Where is the spirit of our age?: These are strange times for politics. A H Halsey examines Labour's new-found Christian virtue

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The Independent Online
No psephologist would give Christian socialism the remotest chance of winning a British general election. Anglican pews accommodate perhaps 2 per cent of the population at Sunday matins and every electoral analyst knows that you cannot be a serious party without the support of at least 30 per cent of the voters in a first-past-the-post democracy. So the Liberals, the SDP, the Conservatives in Scotland or even the SNP are written off. Yet Tony Blair is widely labelled as a Christian socialist, heavily tipped for the Labour leadership and generally expected to lead his party to Westminster government in 1997, if not before.

How come this absurdity? Some are wiser than psephologists because they detect 'sea changes' that drown the numbers. Such political prophets have begun to appear on the Tory benches, where triumphalism is at a discount. Jim Callaghan, the old sea dog, confided the same prescience to Bernard Donoghue in a taxi in Parliament Square before the election of 1979.

Hegel and Marx and many a Whig historian have asserted a 'geist', a spirit of the age, a historic destiny for this or that belief or class or country, just as did Christ concerning the end of the world. Matthew Arnold had a premonition of the decline of religion as he contemplated the Dover sea- front on his honeymoon in the middle of the 19th century. The tide was ebbing with its 'melancholy long, withdrawing roar'. Periods of doom alternate with interludes of hope and glory as political and social movements wax and wane to boost the rise or shatter the fall of great parties.

Politics, after all, is in essence the application of morality. Political movements are fundamentally driven by ethical ideas. At the same time, politics is a paradox: its activists must have utopian aspirations but also the patience to go on against what sometimes seem to be hopeless odds, demonstrating that they have the practical skills to translate dreams into realities.

Voters are inspired by the charisma but judge the performance. So the Tony Blairs of this world need the gift of grace for the hustings and bureaucratic competence for Downing Street. This is the oscillating test of political effectiveness in an imperfect democracy.

Mr Blair's strengths and weaknesses thus reveal themselves. He draws strength from the failure not only of a frantic Thatcherite version of economic liberalism (a recrudescence of imperfectly understood early 19th-century beliefs in the divinity as opposed to the utility of the market), but also from the strategic evils of a discredited Marxism. It is only half a century ago that Trotsky dismissed any socialism based on Christianity, scorning Ramsay MacDonald's views as a 'prosaic rehash of the Sermon on the Mount'. Trotsky's 'entryists' made vigorous assault on the Labour constituencies and trade union branches in the Sixties. They drove out thousands of decent people co-operating to bring into being a good society. They also expelled some like Shirley Williams, who, as a good Catholic, wanted the Church to welcome all sinners but couldn't stand the heat, leaving it to an unbeliever, Neil Kinnock, to repel the Militants in Liverpool and Hackney and to combat the denizens of the smart circles of radical chic.

But what has the vanquishing of Militant and the demise of Thatcherism left for Mr Blair to inherit? There is disillusion with the alleged experience of planning, there is exaggerated veneration on the right for the market, there is the leftist slogan, still sheltering in the fastness of social studies, about liberating and inevitable revolution. In fact, modern government needs boring and meticulous counting of heads, beds, jobs, births, marriages, deaths, wealth, illness, welfare and suffering.

I wish Mr Blair well. He passes the entrance tests of belief required in an ethical socialist. He values liberty, equality and community (meaning koinonia, or the fellowship of sharing) and he seeks to optimise, as distinct from maximise, their place in our lives. All this was at the centre of political and moral debate in Britain when Christian socialism began to flourish a hundred years ago and young men like Richard Tawney went to seek the friendship of the poor in Manchester, the Potteries and the East End of London. Over and above these three basic commitments there is the conviction that a society's past contributes massively to its present morality and institutions. And fifth, there is the shared belief in the power of moral character to perfect a person and ennoble a nation.

Bitter experience has taught Mr Blair that the state is not the 'serviceable drudge' that Tawney or even Clement Attlee assumed it to be; but most encouraging is his understanding that the future is open. This is the sixth canon of the ethical socialist creed. We are not governed by inescapable laws of history and there is no question of once-and-for-all revolution. Socialism is never permanently won. It has to be fought for again and again and is the outcome of interplay between citizens and government. Individuals do their best with what they have and governments try to ameliorate the circumstances, providing the best possible conditions of work, of education and training in schools, of security in family and neighbourhood, of health in hospital and recreation and of conviviality in clubs and European association.

The true patriot will support Mr Blair. But he or she will think universally of ethical rather than parochially of Christian socialism. Inspiration for the wider movement must necessarily be sought more broadly in the miracle of Nelson Mandela, the communitarianism of Gandhi, the catholicism of Jacques Delors, the internationalism of Jonathan Sacks and the cool fervour of Frank Field.

The heroes and heroines of the movement stretch back over the centuries. For illustrative and illustrious example we could cite Thomas More, Chancellor of England, author of Utopia and Catholic martyr and saint, as the founding British father. More has been misunderstood, for example by Robert Bolt in his play A Man For All Seasons, as a man of independent opinion, puritanical self-discipline, cheerful virtue and unfailing personal courage unto death. He was, but what was distinctive was his grasp of the ultimate source of political authority - the conscience collective, the collective conscience of mankind, which he saw as celebrated and sanctified daily in the lives of the saints in every age. In short, More gave voice not to the stubborn bravery of an individual but to the moral conscience of his society.

Neither Mr Blair nor support for him will last for ever, but a British resurgence of political idealism driving an expert political programme of renewal and civility is long overdue.

The writer is emeritus professor and Fellow of Nuffield College. With Norman Dennis he published 'English Ethical Socialism' in 1988.