Magazine article The Spectator

Onward Christian Diners!

Magazine article The Spectator

Onward Christian Diners!

Article excerpt

`CHRISTIAN socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat', or so it says in The Communist Manifesto. In fact, Christian socialism is not holy water at all, but grease oiling some of the wheels of government in Tony Blair's Britain. It is a sign of the quiet confidence of real influence when a group downplays its dining club, which, moreover, it does not name. Thus, the discreet, invitation-only Christian socialist dining club which had its first meeting last month.

Scott's restaurant in Mount Street, Mayfair, founded in the middle of the last century as an oyster emporium, is just the kind of reassuringly anonymous London venue where you can be confident that you are as unlikely to meet a paparazzo as you are a poor person (regulars include the Countess of Wilton and Sir Chips Keswick). It is perfect for political rendezvous which, if not exactly secret, are not intended to be widely talked about perfect, in which case, for Chris Bryant and Andrew Adonis's new `informal group'.

Mr Bryant, the leading light, is a colourful figure with a multi-layered past. He was a Latin American liberation priest and then a Labour party official; he has a more pedestrian present as a biographer, latterly of Stafford Cripps, and has a future as a Labour MP, if his steely-eyed determination is anything to judge by. He is currently the chairman of the Christian Socialist Movement. His chief co-conspirator, Andrew Adonis, is a former Liberal academic who is now a New Labour columnist on the Observer.

By themselves, these two are fairly small potatoes, but together with their dinner companions in a private room at Scott's last month, they are part of a network which begins to look more like a fairly decent-sized tuber. The network also contains sufficient personal cross-references and funny little coincidences to betray a depth and cross-sectional breadth which is significant.

For instance, the guest speaker at the Scott's dinner was the new Bishop of London, Richard Chartres (who was so uptight as a child his parents rebelled against him). He was invited by Martin Rowe of the Observer. In his spare time, Mr Rowe, by coincidence, is also churchwarden of St Luke's, Holloway, where for the last two years, Peter Thomson - Tony Blair's undergraduate spiritual guru, who returned to England from Australia when Blair became Labour leader - has been working his pastoral magic. Reverend Thomson has now left, though, to run the '2000 by 2000' project, which seeks to do God's work with Chris Smith's millennium money. Speaking of whom, John Newbiggen, a key member of the Kinnock inner circle, who went to work for David Puttnam after the 1992 defeat and is now part-time special adviser to Chris Smith at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, was also there. And so it goes on.

The group's ostensible raison d'etre is to bring political and religious types together to discuss issues of common interest. Accordingly, some diners were straightforward politicos. Robert Hill, who is responsible for health and local government in the No. 10 Downing Street policy unit, is an old friend of Mr Bryant's dating back to their days in the local government section of Labour's Walworth Road headquarters. Mr Newbiggen and Mr Bryant - who intends next year to emulate his hero Peter Mandelson in putting his name forward for election to the (now MP-free) constituency section of the Labour NEC - both come into the `professional pol' category. …

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