Gongs, grins and faith in politics

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
28 Feb 2008

William Hague, the Conservative MP for Richmond and current Shadow Foreign Secretary, has made what many regard as a remarkable political transition from an electorally unsuccessful Leader of the Opposition mocked for his baseball-cap diplomacy to a ‘national treasure’ admired both for his wit and his in-depth biographical treatment of William Pitt the Younger.

He was, in fact, the first leader of the Tory party not to have become Prime Minister since Austen Chamberlain in the early 1920s – a move rapidly emulated by Iain Duncan-Smith and Michael Howard.

At the end of January 2008, Hague charmed his audience at the Channel 4 Political Awards, claiming the gong for ‘politician’s politician’ and quoting Henry Kissinger’s dictum that “90 per cent of politicians ruin it for the other 10 per cent of us.” (Which segment the architect of US armed diplomacy was really in, is a moot point.)

Hague ended his speech by quipping, “Who cares about not winning three elections in a row when you can get an award from Channel 4!” It summed up the ingrained irony of what has now become a cross between the annual Parliamentary Oscars and the script review for a self-referential TV soap opera. Westenders, say.

Beneath the inherently clubbable atmosphere of the event and newscaster Jon Snow’s affably scripted attempts at stand-up comedy, though, some interesting political fault lines were on display.

Former spinmeister Alistair Campbell won the political book award for The Blair Years, in spite of the fact that several judges thought they were poorly written. According to the sceptics, Westminster diaries are now not so much the first draft of history as the primary exculpation of the subject and his or her allies from blame. But they also fascinate because they give a glimpse, however partial, into the particular cultures and subterranean forces shaping political institutions which are intended to translate public concern and accountability into policy action.

Campbell also interrupted the backslapping convention of the Political Awards regime by 'dishing out some', with withering sideswipes at his opponents (particularly cabinet rebel Clare Short and security state Lib Dem critic Norman Baker), having issued a benign word of thanks to Tony Benn – his ideological polar opposite – for setting the diary maintenance gold standard.

The biggest fault-line, however, was surfaced by a controversial award to the Countryside Alliance – honoured as ‘most inspiring political figure of the last decade’. Actor Jeremy Irons received loud boos, yelps and hisses on behalf of what many see as a fox-murdering squirearchy. He argued that the Alliance was in fact the authentic voice of a disenfranchised, marginalised rural constituency.

In the aftermath of this audible breach of consensus, critics said that the campaign has so far been unsuccessful in its central aim of defending bloodsports. Others pointed out that, whatever one thinks of its stance, the Alliance has forced an urban political elite to face up to non-urban concerns which it all-too-easily overlooks. Yet more joked that Alastair Campbell must have slipped the organisers a free copy of his book to ensure that the 2-million strong anti-Iraq war demonstration in 2003 didn’t pick up the gong!

The real issue, though, seemed to be the question of who and what has the right to be deemed a legitimate member of ‘the political class’. Fraser Nelson, writing in The Spectator, seemed to suggest that the Channel 4 audience “cheered right-wingers like [William] Hague to the rafters” out of peer cordiality, and in spite of deep political differences, because he is still ‘one of us’. On the other hand they loudly booed the Countryside Alliance “which, I suppose, is mainly staffed and supported by people outside the Westminster establishment.”

But in what sense is this really so? The Alliance has made its impact because it is able to forge a strong link between a locally galvanised movement in the country at large (often in marginal constituencies) with strong mechanisms reaching deep into Westminster – ones that involve sympathetic parliamentarians (including Labour figures like Kate Hoey), political workers with access to MP’s offices and knowledge of House procedures, professional lobbyists and wealthy financial benefactors.

Viewed one way this shows how specific civic forces can make a significant impact on more widely representative democratic institutions. Taken another way, it may illustrate how strong landed interests continue to hold sway. The situation is more complex than an insider-outsider characterisation allows. Something for the award winners and losers to muse over as the buff their trophies or tend wounded egos, perhaps.

What might this little media saga portend for Christian engagement with the political process ‘after Christendom’, after the era in which the church can or should count on preferential treatment by the powers that be?

Generally speaking, ‘vested interests’ still predominate – whether that is Christian lobbyists cosily treading the halls of Westminster; or the Christian groupings largely subsumed within established party structures; or the pressure group campaigns that advocate particular kinds of ‘Christian concerns’.

Mostly these mechanisms work along thoroughly Christendom lines, where principle is negotiated in terms of position, rather than the other way around, and where the temptation to confuse love of neighbour with anxiety about maintaining institutional influence can be rather strong. Think of those votes for church opt-outs from public equalities legislation.

One direction this might take is the further development of ‘Christian alliance’ or ‘faith alliance’ politics in and around Westminster. That, in turn, feeds an opposing ‘secular lobby’. It can easily become rather counterproductive and confrontational. Not an encouraging scenario, especially for those of us who see the Gospel dynamic as moving us towards the margins rather than establishing us at the centre.

A different kind of model is suggested or opened up by something like ‘community organising’ (CO), where various social sectors (civic groups, faith groups, charities, unions and others) combine to push governance toward a more people-focussed approach on specific policy issues – housing, debt, regeneration and so on.

This is participatory democracy that starts at the edge of ‘the system’, beyond party control, on the street, and in an independent and associational mode. It brings people together (rather than segmenting them on religious or other lines), it allows for specific contributions from particular groups (including churches), and it both challenges and engages the political process – bringing elected politicians and executive officers on board when it can, arguing with them when it cannot.

There are, of course, problems with the community organising model. It doesn’t work with all issues. It can become primarily oppositional. It is open to distortion by demagoguery. But these tendencies can be recognised and handled. And CO does have the overriding strength of providing practical possibilities for rebuilding links between communities and politics – outside the refined culture of money-based lobbying, in-house deals... or Political Awards.

The Christmas 2007 edition of the satirical magazine Private Eye had a wonderful cover. As the wise men viewed the infant Jesus, one of the onlookers proclaimed his verdict: “It’s a celebrity!” The point, of course, is that the concerns of the cradling, kicked and crucified in society are not properly definable in these terms. But that is still the dominant framework.

The same conundrum faces Christians in politics. We should be reminded that the Gospel path is the one less travelled. And it rarely produces easy gongs or grins.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com, as well as contributing to Guardian Comment-is-Free, Open Democracy and other media outlets. The first part of this article has been adapted from the February 2008 Westminster column in Third Way magazine.

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