Leading Article: The Church and Labour should be in harmony

Share
Related Topics
The bishops are on a roll. From the Bishop of Rome down the bearers of cross and mitre are getting assertive. Their New Year messages exude confidence, the conviction that if not the Force then certainly the zeitgeist is now with them. This seems especially true of the Anglicans. It is not just what Simon Coventry, Mark Birmingham and other leading occupants of the bench of bishops are saying but the style with which they are saying it. Gone entirely is that hand-wringing diffidence which used to characterise Anglican pronouncements. Just before Christmas John Redwood told the bishops - this is an ancient Tory incantation - to provide a moral lead to the nation. Well, that is what they are now doing and it serves him right. It may not quite amount to an episcopal injunction to vote Labour or Liberal Democrat, but it comes pretty close to an invitation to throw off Tory rule for the sake of the nation's moral health.

It could be that the bishops have imbibed too deeply of Christmas spirit. After all, they are prelates of churches in which only a fraction of English people are active. Yet in a secular society the churches retain some influence, greater than numbers alone would justify; the bishops are still in a position to stir things up. Many people will demur at that. They hear the bishops talking morality and say, didn't last year see that word gang-raped by the political bully-boys. In 1996 morality became a code- word for reactionary views about sex and the family.

The bishops' New Year messages are about morality, yes, but they talk about obligations wider than parents and children, husbands and wives. They have not left those behind but they have placed them in a social context. Morality, they say, is also about the equity of institutions, about income distribution, urban deprivation. Morality is about judging the balance between public and private interest and determining the right way of conducting politics in a pluralist democracy. This is moral talk worth hearing - especially by the parties of the centre and left.

Earlier this week, in a desperate piece of confected controversy, the BBC tried to set the Labour Party up by squeezing remarks about abortion out of Archbishop Thomas Winning. Imagine, a Roman Catholic cardinal saying something disapproving about abortion! The real story was that those Scottish Labour MPs who, the cardinal claimed, were being censored on the abortion issue are, generally speaking, oldish Labour and well to the left of Tony Blair on questions of trade unions, state involvement in the economy and so on. It is a fair bet that Cardinal Winning is also, economically speaking, on the left.

That is why, for all the surface ripples about the cardinal's attack on Tony Blair, Labour needs more not less intervention in politics by bishops like him. Labour does not have to concede a single inch over the abortion question to see that there is a lot more to morality than the fate of foetuses. One of the oddest aspects, indeed, of this whole Blair/Winning/abortion story is the suggestion that there is anything new in it. Cabinet papers for 1966 released this week confirm Harold Wilson's personal caution when it came to the great "permissive" legislation passed when he was Prime Minister. His hesitation stemmed partly from his own personal convictions, partly his awareness of Catholic sentiment in and around his Huyton seat on Merseyside. What has changed since then?

Ordinary Catholics vote, like everyone else, for reasons of personal interest. They also pay some attention to their priests who, like the Pope in Rome, have never exhausted morality in talking about sex. Morality is also about justice in the tax system, about social obligations, the distribution of income and wealth and, as the present Pope often says, just treatment by employers of their employees. Working-class Catholics traditionally voted Labour, as they still do, because Labour represented fairness in society and fairness at work. Cardinal Winning's statements about abortion are not going to change that nor, pace the BBC, are they intended to.

In his New Year message the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, deplored what he called "pick and mix" morality. Some people will say, ah, you cannot have fairness in society and "social morality" without buying into reactionary religious positions on abortion (forbidden) and marriage (indissoluble). This is nonsense. There is a moral case to be made for the termination of pregnancy, constructed from fundamental tenets about individual choice and social responsibility. The point the bishops are making is surely that politicians can and ought to reach into these fundamentals and argue them through, escaping the superficiality of who worships where how many times a month.

The fact is that Labour is well-positioned on this moral territory. Even in its modish, Mandelsoned form it still has easier access to the language of commitments, responsibilities and reciprocal obligations than the Tories can ever aspire to. Tory talk about the morality of social arrangements (which necessarily encompasses most ostensibly personal conduct as well) rings hollow: neither John Major nor his intellectual partisans in the right-wing press have yet attempted to repudiate that devastating remark by Margaret Thatcher about there being no such thing as society.

The practical conclusion for Labour in 1997 is straightforward. The more bishops mounting the pulpit the better ... When they start influencing voters, then Labour needs to start worrying. Because then it will have to address the milk-and-water nature of so many of its tax and spending commitments and the resulting doubt whether a Blair-led government would make Britain a fairer place.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker