There was an almost Proustian moment last week when, as Jeremy Corbyn began to address the massed ranks of the TUC in that dogged, put-upon and painfully earnest way of his, I felt the tug of memory twitch at my sleeve. Who did he remind me of? What alternative picture, hitherto lost in time, did the sight of Mr Corbyn’s anguished, bearded and curiously messianic face conjure up?
The answer, oddly enough, was a morning sometime in the mid-1970s at a St Thomas’s church in suburban Norwich, when the congregation found itself being addressed by a middle-aged to elderly man who, with an optimism altogether unmerited by the size of his audience, announced that he was there to recruit young people for a rather obscure organisation known as the Woodcraft Folk.
No doubt about it, I thought to myself, as the TUC’s guest blinked at his audience like Evelyn Waugh’s questing vole, cornered in its lair but liable to turn nasty, the Woodcraft Folk’s emissary was Jeremy Corbyn to the life: a kind of sylvan precursor of the man now charged with leading the Labour Party, with the same scruffy beard, the same utter lack of flamboyance and the same air of deep, unvarnished piety. The press profiles suggest Mr Corbyn has no religious belief, but he looks exactly like the sort of man who, 80 years ago, rose to his feet in church halls to address Quaker peace conferences – an identification that becomes all the more acute when you recall his parents were apparently pacifist activists brought together by a distaste for the Spanish Civil War.
This is not meant to be ironic, or disrespectful of Mr Corbyn’s aims and ideals. There has been far too much flamboyance in recent British politics, far too little conviction and scarcely any moral earnestness, while the piety, such as it is, has all been of the wrong kind. Mr Corbyn may desire an end to austerity, but he has “puritan” written all over him. The Woodcraft Folk’s publicising tribune would have approved of the member for Islington North, and you rather feel the member for Islington North would have approved of him. What is ironic, on the other hand, is that the man supposed, by his election as leader, to have inaugurated one of the greatest revolutions in the party’s recent history should instantly, and without even mentioning the word “God”, have reconnected it to one of its most ancient traditions – its grounding in religion, and in particular Wesleyan nonconformity.
The idea that the people’s party owes far more to Methodism than Marx is central to Labour Party history: Harold Wilson was often quoted to this effect. Nearly all the movement’s founding fathers, from Keir Hardie to the late-Victorian South Wales miners’ leader William Mabon, were die-hard Christian Socialists and the influence of the tabernacle kept up until well into the 20th century. Ellen Wilkinson, a one-time left-wing firebrand and Jarrow marcher who ended up as Attlee’s education secretary, once told a pre-war meeting of the Left Book Club, “I am still a Methodist. You can never get its special glow out of your blood”, while Jim Griffiths, Wilson’s first secretary of state for Wales, attributed most of his political principles to his exposure to the Welsh religious revival of the early Edwardian era.
Scratch a socialist ideologue, in fact, and you very often turn up a devout church-goer and deacon of the Tal-y-Bont Nazareth Chapel, convinced that most of humanity’s problems would be solved if the Sermon on the Mount could be used as a template for existence. Even Dennis Skinner, though naturally unforgiving of the Sunday school teacher who refused him entry to the Clay Cross Methodist chapel in token of his filthy appearance, is emphatic. As he observes in his combative autobiography Sailing Close to the Wind, “We weren’t greatly influenced by Marx in Derbyshire and far more NUM leaders had been Methodist lay preachers in their time. We would help someone over a stile without blinking an eye.” To Skinner, the parable of the Good Samaritan is “a socialist story”.
No wonder Messrs Skinner and Corbyn are such ancient allies, for the new Labour leader, so far as I can tell from his published utterances, is an example of that very common phenomenon, the Christian Socialist who doesn’t believe in God. At the same time, nonconformity’s colonising influence has never been confined to the Labour Party, and to get some idea of how nonconformist principle is capable of behaving when, as very often happens, it detaches itself from conceptions of the revealed Christ and goes sailing off into cultural or social spheres, it is perhaps necessary to look elsewhere.
One part of British life that would be a pale shadow of itself without nonconformity is, of course, literature, where, to take only the most obvious examples, D H Lawrence and F R Leavis could scarcely have existed without it. Having attended one of Leavis’s lectures, the Oxford academic Maurice Bowra went so far as to inform his friend Noel Annan that the whole “mystery” of Leavis’s enormous popularity had been revealed. “He is what our mothers would have called Chapel,” Bowra declared, with maximum snobbishness. “The low, mousey voice, trailing into inaudibility at the end of each sentence, so suitable for the ministrations of the Lord’s Supper … the moral themes … the sense that if you sign with him on the dotted line, you are saved.”
Another part, however Mr Corbyn might resent the fact, is modern Conservatism. For what was Mrs Thatcher but the daughter of that renowned Grantham Methodist Alderman Roberts, who preached hellfire and moral uplift from the pulpit of the Finkin Street Chapel? In the first volume of his authorised life of Mrs T, Charles Moore lists some of the values his subject acquired from post-service conversation at the Alderman’s hearth; they include a reverence for truth-telling, hard work and putting into practice the principles of Scripture. The behavioural aim, allegedly, was Kipling’s “simple service simply given”, an ideal of which, you imagine, Mr Corbyn would be very much in favour.
All this might suggest that in offering his followers a kind of desanctified version of the New Testament, Mr Corbyn has tapped into a vital but, in recent times, rather under-utilised channel of British moral feeling, and that his approach to re-animating his party will be that of the Victorian religious revivalist. Unfortunately, there are dangers to hand. For nonconformity, whatever its moral fervour, was ultimately sectarian, answerable to itself, eternally dissenting but, in the end, brooking no dissent. It was also built on those undeniably Thatcherite qualities of certitude, and an unshakeable belief in one’s own infallibility. And so the secular nonconformist very often turns into a miniature version of Leavis – suspicious, paranoiac, forever casting former allies into the outer darkness – and in Leavis’s case capable of remarking, when his wife once ventured that if born in the 17th century he would have been one of Cromwell’s generals, “No my dear, I should have been Cromwell.”
What are a secular Methodist’s chances of leading a political party to electoral success here in the consumer-materialist I’m-all-right-Jack early 21st century? You have a feeling that, once the novelty of Mr Corbyn’s position – his metaphorical hair shirt, the doggedness of his style – has worn off they will be pretty thin. The original Labour Party Methodists operated, after all, in a world of communal and technology-lite poverty, whereas the world – or certain parts of it – has since been swept away into a self-gratifying rumpus room where moral earnestness counts for little.
And to return to the English Civil War, even Orwell once maintained that he would have been a Cavalier rather than a Roundhead, as the Roundheads “were such dreary people”. As a paid-up modern Roundhead, or perhaps a contemporary version of one of Winstanley’s diggers, Mr Corbyn has his work cut out.
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