Political Commentary: Labour and that old-time religion

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POLITICIANS make poor preachers. Just as W C Fields warned actors not to perform with children or animals, so British politicians invoke religion at their peril. This is especially true when, as now, there is a mood of cynicism. And it applies as much to Labour as to the Tories.

Christian Socialism is a venerable tradition in the Labour Party, even though the Christian Socialist Movement itself was not founded until 1960. It is personified for most people over 40 by one of its founder members, the tireless Lord (Donald) Soper, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday and can be found every Sunday on a soapbox at Hyde Park Corner - a good man in the simplest meaning of the word.

But the most active Labour politician to attend that founding meeting was Tom Driberg. He wore his very high Anglicanism on his sleeve; he was an attractive figure and a genuine idealist in his own way. But he was not, to put it mildly, an ascetic or saintly man.

So it was quite risky of Tony Blair, John Smith and three other prominent Labour MPs - Paul Boateng, Hilary Armstrong and Chris Smith - to contribute to a new book, published last week, affirming their commitment to Christian Socialism. In a foreword written by Mr Blair, an Anglican, the shadow Home Secretary talks of the 'importance of personal responsibility' and describes Christianity as a 'very tough religion', not utilitarian but 'judgemental'. He adds: 'There is right and wrong. There is good and bad.'

This has been unfamiliar language on the left for a generation or more. Indeed, though he did not dwell on hellfire and damnation, some of what Mr Blair is saying is not all that far removed from the article in the Spectator last year by John Patten, a Roman Catholic and Secretary of State for Education.

It is unfair to see all this as a crudely party political attempt to dislodge the Tories from their historic - and to many exasperating - self-image as the natural party of organised religion. In his foreword, Mr Blair stresses that the book 'is not about using religion to advance a political party'.

Mr Smith, in the most important essay, a version of which was delivered as a lecture last weekend, underlines this point. A member of the Church of Scotland, he says that Christian Socialists should not 'ever seek to suggest that Christians must be socialists . . . we must always recognise that fellow Christians might properly arrive at different conclusions from ourselves'.

But in three ways this development may have a profound, and entirely secular, effect on the development of post-Thatcherite politics.

The first is the rehabilitation of R H Tawney, in whose honour Mr Smith's lecture was given. Tawney was a Christian socialist who also exercised a deep influence on the Labour Party's most humanist elements between the wars. But his reputation was eclipsed, partly because he became disenchanted with the Labour leadership in his later years and partly because his antipathy to the 'barbarous, inhuman, sordid doctrine' of Marxism angered the Labour left.

By the 1980s, Labour had neglected him for so long that the Social Democratic Party felt free to take him off the shelf and adopt him as a sort of icon. The new party formed a Tawney Society, designed to play the intellectual role that the Fabian Society did in the Labour Party.

This caused surprise in some quarters. Tawney was an uncompromising radical who would have given short shrift not only to the unfettered free market but also to the Filofax and credit card-wielding higher taxpayers who flocked to the new party. 'If a man has important work and enough leisure and income to enable him to do it properly he is in possession of as much happiness as is good for any of the children of Adam,' he wrote in The Acquisitive Society.

Part of Tawney's appeal to the SDP lay in a distinctly modern recognition that economic vested interests were not confined to capitalism. In the same book he wrote that 'an employers' association which opposes an extension of education in order that its members may continue to secure child labour or a trade union which sacrifices the public to its own professional interests or a retail firm which which pays wages incompatible with a self-respecting life may be regarded as . . . deficient in the finer shades of public spirit'. (My italics.)

Above all, he had an anti-economic vision of society which rejected with equal ferocity classical Liberalism and dialectical materialism. 'The obsession by economic issues is as local and transitory as it is repulsive and disturbing,' he wrote optimistically in 1921. 'To future generations it will appear as pitiable as the obsession of the 17th century by religious quarrels appears today.'

The second important effect of Smith's appeal to Christian morality is to disentangle Labour from the social dislocation of the 1960s, the high point of the assault on the ideal of the nuclear family. Some of Labour's association with 1960s permissiveness on moral, educational and social standards is unfair: it is little short of miraculous that, after 14 years in power, the Tories are still able to blame the Opposition for the travails of Britain's education system.

Mr Smith is attempting to retrieve a now-forgotten tradition in which Labour, at least as much as the Tories, stood for family and educational improvement. Professor A H Halsey, regarded as a leading educational progressive in the 1960s, drew on the same tradition when, in a recent interview with the Guardian, he talked of the need for high educational standards and the merits of the nuclear family.

The Tories gleefully took this as some kind of recantation. But, as Professor Halsey keeps wearily repeating, he has always been and remains an 'ethical socialist' who never broke faith with Tawney.

Finally, Mr Smith may have helped to edge Labour on to the rather narrow ground inhabited by some of the Christian and social democratic parties of Western Europe. The Tories could do this as easily as Labour.

The heart and soul of British Christian Democracy, however, is in Hong Kong. In an interview with Marxism Today two years ago Chris Patten, now the colony's governor-general, gave what was seen as a nudge towards closer links between the Tories and the social market ideology of European Christian Democrats, particularly in Germany. Mr Patten is a Roman Catholic; but it may be mere chance that some of those on the pro-European wing of the Cabinet who might be among the more sympathetic to his views on this question - John Patten and John Gummer, for example, perhaps Douglas Hurd - are also churchgoing Christians. So too, after all, are some on the Tory right who would be horrified by the very idea of the Tories becoming a Christian Democrat party.

Mr Patten acknowledged the difference between the traditions of right-of-centre parties in Western Europe and Britain. The Tory refusal to countenance at Maastricht even a watered-down version of the Social Chapter illustrates the gap. But it may not be too fanciful to compare the tensions between Tory pro-Europeans and free-marketeers with those between Labour's pro-European social democratic right and its neo-Marxist left.

In that sense, Mr Smith took another step last week in the process, begun by Neil Kinnock, of repositioning the Labour Party. In taking Labour back to the future, he has done something which, in the end, has less to do with religion than with ideology.