David Aaronovitch in THE TIMES, 21 April 2022
At prime minister’s questions today Boris Johnson vehemently denied beating up on the BBC the night before for being hard on him but soft on Russia. But had he accused the Church of England of being “less vociferous in their condemnation on Easter Sunday of Putin than they were on our policy on illegal immigrants”. Yeah, well maybe.
The Church, perhaps seeking to head off any Tory knights en route to Lambeth Palace to rid the boss of turbulent priests, pointed out that the archbishop had repeatedly described Putin’s invasion as “evil”. Which in Church lingo usually means “very bad indeed”.
But what I thought was, “Bring it on.” Because the re-entry at last of moral debate into the fields of politics and government in Britain would be to find water in a desert.
Let’s begin with the question itself. Many British religious leaders have been saying that the government’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda (bearing in mind there are nearly no “legal” routes to claiming asylum in Britain) is immoral. Justin Welby argued that the principle of sending away asylum seekers “must stand the judgment of God, and it cannot”, because “sub-contracting out our responsibilities . . . is the opposite of the nature of God who himself took responsibility for our failures on the Cross”.
Henry II was quickly reincarnated on the front page of Daily Express in the headline “MPs Attack Welby Rant”. A senior Conservative commentator, fresh from his Easter alleluias, strenuously objected to the archbishop’s argument that the Rwanda policy was ungodly and suggested the prelate turn his attention to arguing against abortion.
This might have contradicted the tweet from John Redwood who wrote: “I thought the Easter message was love conquers all. We should forgive and reconcile. Could the archbishop help do that instead of sharpening political divisions?” Another with strong views about the duty of priests on holy days was a young MP called Tom Hunt who warned: “The leaders of the Church of England should be wary of clumsily intervening into complex political issues.” Hunt may have failed to notice that bishops of the established church sit by right in the second house of parliament, presumably precisely so they can intervene in “complex political issues”. Then there was Nigel Farage accusing the most important religious figure in this country of “virtue signalling”. After all, who is an archbishop to say what God’s judgment might be when you have GBNews?
But enough of this stupidity, because there is a much more important point at stake. Of course rows between faith leaders and politicians on points of disagreement are common to all parties. Back in 2019, for example, the then Unite leader Len McCluskey called it “quite wrong and extraordinary” for the Chief Rabbi to criticise Jeremy Corbyn’s record on antisemitism. In one sense this is all very traditional, from Becket to Wolsey to the modern day. This is Caesar feeling insufficiently rendered unto. Figures with transcendent claims on popular loyalty, from Marcus Rashford to Joanna Lumley, are quite threatening to politicians.
The conflict between Margaret Thatcher and the CofE is usually seen as a modern template. I’ll come to that in a moment, after noting that quite a few of our recent prime ministers have been religious people. Tony Blair attended a choir school but really took to God at college. His mentor, a priest called Peter Thomson, helped him in what Blair later called “a rediscovery of religion as something living, that was about the world around me rather than some sort of special one-to-one relationship with a remote being on high. Suddenly I began to see its social relevance.” Blair not “doing God” in interviews wasn’t a sign he lacked religious-based morality, but the opposite — the fear of showing how powerful it was. His successor Gordon Brown was the son of a minister of the Church of Scotland; Johnson’s immediate predecessor, Theresa May, the daughter of a vicar. When she spoke against the Rwanda plan this week it was partly on explicitly “ethical” grounds.
But Thatcher is probably the most interesting of all, because her dispute with the Church was actually theological. Brought up a Wesleyan Methodist by a shopkeeper father who was a lay preacher, her reforming zeal was underpinned by a faith-based morality.
In 1988 she went to Edinburgh to deliver what was known as “the Sermon on the Mound”. Her underlying ethos was provided by the Parable of the Talents: virtue is to be found in individual responsibility, which is undermined by the state. “We simply can’t delegate the exercise of mercy and generosity to others,” she argued. “The politicians and other secular powers should strive by their measures to bring out the good in people and to fight down the bad: but they can’t create the one or abolish the other.”
This was held to be a reproof to the theology underpinning the CofE’s interventionist Faith in the City report, published three years earlier and described as “Marxist” by one cabinet member. Today it has become simple “levelling up” orthodoxy.
But another passage from the Sermon on the Mound catches the eye. “There is little hope for democracy if the hearts of men and women in democratic societies cannot be touched by a call to something greater than themselves.”
If Margaret Thatcher learnt this moral seriousness from her father and mother one wonders what Boris Johnson gleaned from his. It used to be that whether something was morally right played some role in creating policy, mediated by the question “will it work”. Today’s political discussion seems entirely dominated by the questions, “How will this play on the red wall”, or “How will this go down with Tory/Ukip swing voters”? Or, “Will this cut through?”
Moral seriousness has been out of fashion for some time and the ruling party, in power now for 12 years, is led by a man whose governing credo is “whatever it takes”. Or, as Dominic Cummings put it concerning Johnson’s Potemkin policies, “everything is reversible and everything will be reversed”.
It’s as much my fault as most people’s. I derided Thatcher’s and Blair’s religiosity when I should have been commending it. Not because it was religious but because it grounded political debate in the question of what is right, not what is expedient. Now, after a decade of moral frivolity, I realise I want not less religion in politics and politics in religion, but more. A whole lot more.