to advertise their irreligiousness through membership of the Parliamentary Humanist Group are all Labour, although private estimates suggest that at least six Liberal Democrats do not believe in God either. There are also 21 unbelieving peers, again mostly Labour, but among them some Lib-Dems, including Earl Russell, son of Bertrand, the philosopher.

Robert Ashby, director of the British Humanist Association, asks: "Surely, 'coming out' as a humanist is not such a scandal?"

Well, yes, it looks very much that way. Jerry Hayes, Conservative MP for Harlow, says: "I cannot think of any Tory MP who is a genuine staunch unbeliever."

Statistically, he must be wrong. It is inconceivable that such a disparate group of more than 300 men and women in the last decade of the 20th century have a uniform belief in religion. Godless Conservatives - other than the garagistes - "self-made men [who] believe in their creator" - must exist.

The trouble is finding them. In 1963, Baroness Barbara Wootton, then president of the BHA, said humanists had to convince vacillating MPs that those who do not believe in God form a block vote at least as large as the church going population. "But before we achieve this, we will have to whip up some Conservative support." she argued.

Thirty three-years later, the Parliamentary Humanist Group still cannot call itself an All-Party Group because no Tory will join.

The nearest any Conservative has come to public doubts is an MP who supports disestablishment of the Anglican Church. Andrew Mackay, a Tory Whip and MP for Berkshire East, told a constituent, in writing: "For some time now I have had doubts about the Church establishment and agree with you that this is not a party political issue. I would therefore look favourably at any realistic proposals for disestablishment and would certainly not stand in their way."

Even this, however, falls far short of renouncing the Lord and all his works. Andrew Roth, publisher of Parliamentary Profiles and himself a humanist, can see why. "That would be crazy. It would be self-destructive. It would not be sensible to alienate part of your electorate. Humanism tends to be proclaimed when people have given up their political ambitions. This is the last frontier."

Fellow-humanist Professor Anthony Flew, an ardent free-marketeer, agrees that Tory freethinkers exist : "There is still a tendency in the Conservative Party to think that the MP reads the lesson in church. This is dying, even as the Church of England is dying. I should imagine unbelievers are, in practice, as common in the Conservative party as they are in Labour and the Liberal Democrats."

Michael Foot was an open rationalist, and Neil Kinnock affirmed rather than take the oath when he became a Privy Counsellor. But Tony Blair carries a Bible wherever he goes.

The 26 MPs named as members of the Humanist Group at Westminster are unquestionably only the tip of the iceberg. Labour's Godless Battalion runs right across the political and geographical spectrum, but Left-wingers (and, inexplicably, Scotsmen) are most prominent.

One of the faithless, Tony Banks, outspoken MP for Newham North West, looks at the Conservative benches and sees "stinking hypocrisy". He explains: "Many of them come from rural backgrounds, where the old squirearchy, with a pew in church and the chairman- ship of the local Tory Association still reigns."

Westminster is not the easiest environment for humanism to flourish. Christianity lurks behind every statue. Each daily session of the Commons is preceded by Prayers, conducted by the Speaker's Chaplain. In the Lords, the duty bishop conducts a similar ceremony, and Their Graces are vigilant for signs of irreverence. Indeed, Lord Sefton of Garston, a Labour peer, was actually gagged by the Upper House when trying to make a humanist speech.

Lord Sefton, who is unflattering about Blair's religious commitment, insists that "yes, of course" there are humanists on the Tory benches in the Lords. "Many of them. I know that there are many peers, of all shades of opinion, who share my disbelief." Yet they prefer to keep their doubts quiet, and understandably so. Historically, humanists have not been treated kindly by their fellow legislators.

Charles Bradlaugh, the radical Liberal elected to the Commons in 1880 by the voters of Northampton, was an advocate of birth control and lived with the feminist Annie Besant. He wished to affirm rather than swear on the Bible, and was prevented from taking his seat for five years. The Marquis of Queensberry, better known for being the tormentor of Oscar Wilde, was thrown out of the Lords because he was an unbeliever.

The stigma persists. We do not hear so much from the humanists as the Christians at Westminster, not least because sceptics are less disposed to thrust their doubts down other people's throats than conviction politicians are inclined to impose their certainties.

Their last organised vote was against compulsory religious education in schools several years ago. Yet they are still there, and their influence is discreetly growing.

Perhaps it is the transience at the heart of humanism that makes Conservatives shy away. A J Ayer, the philosopher, argued that humanists "think that this world is all we have, and can provide all we need". His gospel adds "We should try to live full and happy lives ourselves, and, as part of this, help to make it easier for other people to do the same."

Before Tony Blair's Easter message, this form of words might adequately have described Labour's traditional social outlook. The existence of a substantial, and growing, number of Labour MPs who do not feel the need to linking political with religious beliefs suggests he will meet with a secular revolt at some future point. For the Conservatives, it looks more like a collision with reality.

Does your MP believe in God?

The British Humanist Association lists 26 Labour MPs as members of the Parliamentary Humanist Group.

They are: Graham Allen (Nottingham North); Tony Banks (Newham North West); Ron Davies (Caerphilly); Harry Barnes (Derbyshire North East); Maria Fyfe (Glasgow Maryhill); Mike Hall (Warrington South); John Heppell (Nottingham East); Ken Livingstone (Brent East); Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar); Nick Brown (Newcastle East); Bob Hughes (Aberdeen North); John Maxton (Glasgow Cathcart); Michael Connarty (Falkirk East); Gordon McMaster (Paisley South); Bill Michie (Sheffield Heeley); Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff West); Colin Pickthall (Lancashire West); Brian Sedgemore (Hackney South and Shoreditch); Dennis Turner (Wolverhampton South East); Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan); John Gunnell (Leeds South and Morley); Michael Clapham (Barnsley West and Penistone); John Austin-Walker (Woolwich); Alice Mahon (Halifax); Roy Hattersley (Birmingham Sparkbrook) and Joan Lestor (Eccles).