24 May 1997

All eyes on left
on the new vicar


Over-protective and demanding parents often have children who, as adults, turn their anger on each other. The sight of Ann Widdecombe and Michael Howard publicly playing their part in the destruction of the Tory Party is part of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy to British politics.

But if there is a Thatcher legacy that will outlast the Tory leadership race then it must be the humour generated to lighten those years and, in particular, the “Dear Bill” letters in Private Eye.

Private Eye has lost no time in lampooning the Blairs, with a new parish newsletter, St Albion Parish News, edited by Alistair Campbell, complete with a letter from the vicarage by the new vicar who insists on being called Tony, rumours about the vicarage cat, and a profile of “Our New Vicar” – by “Mr Mandelson”.

With all the sleaze and scandal surrounding so many Tories, it was difficult not to pillory the Conservatives when they claimed to be the party of family values. According to Bishop Richard Harries of Oxford, the Conservatives lost the election because they had lost their sense of decency. He did not mince his words in the Church Times: “There was, I suspect, a sense of extreme distaste at the scandals and squabbles of the Tory Party; a sense that something sour and squalid needed to be spat out; a sense of decency betrayed...”

But when New Labour lays claim to Christian values it may be more difficult to engage in banter and criticism. It is a common aphorism, quoted recently by two Labour MPs, Hilary Armstrong and Paul Boateng, that the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than it does to Marxism.

Today, the Christian Socialist Movement, with 5,000 members, is the fastest-growing of the 13 socialist societies affiliated to the Labour Party. The CSM was founded in 1960 by Tom Driberg, Donald Soper, George McLeod of Iona and Bishop Mervyn Stockwood. But the roots of the movement go back further to early Christian Socialists such as John Ludlow, Charles Kingsley, and F.D. Maurice and their successors a generation later, including Bishop Charles Gore, editor of Lux Mundi, and Henry Scott Holland, who argued for a Christian economics in which common ownership was the only effective means of dismantling the privileges of inherited wealth and capitalism.

Although it was once said that the Church of England was the Tory Party at prayer, Christian Socialism had a particular appeal to High Church Anglo-Catholics. In 1923, Bishop Frank Weston explained that appeal: “You cannot worship Jesus in the Tabernacle if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.”

But the Conservative Party has long ceased to be the Church of England at prayer. At a Tory conference, Margaret Thatcher once referred to the bishops as “a few cuckoos in the spring”. The clashes were numerous: the reports on The Church and the Bomb and Faith in the City, the miners’ strike, the Falklands memorial service...

Canon Paul Oestreicher of Coventry Cathedral claims: “Through the long period of Margaret Thatcher's rule, when the Labour Party was a most ineffective opposition, there was no group of people she more resented than the bishops of the Church of England.”

Times have changed, and the new parliament is interesting for a number of record-breaking figures, including more women and more representatives of ethnic minorities. And now the Christian Socialist Movement is boasting that it has ministers in “almost every” government department, and that the election has put “swathes more” Christian MPs on the backbenches.

The most prominent member of the CSM is the new Prime Minister, a life-long admirer of Archbishop William Temple. Recently, Tony Blair wrote the forward to Reclaiming the Ground, a collection of essays by CSM members in memory of the Labour social historian R.H. Tawney. Other contributors included the late Labour leader John Smith, an elder in the Church of Scotland.

The editor of the essays, Christopher Bryant, failed to enter the Commons on the tide that swept Labour to victory. At Oxford, a young Chris Bryant sparred with William Hague about the nature of Conservatism. Today, Mr Hague (36) is a contender for the Tory leadership and Mr Bryant (35) is reflecting on his defeat by Sir Ray Whitney in Wycombe, where he lost by 2,370 votes despite a 13.6 per cent swing from the Tories.

The Rev Chris Bryant was youth officer for the Bishop of Peterborough before finding a career in politics as full-time organiser for the Labour Party in Holborn and St Pancras and political agent for Frank Dobson MP, the new Health Secretary. For the past four years, he has chaired the Christian Socialist Movement.

The Clerical Disabilities Act 1870 forced Chris Bryant to resign as a priest of the Church of England before he could seek election, although there are no similar restrictions on the clergy of other churches, including the Rev Martin Smyth and the Rev Ian Paisley.

Other contributors to Reclaiming the Ground fared well at the polls and have found favour with Tony Blair. Hilary Armstrong, an active Methodist and former permanent private secretary to John Smith, has become an Environment and Transport minister. Chris Smith, a Presbyterian and vice-president of the CSM, is the new Heritage Secretary. And Paul Boateng is a Parliamentary Under-Secretary.

Other prominent CSM members include the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, and the Home Secretary, Jack Straw. And the new Labour MP for Wythenshawe and Sale East, Paul Goggins, is a former national co-ordinator of Church Action on Poverty.

Although the Church of England may be closer to disestablishment with this new government, never before have so many government ministers admitted their political values have been shaped and formed by their church membership.

Now, the Church Times says, “those who voted Labour will watch Mr Blair with interest to see if he can deliver his manifesto promises at no extra cost to themselves. They doubt it, but their scepticism is good-humoured at present. If the mood persists, Mr Blair will find that they would rather pay more than to see the job only half done.”

And that’s where the watching and waiting will prove interesting.

This opinion column was published in ‘The Irish Times’ on Saturday 24 May 1997.

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