Gods can play havoc with politics

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THIS SEEMS rather an early stage in Tony Blair's tenure as leader of the Labour Party to be assuming that he is about to win the next general election. Yet some sections of the media were doing that, even before Mr Blair had become leader. It might, on the whole, be better to wait until the Tories and the tabloids have had time to do their worst with Mr Blair, before assessing the future prospects of the new leader.

Even assuming Mr Blair to be invulnerable in his personal life - unlike Bill Clinton - there are questions to be asked about what he stands for. He has identified himself as a Christian socialist. Does a nation that is mostly neither Christian nor socialist want a Christian socialist as its prime minister?

Possibly it does. There are probably people who, without being either Christian or socialist, would feel obscurely comforted at having a Christian socialist - that is, some kind of all-purpose goody-goody - in charge of the destinies of their country. Such people there may be, but if I were Mr Blair, I would not count on there being an awful lot of them.

There are also people who have an irresistible inclination to count the spoons when they hear a politician going on about how religious he is. I suspect such people are considerably more numerous than is the group of non-Christian non-socialists harbouring a hankering to be ruled by a Christian socialist.

It is not true to say that religion and politics don't mix. They do mix, but the mixture can be explosive. Examples of explosive mix include Iran and Bosnia, Lebanon, Algeria, the Indian subcontinent (especially the Punjab and Kashmir); Armenia and Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Sudan - all places bursting with religious politicians.

Readers will say that conditions in such places are far too exotic to have any relevance to a conjuncture of religion and politics in the United Kingdom. Yet this is not quite so. In the only part of the United Kingdom where religion and politics habitually converge, conditions already approximate those in Bosnia. 'Up here we vote our religion,' a taxi-driver said to me once in Belfast. They do, and some of them also shoot and bomb their religion.

The evidence abundantly establishes that the convergence of religion and politics can be explosive: not that it necessarily is so. I would say that when the convergence takes place at high emotional temperatures - as in all the cases named above - the mixture is explosive. But even when the convergence takes place at much lower emotional temperature - as is certainly the case with Christian socialism in Britain - it can have disconcerting side-effects.

Let us take a recent American example. George Bush, in the last presidential election, wanted to make a special pitch for religious voters who make up a far higher proportion of the total vote than in Britain. Religious people, many of whom still vote Democrat in the South, were perceived as wavering in their allegiance, because of the influence of Northern liberals on the Democratic agenda, especially in Democratic resistance to the pro-life lobby.

So the Bush campaign organised the pre- election Republican convention at Houston, Texas, in the summer of 1992, around the theme of 'family values'. 'Family values' seemed a well-chosen slogan, since it would appeal to Christian voters in the South, without alienating the Jewish vote in the great cities of the North and West, as an explicit commitment to Christian values would have done. This seemed a well-thought-out wheeze, in terms of mixing religion and politics, yet it proved a disaster. 'Family values', and the television spectacular staged in celebration of the same at Houston, did more to lose Bush the election than any other single factor. In chasing the religious vote, which is large, the Republicans lost a far larger share of the women's vote, and that did it.

The trouble with 'family values' was that it gave the question of abortion a far higher salience in the campaign than was expedient for the Republicans. The slogan strongly attracted a large group of noisy people, whose enthusiasm alarmed a larger group of quiet people. The pro-life people got out their vote for the Republicans, but in doing so they inadvertently demonstrated that the pro-choice vote, though mostly silent, is far larger. The present generation of American politicians, of whatever party, does not look with favour on mixing religion with politics. 'Family values' is bad news and 'pro-life' is even worse. 'Pro-lifers' have now established themselves as a lobby whose support is far more dangerous than its antagonism.

The 1992 Republican convention at Houston is the classic example of how introducing religion into democratic politics can go wrong. There may be less room for its going wrong in Britain than in America, because in Britain there is less religion. If there are a lot of religious people around, insisting on this and that - such as the criminalisation of abortion - then there will be a lot of other people who will vote against politicians who seem to be trying to curry favour with those religious zealots. As the Republicans found out in 1992.

It is safer to bring religion into politics when the religion isn't really there (to a numerically significant extent), as in Britain, than in America where religion has a powerful political potential, both positive and negative. I referred just now to the question of the emotional temperature at which any convergence of religion and politics takes place. The higher the temperature, the greater the risk of explosions. In Great Britain (as distinct from Northern Ireland), the temperature in any such convergence is probably the lowest on earth. A fortunate people]

Still, even at very low temperatures, the convergence can have disconcerting side-effects. There is the loss of the 'count the spoons' people. And I wonder whether Labour's calculators have weighed the effects of the emergence of a high-profile Christian leader on Labour's Muslim supporters? In Bradford, they may soon be giving thought to this.

In that case, the principal political danger would lie in an ill-judged attempt to reassure the Muslims. The Christian socialist might, for instance, flatter the 'other great religion', of Islam, to such an extent that he sounded as if he were condoning the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. And that might alienate a substantial numbers of voters who are not all that enamoured of the culture that embraces the fatwa in question.

On the whole I think Mr Blair would do well to keep firmly in mind, at this stage, that he is head of a political party, and not of a church, or of a mixture of a political party and a church.

(Photograph omitted)