Faith in politics may be taboo, but we still crave a bit of morality

We need to be convinced that politicians care about society as a whole and see beyond sectional interests

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The Independent Online

I was talking recently to a serious-minded Conservative who is also a thoughtful member of the Church of England. She expressed distress that the bishops of her church continually seemed to advocate policies different from that of her party. For her there was a real relationship between her most fundamental beliefs and her political commitment. She was dismayed that this moral vision did not seem apparent to the leaders of her faith, a view echoed last week by David Cameron. I sympathised, and pointed out that there had been very little in the way of an intellectual Christian case for Conservatism for some time. The late Lord Hailsham put one forward some 50 years ago, as did Brian Griffiths (now Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach) at the time of Margaret Thatcher, but little else. No wonder that the Tories are widely perceived to be the defenders of those with assets, with hedge fund donors as their abiding symbol.

Traditionally the Conservative Party had a strong element of noblesse oblige. Alec Douglas-Home’s mother was heard to remark: “I think it is so good of Alec to do Prime Minister.” Where is that element now? A few do still enter politics, in part out of a sense of duty, but where is the vision of an Edmund Burke, perhaps the politician with the most deeply rooted and consistent moral sense in our history, who could legitimately be claimed by Conservatives as much as progressives?

Politics has always been about representing interests. It will be even more so after the election with the Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and Ukip making it clear that they will expect a major quid pro quo for any role in supporting a minority government. This is a proper part of democratic politics. But if this is all that a party offers it cannot help but come across as thin and diminished. For with all our grievous failings we human beings remain moral beings. There is an altruistic side to the most selfish person, a charitable element in the most cut-throat capitalist. A party that wants to come across as more than a coalition of narrow interests must communicate a sense that it is working for the benefit of society as a whole. The British may not like overt appeals to religion but there remains a  deep-seated sense of fairness in the population. We see this in the outrage at the way bankers can fail and still get their bonuses. We see it in the almost hopeless anger at the way our society seems to be in the grip of an international financial elite – and those who tuck into its slipstream – who can shift their cash to tax havens at will.

Labour starts from the opposite position. Drawing its strength from Methodist lay preachers and Roman Catholic trade unionists, as well as secular intellectuals, it has been a moral crusade or nothing. But there is a danger in moral visions. One is that powerful rhetoric can cover up a lack of thought-through policies. The other is to claim the high moral ground with the assumption that the other parties are driven only by self-interest. The British don’t like people who assume that only they have a moral position. The danger is very obvious in the case of religion, as we see in the contrast between the United States and Britain. In America, since the creation of a civic religion by Eisenhower and Truman, appealing to God is part of the rhetoric of any politician. Indeed there was a recent discussion about whether it would be possible for an atheist to be president. But in Britain the attitude was well summed up by Tony Blair, himself a religious man. When later asked why he did not bring religion more into the open when he was in power he replied that people would have thought him “a nutter”. The British do not like the assumption that God is only on one side of a debate, nor the assumption that morality belongs to one side only.

 

There is something fundamentally askew in our public life today, as shown by the lack of trust in politicians and the alienation, particularly of young people, from the political system. This needs addressing first at the personal level by all those standing for public office. Surveys show that despite the terrible loss of trust in politicians in the past decade the public still expects the seven fundamental standards of public life to be observed.

Personal integrity is valued above rubies, while any party wanting to govern must believe, and convey the belief, that its policies are morally based; that they are for the benefit not just of a sectional interest but the common good. And they must do this without appearing sanctimonious.

Lord Harries of Pentregarth is former Bishop of Oxford. His book 'Faith in Politics? Rediscovering the Christian Roots of our Political Values' (DLT) has been reissued with a new introduction for the election

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