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

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Don’t pity me for eating alone, just give me a better table

Rosie Millard
Aerial view of planned third runway at Heathrow  

Heathrow expansion: This final 'conclusion' has simply fanned the airport flames

Chris Blackhurst
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most