It was Benjamin Disraeli who said that, while he did not mind the Old Man having the occasional ace up his sleeve, he wished he would stop pretending that God Almighty had put it there. He was referring to his Liberal opponent W E Gladstone. There are some of us who would make the same observation of Mr Tony Blair.
It may be that the so-called "war" in Afghanistan will turn out to be the joker rather than an ace. No matter. He is still trying to wage it using language in which secular moralism and religious fervour strive for predominance. Indeed, he is probably the most moralistic and religiose Prime Minister since Gladstone himself.
This does not mean that his religion is false, any more than Gladstone's was. Gladstone progressed from being a High Tory to believing in the People or, at any rate, in those people who were prepared to vote for him. He remained a High Churchman but nevertheless ended up as a hero of Nonconformity. In fact I grew up knowing several old men who had been christened "Gladstone".
David Lloyd George was brought up a Baptist but later professed a vague Pantheism, a belief in being at one with Nature, which proved useful in his seduction routines. His other favourite recreation was to stand round the piano at No 10 of a Sunday evening with his nearest and dearest, singing Welsh hymns.
It is difficult to establish what Stanley Baldwin really believed because most of his speeches, essays and addresses had been written for him by Thomas Jones, a civil servant and a wily Welshman. A recent book by Mr John Williamson on Baldwin, using as one of its principal sources Baldwin's speeches, was widely praised on account of the industry that had gone into it. None the less it seemed to me a misleading exercise, because most of Baldwin's speeches had been written by somebody else.
Neville Chamberlain was a Unitarian but did not allow that to interfere with his politics. Winston Churchill was an unbeliever but did not make a fuss about it. C R Attlee, in an interview with Mr Kenneth Harris, was asked:
"Would you say you are an agnostic?"
"I don't know."
Harold Wilson was born into a Congregationalist family but attended the local Baptist chapel because there was no Congregationalist establishment conveniently to hand. However, he later married in one, unsurprisingly so since his wife Mary was the daughter of a minister of that church. Wilson, though an infrequent attender at divine service, undoubtedly believed in God and in Christianity, which he tended to equate with the Boy Scouts.
James Callaghan was a Baptist, met his wife Audrey at the Sunday school and duly married her in the Baptist chapel. Having resigned from the Labour leadership, he once deputised for Mr Neil Kinnock when the latter felt unable to attend the Sunday morning religious service which then preceded the Labour conference.
Margaret Thatcher was brought up a Methodist and married Denis in Wesley's Chapel, City Road. This would presumably have been necessary in any event, the Church of England being excluded owing to her husband's status as a divorced person. Later, however, she became an Anglican, winning the approval of the local Chequers priest because of her attendance at church, which was assiduous by the standards of previous Prime Ministers.
In religion, Mr Blair most closely resembles Harold Macmillan. He is a High Churchman with a strong inclination towards Roman Catholicism. It was always being rumoured that Macmillan either had gone or was about to go over to Rome. As with him then, so with Mr Blair now. Indeed, a Roman Catholic friend of mine thinks it is high time he made up his mind – that he should not be using the Church as a convenience, popping into a service, whether with or without his wife Cherie (a proper Catholic), as the mood takes him.
In politics, however, Macmillan's views were the opposite of Mr Blair's, not because he was a Conservative – he was somewhere to the left of Mr Blair – but because he thought politics and religion should be kept apart. In an interview with the great political journalist Henry Fairlie he remarked:
"If people want a sense of purpose, they should get it from their archbishops. They should not hope to receive it from their politicians."
When Macmillan said this, in 1963, archbishops were archbishops, Donald Coggan at York, Michael Ramsey at Canterbury. Ramsey was a holy man though he was not much good at the practical side of life. He was once being entertained by a group of journalists at the Gay Hussar restaurant, Greek Street. He began to eat a veal escalope covered with breadcrumbs with evident relish. "This is exceedingly good fish," he said. "What is it?"
The manager, the late Victor Sassie, felt himself unable to contradict a Prince of the Church. He replied:
"Plaice, your Grace."
Though Ramsey was in some ways a disappointment, there is no one remotely like him around now. We even miss Robert Runcie, who was at least prepared to take on Margaret Thatcher. No cleric of substance and seniority has been willing to stand up to Mr Blair over the bombing of Afghanistan. Rarely has this particular trumpet, corroded though it may be, and defective in other respects as well, given forth such an uncertain sound.
In the silence of the bishops, it has been all the more easy for Mr Blair to fill the vacuum with the language of religion and morality, which he has perverted, as all politicians will. For instance, Operation Enduring Freedom has nothing to do with freedom, not so much because this is the last thing many of our allies are interested in – though that certainly comes into it – as because the operation, if it is about anything at all, is about safety and security, which are entirely different concepts.
In troubled times I like to turn to our greatest moral philosopher, Joseph Butler, Bishop of Durham, 1692–1752. He said to John Wesley:
"Sir, the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing."
Mr Blair exhibits a similar Enthusiasm. There is something else that Butler wrote which all of us, Mr Blair included, might ponder:
"Things and actions are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be: why then should we desire to be deceived?"Reuse content