The Traditions That Have Shaped Tony Blair's Christian Socialism Complement Rather Than Obstruct His Attempts to Link Social Justice with Individual Freedom

By Dionne, E. J. | New Statesman (1996), October 11, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Traditions That Have Shaped Tony Blair's Christian Socialism Complement Rather Than Obstruct His Attempts to Link Social Justice with Individual Freedom


Dionne, E. J., New Statesman (1996)


Do you really want to know about our presidential debate? My hunch is that you have already heard all you need to know. President Clinton, machine-like but with his usual touches of warmth, made his basic points over and over. Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich proposed a terrible budget that would hurt the elderly, school children and the environment. Clinton insisted he would not use government too much, just enough to give people a chance to make the most of themselves.

As for Dole, he was so worried about looking mean and nasty that he pulled all his punches. He didn't press Clinton on character, he didn't press his own tax cut too hard he had to reach back to Somalia to make a point against Clinton's foreign policy. Dole came out nicer than his reputation' and the argument was quite civil. But, to judge from the polls, Dole didn't convince any Clinton supporters to reconsider. The cliche of the post-debate analysis was: a tie goes to the candidate who is ahead. For Dole, the debate was, at best, a tie. And like many cliches, it is true: Clinton won by not losing.

Far more interesting, to me at least, were the last few paragraphs of Robert Skidelsky's thoughtful essay on Tony Blair in the NS ("The preacher misreads his bible", 27 September). Skidelsky declares himself "suspicious of Blair's attempt to discover a Christian justification for social action". He argues, correctly, that "one of the tragic consequences of 20th-century collectivism has been the nationalisation of good neighbourliness." His fear is that Christian social thinking, at least as he sees Blair invoking it, shows "little understanding of the value of liberty".

Now this is a serious argument and it certainly applies to certain renditions of Christian social thinking. My own church - I'm Catholic - showed rather too much fondness in the 1930s for a kind of corporatism that ended up complicit with some wretched dictatorships. There is also a simple-minded brand of Christian socialism that sees the human purpose as "constructing the Kingdom of God on earth". If you take Christianity seriously at all, you have to know at the outset that such a project is doomed to catastrophe, human nature being what it is. And, yes, some Christians have used gently communitarian language as a cover for anti-Semitism and other vicious forms of discrimination.

But from a distance I find myself more sympathetic to Blair's Christian social project than Skidelsky, partly because I take from w hat Blair has said that it is precisely Christianity's emphasis on the individual and their liberty of conscience that drew him away from Marxism. It's possible, in theory at least, to see the Christian part of British Labour's tradition as having provided a useful corrective to its other parts. …

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