Tom Sutcliffe: Secularism is the word Cameron is looking for

Social Studies: The only practical way to make the system fair is to make it equally unfair to all

Tuesday 08 February 2011 01:00

An intriguing choice of words by the Prime Minister in describing his alternative to multiculturalism the other day. We all know what the ostensible plaintext of "muscular liberalism" is, of course. It's not that effete, spineless kind that lives in terror of giving offence but something more robust (and – let's face it – Tory). But what about the unavoidable subtext? Why, in a speech that notionally wants to establish a shared space in society, should Mr Cameron allude to a revivalist movement – "muscular Christianity" – which had a very specific confessional bent?

Muscular Christianity, knitted into the Victorian British public school system and promoting the idea of belief wedded to vigorous and manly action (not to mention missionary zeal), seems a curiously exclusive model to conjure up if you're genuinely attempting to create a kind of nationhood that has values but is indifferent to religious differences.

I take it it wasn't intentional. But the fact that the phrase had a religious pre-history got me wondering whether the word "liberalism" was really what Mr Cameron meant here. Again, one understands the calculation. He had to call his value system something and he presumably wasn't unhappy that this particular term would give a little stroke to his coalition partners. But – whether he cares to acknowledge it or not – what he really meant was muscular secularism. Because if the Prime Minister wants to carve out a space for shared values in Britain then he's going to have to get less respectful of all religions, not just less deferential to one of them.

It would be absurd for religious extremism to be challenged and repudiated in one quarter – incendiary preachers in mosques, say – while elsewhere the Government provided public funds to a free school that intended to teach creationist science (as one applied to the other day). How would the Department of Education discriminate between a religious fundamentalism which is incompatible with "muscular liberalism" and one that will be enfolded within its tolerant embrace?

More to the point, though, how can any Muslim citizen of Britain feel truly incorporated into a society which grants Church of England bishops privileged and protected access to the House of Lords which their own spiritual leaders don't share? Until that anomaly is corrected they will, quite understandably, suspect that every challenge to extremist Islamic preachers is in defence not of a tolerant society, but of an essentially Christian one. And the only practical way to make the system fair is to make it equally unfair to all (unless you'd like to construct the argument which successfully excludes a representative of the Jedi faith from the House of Lords).

This isn't about the suppression of faith or religious observation. It's about an insistence that the values we share as citizens of the country cannot be underwritten by any divine authority, because divine authorities have proved so quarrelsome and contradictory. And that, in some areas of life, secular values will take precedence over religious ones. Whether he knows it or not yet, the Prime Minister's newly discovered muscularity will have to be bent towards that truth if it's to have a benign rather than a divisive effect.

Can we please leave room for sentiment?

The entry costs for moaning at your MP have never been lower. Seeking to lean on Lynne Featherstone the other day about the forestry sell-off, I didn't even have to find an envelope and stamp because the protest petition site helpfully provides a link to connect you directly to your local constituency MP's email address.

I got a prompt though rather equivocal reply in which Featherstone (or one of her staff) outlined safeguards for public access and insisted on the complexity of the arguments. What that reply failed to understand was that this issue isn't a battle between two rival technocratic views of a question – in which a statistic or a spreadsheet or a bottom-line figure might carry the day. It's a battle between a technocratic view of the world and a sentimental one. And although sentiment usually gets a bad press, it is important here.

After a number of decisions (food labelling regulations, alcohol pricing, etc) in which corporate interests and profit-and-loss have won out over a larger social good, a lot of people want proof that intangible values might carry some weight for the Coalition. Not to mention some proof that the Lib Dem component is actually an Active Ingredient. In a curious way, the defeat of this debatably beneficial measure (even those backing it don't try to pretend that it's urgently necessary) would be a defeat for common sense. Not proverbially a good thing, but a wise government understands that common sensibility must occasionally be allowed to win the day.

I prefer Heston's way of succeeding

In an interview about his new restaurant Heston Blumenthal said this: "The fear of failure has always been the driving force for me, not the will to succeed." He's clearly right about this distinction. Some people achieve because they look down – at what awaits them if they fall. Others rise high because they look up, at the summit ahead. Does it make a difference to the quality of the end result, though? I can't shift the feeling that Heston's way leads to a humbler, more reflective, nicer kind of winner.

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