On a (Leftish) Wing and a Prayer? Religion Is a Dirty Word in British Politics. but a Faith System That Emphasised Social Good Might Be Better Than Today's Uncritical Worship of the Market
Reeves, Richard, New Statesman (1996)
The Prime Minister is not short of things to pray for Christmas. The continuing morass of Iraq, rebellion over top-up fees and the looming publication of the Hutton report--not to mention his health--all add up to a strong case for divine assistance. But Blair takes his religion more seriously than most, and shopping lists are not likely to be his style. Not since Gladstone has Britain had such a religious premier. Far from seeing prayer as a short cut to getting what he wants politically, Tony Blair sees politics as the means for working towards goals inspired by his faith. In a foreword to a book about Labour Christians, he wrote: "Neither faith nor politics can be simply about believing it must be about action. Religious beliefs and political beliefs will achieve nothing until people are prepared to act on those beliefs."
This year, the Prime Minister appointed a "faith tsar" John Battle MP, to act as a bridgehead into the religious communities;said that he will answer to "my Maker" for his actions in Iraq; was evasive about whether he had prayed with George Bush; and established a faith community steering group to look at closer links between government and religious groups.
He is reported to have wanted to end a broadcast on Iraq with the words "God bless you", until the secular views of his advisers--godless lot, by his lights--prevailed. All of which worries some of Blair's friends (who fear comparisons with Bush) and provides ammunition to his left-wing enemies, who see his Christianity as a further indication of his essential conservatism.
But just as religion is making modest inroads into politics, organised religion is host to momentous political struggles and factionalism, especially in the Anglican communion, which is riven by the issue of homosexuality. Ironically, Blair took great interest in the process of the Archbishop of Canterbury's appointment and great delight in Rowan Williams's elevation. As the Prime Minister apparently becomes increasingly religious, the primate is becoming a battle-hardened politician. The line between politics and religion is blurring on both sides.
It is clear that Blair's politics are a long way from those of the French revolutionaries who set out, in Diderot's phrase, to "strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest". But he is not alone in his faith. Gordon Brown is a preacher's son, which helps to explain not only his passion for social justice, but also his strong belief in the work ethic and individual responsibility. As his biographer Paul Routledge puts it: "He honestly believes that work is good for the soul, which should mean that his own is in no danger." David Blunkett, Paul Boateng and Tessa Jowell share some of their leader's faith--and there are plenty of junior ministers, such as Stephen Timms, Ruth Kelly and Stephen Twigg, with strong religious convictions. Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, has become worried enough to make the somewhat absurd claim that the "non-religious feel alienated and excluded from the political processes that 11elp shape our society".
While Wood protests too much, a glance across the Atlantic suggests that Labour should be careful not to wear its religious robes too heavily. Bush, who has described Jesus as his favourite political philosopher, seems to personify the capture of American politics by the religious right. And figures such as John Ashcroft, the right-wing Christian attorney-general who tried to ban his staff taking part in a gay pride march, are truly scary. (Th at Bush had to play the liberal and overrule him on this issue says it all.)
It is fun to imagine to which biblical texts Bush refers before making his decisions. Perhaps something about camels and eyes of needles before the cut in capital gains tax? A parable on ploughshares and swords before Iraq ? There is, however, one area in which his faith has probably been instrumental and against which few can argue: the $15bn for Aids victims in Africa. …