Political Commentary: A Christian loftiness that might unsettle Mr Major

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The Independent Online
THE LABOUR Party's best known Christian Socialist of recent times was, I suppose, the late Tom Driberg. He was an extreme High Anglican in matters not so much of doctrine (in which he was not greatly interested) as of ceremonial. The noisier the bells, the more pervasive the smells, the richer the vestments, the happier old Tom was. He was also a promiscuous homosexual who maintained his enthusiasm until he was well into his seventies. I was spared the advances which he made to several of my friends. One of them he attempted to seduce in a taxi at Scarborough during a party conference. Being repulsed, he said:

'No hard feelings, I trust?'

'None as far as I'm concerned, Tom.'

'Just thought I'd give it a try.'

He would appear in the Colony Room, better known as Muriel's, in Dean Street, Soho, with a succession of young men whom he would introduce individually to the assembled company as 'Terry (or Kevin, or Darren), one of my constituents'. He would then provide the youth of the afternoon with a handful of loose change, and direct him to the fruit machine in the corner to divert himself, while Driberg gossiped with his cronies.

How different, how very different, from the home life of Mr and Mrs Tony Blair] Nevertheless, Mr Blair shares Driberg's taste for High Churchmanship. He too calls himself a Christian Socialist. So did the late Eric Heffer, and George Brown as well. So today does Mr Donald Anderson, a Labour MP, a Methodist lay preacher and a most engaging character, with whom I occasionally exchange jokes of the greatest propriety about the citizens of Swansea.

Not only does religion take people in different ways. The varieties of religious faith which go to make up Christian Socialism are multifarious. The Clapham Evangelicals of the early 19th century were the spiritual ancestors of the Fabians of almost a century later. The Anglicans who tried to evangelise the uprooted proletariat of the large towns tended to be High. We have most of us heard the mot - often attributed to the former Labour general secretary, Morgan Phillips, though I have never been able to track it down - that the party owes more to Methodism than to Marx. It was another Christian Socialist, Lord Soper, himself a Methodist, who claimed that if Marx had been called Karx, Phillips (or whoever it was) would have said that the party owed more to Congregationalism.

The connection between Labour and Nonconformity is not so straightforward as many suppose. In Wales, for example, the chapels (particularly the powerful Calvinistic Methodists) long maintained their allegiance to the Liberal Party, denouncing the embryonic Labour Party as 'Godless'. In many respects it was. Nevertheless, there is a recognisable and separate strain of Anglican Socialism, often High, certainly high-minded, whose leading representatives in this century were perhaps William Temple the archbishop and R H Tawney the historian. It is to this tradition that Mr Blair belongs.

Its greatest virtues are its courage, self-confidence and refusal to compromise with what it considers to be wrongdoing, being in this last respect at odds with the historical position of the Church from which it derives. Its greatest vices are its smugness, primness and disposition to know what is good for people better than they know themselves. It has been represented in our politics (with appropriate variations, Conservative and Liberal as well as Labour) but hardly at all in our prime ministers.

Frank Harris once said to A J Balfour that all the faults of the age derived from Christianity and journalism. Balfour replied: 'Christianity, of course, but why journalism?' In fact he was a practising Christian who had philosophic doubts. David Lloyd George was brought up a Baptist and enjoyed singing Welsh hymns round the piano on Sunday evening at No. 10 (a habit deplored by the snobbish Harold Nicolson) but was fundamentally an unbeliever. So was Winston Churchill. C R Attlee kept quiet. Harold Macmillan was nearly converted to Catholicism by Ronald Knox. Harold Wilson claimed to be a Christian, but seemed to attach more personal importance to the Boy Scout movement, which he had initially joined through the Baptist Church of his childhood. James Callaghan met his wife through the Sunday school and never renounced the Baptists who had nurtured him.

Still, if Mr Blair becomes prime minister, he will be the most publicly Christian of the Labour leaders who have attained that position. There have been only four of them. I have already mentioned the faults to which Christian Socialists of Mr Blair's type are prone. Something also to bear in mind is that Christian Socialism is not really understood by our neighbours in western Europe. Socialism is anti-clerical; the Church to which it is opposed is the Roman Catholic Church. The antipathy between village schoolmaster and village priest does not exist in mainland Britain as it does - or, at any rate, used to - in most of France. Certainly much of this is in the past, in Britain as in Europe. Village schools are disappearing even more rapidly than parish churches. But countries have a history, despite our best efforts to eliminate it. One of the consequences is that in Europe Christian Socialism of Mr Blair's kind is indeed a foreign concept.

For the moment, he has more pressing concerns. So far, everything has gone remarkably well. Mr John Prescott has attained the status of one of those jugs that people put on the mantelpiece. Mrs Margaret Beckett is not sulking. Nor should she, for she brought her fate upon herself by her vanity and conceit. If she had stayed deputy leader, not only would she probably have held off Mr Prescott: more, under the party's rules, no contest could have taken place till the autumn conference. It was Mrs Beckett who forced an election by announcing to a surprised executive committee that there was a vacancy.

As Labour is a sentimental old party - and as she performed remarkably well as acting leader, even if less so as a candidate - Mrs Beckett may come top of the poll in next autumn's shadow cabinet elections. And as Mr Blair does not want any rows, he will probably put her into his former post of Shadow Home Secretary.

Mr Blair's most pressing decision does not concern 'policy'. It concerns the attitude he should take to Mr John Major at Prime Minister's Questions. It is, admittedly, an artificial occasion, becoming more so monthly. This does not mean that it lacks political importance. Much of the disappointment with John Smith derived from his inability to make Mr Major look a bigger fool than we knew he was already.

Does Mr Blair go on in the old way inaugurated by Lords Wilson and Home? Or does he try a different approach? 'My kingdom is not of this world,' said Jesus to Pilate (John xviii. 36). I am not suggesting that Mr Blair should go as far as this with Mr Major. But a little Christian loftiness on his part might well unsettle the Prime Minister.