Recent Labour leaders have kept quiet about their religious beliefs. As premier, will Brown allow his faith to leech into his politics?by Richard Cockett / July 28, 2007 / Leave a comment
This is the fifth article in a six-piece symposium on Gordon Brown as intellectual. Other articles include: John Lloyd on an intellectual in power Iain McLean on other intellectual prime ministers throughout history Daniel Johnson on Brown the unsophisticated bookworm Geoff Mulgan on the American inspiration behind Brown’s thinking Kamran Nazeer on Brown’s book Courage
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It is an oddity of British politics that at the same time as society is becoming, so most people think, more secular, our political leaders are becoming ever more religious. Britain has a new prime minister immersed in a religious idiom, following on from the deeply Christian Tony Blair, who, in turn, succeeded a member of the Church of Scotland, John Smith, as leader of the Labour party. These three have all been, more or less, Christian Socialists. And they reformed the Labour party in response to the pious Margaret Thatcher, daughter of a lay Methodist minister.
Yet the three Labour leaders have been largely silent about their faith, and none more so than Gordon Brown. After all, as Alastair Campbell once barked at a pack of inquisitive journalists after a rumoured prayer meeting between Blair and George W Bush, “We don’t do God.” Blair’s handlers were afraid that in secular—and increasingly multicultural—Britain, religion is a divider, not a uniter.
But the fact that New Labour’s leaders have felt unable to speak in public about what really motivates them is unfortunate. It has contributed to a crisis of understanding in British politics. With the politicians intimidated into silence, the electorate knows little, and understands less, about their politicians. This is especially true of the apparently dour Gordon Brown. It also invites those accusations of ideological rootlessness, of artifice and spin, that bedevilled Blair and New Labour. In fact, Blair has deep moral and intellectual roots—they were just the wrong ones for a largely secular-minded commentariat that does not acknowledge religion as a legitimate wellspring of political action.
Brown can be a wooden public performer—but put him in a church and the effect can be electrifying. One of his best performances, eloquent and uplifting, was in St Paul’s Cathedral in 2005 on the eve of the Gleneagles summit, talking about the rich world’s obligations to the poor. Here the biblical cadences of his vocabulary were allowed full range. Indeed, so far it has been mainly…