Wednesday 13 January 2010

Should we do God? The Attlee compromise

"Should we do God?" is one of the themes of Saturday's Causes to Fight For Fabian new year conference, where the issue of faith and secularism will be debated by Sadiq Khan MP, Ben Summerskill of Stonewall, Symon Hill of Ekklesia, Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society, Melehia Malik of University Colleage London, with Catherine Fieschi of Counterpoint keeping order.

Alastair Campbell this morning blogs that

I'm still not doing God, but as Neil Kinnock once said to me, I sometimes think it's a shame we're atheists, because some of the best lines are in the good book.

He could quote some good Old Labour authority for that position.

Clement Attlee told his biographer Kenneth Harris:

Believe in the ethics of Christianity. Can't believe in the mumbo-jumbo

That is quoted in Peter Hennessy's indispensable 'Never Again' study of the 1945-51 government, which recounts also that the exchange ended like this.

Harris: Would you say you are an agnostic?
Attlee: I don't know.
Harris: Is there an after-life, do you think?
Attlee: Possibly.

Attlee's spirit of moderation is largely missing from contemporary debates about the public role of religion in a society of many faiths and none. As a secular (lapsed Catholic) agonostic, I find the militant atheism of Richard Dawkins almost as unattractive as arguments made in a similar tone from intolerant believers.

Each is entitled to their views about the nature of the universe and to promote them vigorously.

But, when it comes to the political question of settling the issues of the public role of religion in a society of many faiths and none, this often spills over into a highly antagonistic dialogue of the deaf. Oftenm we seem to have a competitive grievance debate, often conducted in forums like the Today programme and the broadsheet press, as high profile liberal columnists, authors and academics compete with the Bishops of an Established Church,arguing over which might have the best claim to feel persecuted in modern Britain. Something must be going wrong!

Theo Hobson offers a good critique of Rowan Williams' uncharacteristically clumsy intervention along those lines over Christmas.

But the gut instinct of much of the secular left that a multi-faith society can only find common ground if faith is left outside the public square is problematic too: settles in advance one of the central questions for political negotiation. Any durable settlement must surely be founded on human rights principles, but what equality and fairness demand in respect of the public recognition of faith is complex, contested and needs a deeper dialogue.

There will be different views about this, but we need to talk more and think harder about it. For me, if the secular left suggests is allergic to any public role for faith, it seems to me to risk misunderstanding its own history - given that the foundation of the Labour Party did owe more to Methodism than Marxism - and to turn down the opportunity to build new alliances for social justice today.

London Citizens, about which James Purnell and Stuart White wrote this week, is a powerful grassroots alliance which was forged largely by mobilising those from faith-based perspectives but which invites those of all faiths and none to join forces to push for social justice.

Clement Attlee, whose motivation to enter politics was rooted in his experience of Limehouse, would surely approve.

PS: I spoke on the liberal-left's approach to secularism and faith at a seminar, responding to Tariq Modood alongside Ted Cantle, a couple of years ago, in a discussion framed around the question 'British Muslims and the secular state'. My contribution can be seen on YouTube in two parts here and here. I have contributed to a forthcoming edited collection, drawing on the event, which will continue that debate.


Anonymous said...

'For me, if the secular left suggests is allergic to any public role for faith, it seems to me to risk misunderstanding its own history - given that the foundation of the Labour Party did owe more to Methodism than Marxism - and to turn down the opportunity to build new alliances for social justice today.'

I have blogged on this topic, tangentially through a look at Purnell's appeal to the 'deep conservative elements' flowing through the Labour movement, here -

I'm glad you mention this, because it is undoubtedly something the left has to address (much like it has started, recently, to address its account and use of the state). People tend, by and large, to be put off by aggressive secularism, and that strand of thinking seems to have become aligned, almost wholly but not quite, with the metropolitan left.

To my mind, this is one of many issues where the metro-left have parted course with the Labour tradition (see blog), and is alienating itself accordingly - for which reason I thought Purnell's contribution was welcome.

Anonymous said...

Apologies, that last link didn't work. I'll try again (if that's ok) -

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks for the response. Here's the Outside In posting on social conservatism and Labour.

I think it is fair to say that this 'allergic' response to faith sometimes seems dominant among liberal-left metropolitan commentators; I thought Williams lacked any evidence that it has been the position of the Labour government. Of course, Blair's religious faith was controversial, and reactions to it have shaped this discussion, while Brown's own faith appears to be very much in this ethical Christian socialist tradition. The government is charged vociferously with paying too much attention to faith groups (accused by left-liberal secularists of an unprincipled timidity on faith schools, being too open to faith engagement in third sector; and of being generally rather socially conservative; and, alternatively, by the right having a cynical multiculturalist approach to minority faiths as electoral blocs) and also of too little attention to faith (with some 'competitive grievance' claims that Muslims are getting too much attention, by some claiming to speak for some other minority faiths and by some Christian voices; and traditionalists who think there is a secret project to do in every institution).

One can argue about the validity of each or all of these arguments.

I do think the counter-claims do often demonstrate that is not very much clarity about what the faith or secularism question is about, still less a settled majority view on how to resolve it.

Anonymous said...


thanks for the response. Part of my argument is that the issue is also transcendent of religion per se; the larger argument is of a dominant social liberalism which has become wholly dominant - amongst the ruling classes - over more socially conservative thought (religious traditions thus being collateral damage in a larger conflict) - whether this be on education, or multiculturalism, or law and order, or immigration, or whatever.

Of course, there are always competing grievance claims, and perception is everything, but if seeking to balance these competing claims tends toward a kind of political and social nihilism (ie, we don't promote anything as such, in order not to alienate any particular viewpoint) then these grievances from all sides will continue - a kind of bear pit where everyone scraps it out for their own piece of meat.

Whether the left like it or not, the overwhelming objection to its contemporary project is that it isn't really rooted in anything particular, which often is the platform for the charge that it is anti-christian, anti-family, anti-nation etc etc. You'd know better than I if this accurately reflected the people that sit in the PLP - but it's a charecterisation which has traction nonetheless.

Newmania said...

I think Michael has a profound insight there if you strip it away my indefatigable horror at the progressive elite is there wish to deny humanity and replace it with rationalism.
As for evidence of the atheist assumptions of the left which you no doubt share . Faith Schools , abortion , marriage ...I dunno Sunder have not been watching the show ten minutes and I could find endless examples .
What is especially galling is that New Labour have retianed the preachyness of the non conformist vote the inherited without anything but sheer bossiness to back it up with .
The spirit of the Tempernace league still thrives but for the glory of New Labour.

. said...

I have issue with the statement that the majority are averse to a sober secularism. Almost all of the evidence shows that the British public feels somewhat disenfranchised with regards to the representation of faith at the parliamentary level. In summation, the vast majority of people are non-religious and uninterested in issues appertaining to faith. Moreover, even the most cursory engagement with the evidence shows us that they are no longer willing to endorse either a social conservative or faith-based agenda. In particular, faith-schools continue to be enormously unpopular.