Simon Barrow

Politics is bigger than the parliamentary game by Simon Barrow

By Simon Barrow
October 29, 2006

Back in the mid-1970s, during the earlier flourishing of my own social consciousness, Christians often kept their involvement in political movements and causes separate from church work and ‘the spiritual life’.

‘Party politics’, especially, was seen as a dodgy area. There was a feeling abroad that the journey of faith and the political arena were best kept apart. It was a case of best dress for praying on Sunday, and corduroys when getting your hands dirty during the week.

How things have changed. While (thankfully) Britain has not gone down the road of harnessing religion to narrow ideological bandwagons, as in the USA, many more Christians are involved with issues concerning the use of power, both inside and outside the ‘recognised channels’. There are solid theological reasons for this.

This year, Christian groups within the three ‘main’ parties were especially active at the annual political conferences. The Christian Socialist Movement held packed fringe meetings on everything from poverty, asylum and slavery right through to ‘Can the Tories do social justice?’ In commendable ecumenical spirit, they invited Iain Duncan Smith to take a gentle pounding from Scottish community activist Bob Holman.

Conservative Christians, meanwhile, restored a derelict church for community use, exercised green credentials against a ‘cheap air flights’ lobby, and focussed on social responsibility – a concept lost on a few bluer delegates, whose distance from the Church of England (once dubbed the Tory Party at prayer) was such that the term seemed somehow unfamiliar.

As for Christian Liberal Democrats, well they produced a lengthy document relating their party’s policies to Christian principles, and danced niftily in areas where instinctive liberality may come hard for many in the churches. Plus they radiated personal niceness. Not something to be knocked in the nasty, manicured world of ‘In The Thick Of It’.

Talking to various Christian conferees, I noticed a tempering of the tribal rivalries which can easily characterise party activism. This may reflect the fact that they are competing for the same swing voters, and thus need to out-triangulate each other. But it may also arise from recognising commonality-in-difference as a Gospel imperative. If only the sexuality war-parties in the churches could breathe the same spirit.

That said, I still feel unease about the precise role of ‘organised Christians’ affiliated to party systems. Partly this is deep aversion to anything straying into God-on-our-side territory – the tendency which has so deeply corrupted Christian engagement in politics on the other side of the Atlantic.

Just as worryingly, proper theological grit gets readily dissolved by those smooth Westminster oysters. When you interview Christians at party events, their first instinct is to defend the policy. The awkward radicalism of the Gospel is soon sidelined into “it’s a very complex issue” and “we will be participating in a policy review on that.” Cough. Move on to the next topic, please.

This dilemma was recently highlighted by ex-Lib Dem MP Mark Oaten, seeking redemption from the tabloid-enhanced personal scandal which sadly truncated a promising career. Once he left Westminster, Oaten said (in a frank Observer interview) that he now realised how powerless he had been there. Unable to pursue “politically unrealistic” passions like the abolition of prisons – an idea rooted in (Christian-influenced) ideas of restorative justice– he found himself, like many, sucked into a soul-destroying game of advancement.

Others will tell a different tale, perhaps. Noble deeds are done in the corridors of power, as well as shabby deals. But the underlying reality is hard to avoid. In an age where improving political aspirations are squashed by finance-driven interests, there are fewer chances of out-manoeuvring the party system from inside. As Gordon Brown acknowledged in relation to Make Poverty History, that requires a people’s politics to make it feasible.

Both inside and outside parliament, more Christians are seeing the positive priority of working with others – not to enhance Christian self-interest, let it be noted, but to produce fresh social agendas, freer political spaces and different cultural possibilities. To assist in the generation of moral community beyond the whipping system, in other words.

The campaign against global debt is a clear example. By bringing ‘Jubilee action’ into the public arena and working with those of other faith and good faith, Christians inside and (mostly) outside party politics helped re-write the script. Top-table leaders may still dissemble, but they now have to take notice of global poverty in a way unthinkable just 15 years ago.

So the point is not that there is no place for Christians within parties, but that the real polis is a much wider arena shaped by public engagement, which in turn shapes electoral politics. This is where the alternative form of civil society we call church is well placed to challenge the love of accumulated power by exercising the political power of exemplary love.

This is a slightly modified version of an article which appears in the latest issue of Third Way magazine.

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