A Treasure Hunt on the Side
Words, when spoken out loud for the sake of performance, are music. They have rhythm, and pitch, and timbre, and volume. These are the properties of music and music has the ability to find us, and move us, and lift us up in ways that literal meaning can’t…
–The West Wing, ‘War Crimes’, by Aaron Sorkin
I packed my bag for the party conferences with two objectives: one stated, and one a little side project of my own. I accordingly marked up the conference guide books, decided which sessions would serve me best and what would be of interest, and off I headed.
Utilise events that I was involved in to raise awareness of the contribution of faith organisations among key party workers and politicians, and also to challenge them to respond to the statement ‘faith is too significant to ignore’.
I wanted to seek out the leaders and orators who had ideas and rhetoric which could be persuasive – even to those who didn’t have a predisposition in favour of their arguments. Was there anyone whose passion, ideas and approach demanded attention?
So, how did objective #1 go? The discussion around ‘faith too significant to ignore’ is the theme of much of our time with officials and politicians in local and national government. It is the topic of our National Conference. It was interesting to see the different responses that the mention of the faith elicited. At events that we co-hosted there were considered and challenging responses.
For example, an event with Christians on the Left and Sikhs for Labour at the Labour Party conference resulted in valuable insights from John Denham MP, who seemed in tune with a post-independence referendum UK which is in need of some level of nation rebuilding. He spoke of the need for Government to respect the people, and the important role that faith can play with a re-populating of the public square: faith as an agent in a new invigoration of the demos, perhaps.
What was also interesting was to see how ‘faith’ as a topic was picked up in discussions where we were not hosting, but were just another voice in the crowd. Here, there were two very contrasting experiences at the Conservative conference. One event was hosted by Bright Blue with David Davis MP and Matthew Parris, journalist from The Times and author of Africa needs God, considering what an outright Tory victory could mean in May 2015. I was disappointed by the lack of imagination which was applied to faith, with an almost US-style separation of church and state advocated. It was a good example of the challenge which I had heard earlier from Lord Glasman: “I came to the Tory conference to see if there were any conservatives left in your party!” There was plenty of 19th Century liberalism in the discussion, with a kind of “I’m alright Jack” approach to social policy from David Davis MP, which left a hollow ring.
On the other hand, in a devolution discussion hosted by IPPR with Rory Stewart MP and Lord Maurice Glasman, it seemed at times that faith had hijacked the conversation. Lord Glasman sees a key role for the church and faith in general in the future of the UK. It was his ideas and challenges which, for me, made him someone worthy of a platform. It was amusing to see how much both speakers were surprised by their level of agreement.
But what of objective #2? As I have already mentioned, Lord Glasman was certainly oozing with ideas and a different yet familiar vision of a revived Britain. He also occupies the role of prophet quite well: he calls from outside of the main apparatus of power and provides a challenge back to parties of all hues. However, he is not going to be suddenly called to office; he is a thought leader but not someone whose presentation recruits the hearer to his cause.
David Davis MP had something of the Churchillian outsider about him, but he lacked a motivating idea; leadership needs to be popular, not merely to expound populism. With a libertarian laissez-faire message, if the choice was to take him or leave him, I would leave him.
Lisa Nandy MP, the Shadow Charities Minster, is one to watch. She contended with the accepted idea of ‘Broken Britain’. For me, the key thing is that there is much about the Broken Britain narrative that I would agree with, but listening to this new voice (Lisa Nandy is one of the 2010 intake to Parliament) made me start to question my assumptions, or at least to see the potential damage this label could cause. She started to persuade me by the quality of her arguments and the passion of her delivery. Unlike David Davis MP, she saw faith as a key facilitator of civil society; she noted that in her Wigan constituency, “faith is everywhere”. We spent some time speaking about the faith Covenant developed by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society, for which FaithAction provides the secretariat.
There were very few politicians that I wanted to hear speak; there was not much sign of the words and performance as described in the quote at the top of this page. I know that they are not necessarily the same thing, but the lack of inspirational speaking seems to connect with the current lack of political giants. For those of us from a church background, public speaking is something that we have experienced: we have heard a lot of poor speakers, but we also know what it is like to be hit by a gifted speaker. I suspect that was what it was like to listen William Gladstone, a gifted speaker with a vision, based on religious conviction. So where are the modern day equivalents of Churchill, Lloyd George or Mandela?
I would venture that there is more than one problem in our political system. From 90’s sleaze to spin doctors, stealth taxes, expenses and the compromise of coalition, it can seem we are in a time of ‘political pygmies’, as David Runciman has argued. His article suggests a number for reasons for this. He also sounds a helpful warning about the pursuit of the ‘strongman shouting in the wilderness’: very rarely do the ‘strongmen’ turn out to be a Churchill. The raising of the political class seem to be more about insider knowledge than any experience of a ‘hinterland’ outside politics, as Dennis Healey once put it. I chatted to one aspiring candidate for May 2015, who said he was too old to aspire for the ultimate role of leader of his party. He had worked in the voluntary and community sector and in local politics, and run businesses, but this experience – or rather the time it took to obtain it – was now a hindrance to truly high office. We need politicians with a broader background; those who have held leadership positions in faith communities could come with both vision and a way of communicating it.
Alongside the issue of age and background is also this idea of a second chance – the fact that some of the best characters in our political past have had more than one bite at the cherry. Churchill took the fall for Gallipoli in the First World War, even though he was proven to have held only some of the blame – and within a short period pops up again as Chancellor of the Exchequer. What of Andrew Mitchell MP? Should there not be second chance for him after he was proven to have been smeared?
Runciman identifies the smallness of political parties as being part of the problem: they are not the beasts they were to be tamed and controlled, and leadership is no longer as important as management. Some, like Boris Johnson as well as Ken Livingston and Alex Salmond, have been able to shine brightly in the smaller sphere of the London Mayoralty and Scottish Parliament, but there remains the question of their ability to run a country. Maybe more devolution and localised power will bring a version of the governorships that the USA has, which in turn will provide a springboard for party leadership and future Prime Ministers.
The new independence of select committees has brought a new life to Parliament, with such lovable rogues as Margaret Hodge MP making a name for themselves. Even here, however, her new found fame seems set to launch her as a challenger for the Mayor of London, not the leadership of the Labour Party.
But what of the compromises of coalition, the grey blob of policy (the Tory blue and Lib Dem yellow have hardly led to a new green approach to government)? “Coalition politics and shifting political allegiances facilitate the rise of the party managers – the politicians who know how to cobble a deal together and make it stick,” says Runciman. Here I agree only to a point. In the day of the mass party, the Labour and Conservative Parties were umbrellas and coalitions in their own right, and there was the possibility of compromise. But there was also the opportunity for leadership: taking the party with you in your vision and seeking to win the swing vote as well. I do get tired of hearing Lib Dems bellyaching about coalition. If we had proportional representation, as they so fervently desire, we would pretty much always have coalition. Tuition fees! That would just be the start. If a minor party makes a pledge there are two possible outcomes: 1) they never get into power so it never happens anyway; or 2) they get into power and have to compromise. What they are really saying is ‘we didn’t want to join the Tories’. Easy answer: join the Labour Party now.
Before you think I have expressed a biased opinion, let me reassure you with this. Coalition in the face of the dire circumstances of 1931, 1940 and 2010 has proved to be a stable source of government for the UK. Compromise has seemed to work. But it should not rule out political giants or soaring rhetoric; in this area since 2010 we have been short-changed.