The recent reaction to the sad deaths of Bob Crowe and Tony Benn are a reminder that people in Britain like conviction politicians, even when, as was undoubtedly the case with Tony Benn, the convictions might be just the sort to alienate voters. But the policies that made Labour unelectable thirty years ago and which were so associated with Benn have now been forgotten, while the memory of the man lives on: warm, passionate, a splendid orator, an affectionate father and husband, a great writer, and an all round good egg.
And let us not forget that Tony Benn was a descendant of a long line of radicals, going all the way back to the great Josiah Wedgwood, and like them he was a Christian believer. Christian socialism has always been a force in British politics, and still is today. In the old cliché, the British Labour movement owes far more to Methodism that it does to Marx.
Tony Benn was certainly a content-rich politician, in contrast to the content-lite politicians who took over the Labour party, turned it into New Labour and made it electable. (This last point, electabilty, is the trump card as far as the apologists of New Labour are concerned, who would point out, quite reasonably, that it is the very purpose of a party to win elections and gain power.)
Content-lite, though, represents power for power’s own sake: content-lite politicians, when they achieve power, often give the impression that they have very little idea of what to do with it. This would not have been the case with Benn, a man who certainly had a programme for government, albeit a programme that filled many with alarm.
Today we have a Prime Minister who tells us that we need to get with the programme on women bishops, for example, who yet has difficulty in communicating the contents of his own programme. What does Cameron believe? What exactly is the Big Society? What does Miliband believe? There is a vacuum at the heart of politics.
This is where Lord Glasman comes in. He is the coiner of the phrase ‘Blue Labour’ and he is the most interesting political ideas man around today, as far as I can tell. Maurice Glasman is Jewish, but he just happens to be the best representative of the Christian Democrat left (la sinistra DC, as it was called, the left side of the centrist Italian Christian Democrat party) in our country. He has studied Catholic Social Teaching, and he has lived in Italy, and his thinking centres on the idea of the Common Good, and the necessity of strong healthy communities and families. There is a considerable, and I hope growing, consensus in the ranks of his party that this heritage of ideas is what Labour needs to rebuild its doctrinal base. What New Labour emptied out, Blue Labour will rebuild.
At this point, if you have followed me so far, my beef with what I call ‘bare secularism’ should be apparent. Secularism is the belief that no single belief system should have precedence over any other, and that there should be a completely level playing field between belief systems. This is something I believe in, and it is one of the essential foundation of democracy. But in order to have a healthy state, the secular arena (with its level playing field, remember) has got to host a wide and healthy conversation about the ideas that underpin the state and hold the national community together; and those ideas will be fed by beliefs of one sort or another, and many of those beliefs will be religious beliefs, though, in coming to the conversation in the secular arena, these beliefs will be presented in rational terms accessible to all. But, and this is the essential point, for there to be healthy secular debate, there must be healthy communities, and that will mean flourishing religions.
Secularist states that have driven religion out of the public arena (such as the Soviet Union, China, North Korea) are, or were, deeply unhealthy societies. Similarly, confessional states, either openly so or covertly so, have also deformed public discourse through religious intolerance, and become the sort of places where no one would want to live: the best example of that is Saudi Arabia, with Iran following not far behind, and Russia bringing up the rear.
Finally, when religion is driven out of the public arena, this creates a vacuum which will be filled one way or another: whereas the presence of religion should (though this does not always happen) act as a check on tendencies towards totalitarianism, in that it offers a critical, stimulating and integrating model of thought.
It is this last idea that is so absent from British politics and the national conversation at present. We need religion to stimulate thought, to provide ideas, to give us a critical spur and also to help integrate ideas, and develop the vision thing. But all, I hasten to add, in a secular arena where the playing field is level.
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