by Michael Faulkner
I am submitting this column a little later than I had intended so what is often referred to here as ‘the festive season’ will finally have passed. I say finally because every year the Christmas holiday seems to lengthen, not only to embrace New Year’s Day, but to extend at least to the end of the first week of January.
Reflecting on the items that were considered newsworthy between mid-December and the 6th of January, I am tempted to lead with Gordon Brown’s New Year message in which he attempted, finally, to reveal to the nation his ‘vision’. There is very little in this to justify devoting a whole column to it, so I’ll limit myself to a few paragraphs. Over the festive season I’ve given some thought to the question of religion in public life in Britain, and it is to this that I shall turn in the conclusion.
The Prime Minister’s vision was made public in an interview he gave to The Observer newspaper on the 6th of January, and, frankly, there was very little about it that could be considered visionary. All it amounted to was a less than inspiring statement of his government’s intentions from a prime minister who has seen his popularity ratings plunge in recent months. He needs to be seen to be fighting to restore his credibility. There was nothing unexpected and nothing to inspire confidence that there would be a break with Blairite New Labour. Put briefly, he warned that the year ahead would be ‘dangerous’. Everyone knows this anyway because the credit crunch is already hitting hard, so to say that this is ‘a dangerous situation for the world economy,’ is simply to state the obvious. An idea of the profundity of Brown’s “vision” is revealed in such statements as “the only way Britain can be great in the future is by people who are prepared through thick and thin, and through bad times and good times, to take what are difficult long-term decisions, even though it may be easier to do simpler or less difficult things.”
What he is telling us here is that he is prepared to take a tough line because it is right, whereas his Tory and Lib. Dem. opponents will go for the soft option because it is easy. He is trying to restore his earlier image as a decisive and competent leader. To pick out a few examples of his ‘hard choices’ to make Britain great, the following will give some idea: despite widespread concern amongst environmentalists, and a consultation process condemned by leading academics and experts as deeply flawed, he is determined to press ahead with a new generation of nuclear power stations. (This adopts Blair’s 2005 volte face on nuclear energy); again, against the objections of environmentalists, he intends to push through the expansion of Heathrow; despite the recent fiasco involving the disappearance of databases containing confidential information on 25 million child benefit claimants, and against widespread opposition, he intends to introduce ID cards on the dubious grounds that the scheme will help combat illegal immigration; once again, following Blair, he wants to extend to 42 days the time that terror suspects can be held without trail – this despite opposition from both the Tories, the Lib. Dems. and the former attorney general. There is nothing particularly visionary about any of this. Even if we take those pledges that are likely to have more appeal, such as the commitment to build three million new homes and the acknowledgment that there may be genuine grievances that have led some alienated young Muslims in Britain to turn to terrorism, he says little that goes beyond generalities and platitudes.
It is announced today (08.01.08) that Brown has appointed a new spin doctor – “chief of strategy and principal adviser” – who will no doubt be responsible for co-ordinating his campaign to get a grip on things and reverse his dismal poll ratings. The appointment to this post of communications specialist Stephen Carter has unfortunate echoes of Blair’s “Director of Communications”, Alistair Campbell, a man who in an earlier age less given to euphemisms would have been called “Director of Propaganda.” We are assured that Carter, who, like Campbell is unelected, will not have the same sweeping influence and power over government as did the latter. We shall see.
But, one way or the other the prime minister will need much more than improved presentational skills if he is to drag his government out of the mire into which it sank during 2007.
Politics and Religion
Unusually for Christmastime, religious matters featured rather prominently in much commentary on public affairs. For reasons that are not altogether clear, for a day or so in December the news media displayed exceptional interest in the fact that Tony Blair had become a convert to Roman Catholicism. This came as no surprise. His intention to do so after leaving office had been leaked long before. He had made no secret of his strong Anglican Christian faith, though he was more reticent when asked whether he had prayed together with George W. Bush. It is rather unusual for a British prime minister, particularly a Labour one, to parade his religious faith so conspicuously. It was left to spin doctor Campbell to assert that Blair’s government did “not do God.” But, like Bush, Blair certainly did “do” God. The only question of any interest in this is whether Catholic convert Blair will, retrospectively, experience any nagging doubts about the source of authority governing his actions while prime minister – particularly for the invasion of Iraq. As a Catholic he will accept papal infallibility – that the pontiff expresses the absolute truth of church doctrine. But the last pope made clear to Blair and Bush that he was totally opposed to the invasion of Iraq. This does not seem to have troubled closet-Catholic Blair any more than it did Bush, who believed that God had told him to go to war. Blair has never shown any doubt about the strength of his belief in his own moral authority. While prime minister he voted in parliament for stem cell research and women’s right to abortion. It would be interesting to know how he might square this with his new religious faith.
Gordon Brown is also a devout Christian – though he subscribes to a more modest denomination than his predecessor. The prime minister is fond of telling us that he is a “son of the Manse”. His father was a Scottish Presbyterian minister and from him, Brown claims, he learned the virtues of truthfulness and thrift. This is, perhaps, of little consequence. The religious beliefs of leading British politicians are not as important for their careers as they are for U.S. candidates for high office, but religion cannot be discounted here. The main reason for this is the peculiar relationship between the British state and the Church of England. The Anglican Church is the church of state, with the monarch at its head. Thus, unlike the U.S. where constitutionally church and state are separated, in Britain this is not so. All state schools, for example, are supposed to start the day with a religious assembly. Catholics are debarred from ascending the throne, so, for example, Prince Charles, should he follow Blair’s example, could never become king. The official status of the Anglican Church seems even odder given that Britain is a largely secular society. Only about 7% of the population attend church. There are now more practicing Catholics in Britain than there are Protestants.
It caused a bit of a stir before Christmas when the newly elected leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, in answer to a question about his religious beliefs, declared himself an atheist. How would such an admission affect the chances of a candidate for the U.S. presidency?
Religion featured in the news in another way. Some sections of the right-wing press became quite heated in their attacks on supposed “political correctness”. They claimed that in the name of multi-culturalism, a sinister conspiracy exists to “take away Christmas”. Because members of other religions, particularly Muslims, might feel offended or excluded, the conspiracy theorists claim, there is a plot to replace Christmas by some sort of winter festival. Of course this is nonsense. But it is also laughable because in Britain, for the overwhelming majority of the population, Christmas has nothing to do with religion. Christianity is an optional extra to the festive celebrations and most people ignore it. It has been so for a long time. However it is enjoyed, Christmas is a massive celebration of consumerism. Observant members of other religions in Britain, for whom holy days and festivals have real religious significance, must be bewildered and amused at the complete absence of religiosity with which the Saviour’s birth is marked. The main concern of the financial commentators over Christmas was whether, facing an uncertain future, consumers would continue to show confidence in their economic prospects by shopping until they dropped.