Tribune, 26 March 1993
Try as one might, it is impossible to suppress feelings of unease about last weekend’s public show of Christianity by John Smith and several other Labour front-benchers.
Not that there is anything particularly wrong with Labour making a pitch for the “moral high ground” (as long as that is not all it does): the Tory government is shabby and dishonest and Labour needs to live down its reputation for being prepared to say just about anything to get a whiff of power. Nor is there any problem about senior members of the Labour Party holding any particular religious views or, indeed, none: freedom of religious belief is a fundamental Labour principle.
But publicly presenting Christianity as the basis of an appeal for morality in politics is a deeply distressing thing for a senior Labour politician to do, even with Mr Smith’s caveat that “an ethical approach to life and politics can be held as firmly by people of other faiths and by those who hold no religious conviction”.
Despite its historical origins in nonconformist Christianity, Labour has been an essentially secular party for at least 50 years. Although people of all religious beliefs and none are members, the basis on which they come together for political activity assumes that such matters are private, not part of politics, and that politics is best conducted without the interference of religion.
This secularism has been too often honoured in the breach, even in recent times: if the days of Chapel dominance of Welsh Labour politics are over, Catholicism still has too much influence in large swathes of the party’s Scottish and north-west English heartlands. And there have been plenty of Labour MEPs unwilling to condemn the death sentence on Salman Rushdie because of their worries about the Muslim vote.
Nevertheless, in the past few years, Labour leaders have at least made an effort not to undermine the party’s commitment to secular politics: they have not made a big deal of their own personal opinions about religion.
This is not simply because Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock were not (and are not) believers. There are good reasons to keep religion out of politics. Most obviously, we are living in an increasingly secular society: there are few votes to be had by talking up religion. Only a tiny minority of our fellow citizens now participate regularly in any sort of organised religious activity (and, of that tiny minority, very few are Anglican Christians). Most self-styled believers in a deity have only the haziest notion of what their preferred supreme beings supposedly do.
More important than any electoral consideration, however, are the real dangers inherent in allowing religion back into political life. One reasoned speech by a mild-mannered Christian socialist does not presage an imminent collapse of UK politics into the sectarian hatreds of Northern Ireland or even the vapid protestations of faith that have increasingly come to characterise American politics. But there is no doubt that the assumption of secularism has civilised British politics. It would be a tragedy for Labour to throw that achievement away.