preaching politicians are every bit as unpleasant and dangerous
as fundamentalist sectarians.
The sins of self-righteous pride are writ large in both.
So it is little wonder that even though we have (unbelievably)
retained our two established churches (England and Scotland),
poll after poll suggests that the British do not want more
overtly religious politicians. Indeed Britain has always
very leary about intermingling our religion and our politics.
For most democrats there has been an added reason for distrusting
politicians who wear their faith on their sleeve and use it
for electoral advantage. Sectarian bigotry has been the scourge
not just of Ireland, but of the world and because such bigotry
has often put its roots down in religious soil many people
in rejecting the vicious divisions that it can bring have
rejected religion as well. Moreover the apparent appropriation
of Christianity by the Religious Right in the US, with its
promotion of prosperity teaching (wealth is a sign of Gods
love so the rich are by definition good) and its obsessively
fundamentalist stance on family values, abortion and sexuality,
has brought Christianity into a form of disrepute with most
sane-thinking democratic socialists however much we may admire
radical bishops like Desmond Tutu, David Jenkins and David
So most democratic socialists have ambivalent feelings about
morality and religion.
But democratic socialism is essentially a moral creed, an
ethical proposition that stands or falls not by some scientific
measure, but by the consistency with which it is advocated,
the respect it can command, the strength of its moral argument.
What is that argument? For me it has always been a conviction
that grinding poverty and gross inequality are offensive because
they mar the humanity in all of us. Since we humans are by
our very nature social animals who depend on one another,
we should try to order society in a way that makes it easier
for everyone to lead fulfilled lives.
The difficulty is that I cannot prove this. I can only feel
it and believe it. I can prove that paying millions of people
to remain unemployed is an expensive and inefficient business.
I can prove that poverty poor health, inadequate nutrition
and bad housing kills people. I can prove that the gap between
rich and poor is widening after years of going in the other
direction. I can prove that poor pay leads to de-motivated
staff. I reckon I can even prove that humans are social animals
and that we achieve more by working together than we can on
our own. After all we learn languages to communicate, we develop
institutions to provide security and the worst form of punishment
is solitary confinement.
However, what I cannot prove without appealing to some moral,
ethical, conscientious sensitivity is that grinding poverty
and gross inequality are offensive. Which is why socialism
is essentially not a scientific fact but a moral comment on
life and the way we order society.
Norman Lamont subconsciously recognised this a couple of
years ago when he argued that all that is left to socialism
is the moral high ground as if to suggest that somehow the
moral high ground was an irrelevant nicety. It is a common
Tory perception. When Robin Cook announced that the new Labour
Government was going to pursue an ethical foreign policy,
party members started discussing what that would mean a ban
on anti-personnel land-mines, an end to arms sales to Indonesia,
an adamant refusal to back down on human rights abuses in
China and so on. The Tory press, by contrast, derided Cook
either for his naivete (pure student union Janet Daley of
the Daily Telegraph called it) or for dereliction of his nationalistic
duty to secure the best deal for Britain regardless of ethical
There are other dangers in espousing ethical socialism. The
British media delight in their role as judge and jury over
the new Labour government. Because Blair and Brown promoted
a brand of ethical socialism and because it is unethical to
commit adultery, new Labour must be hypocrites if they keep
Cook in the Cabinet. So runs the argument, despite the fact
that Blair made it abundantly clear before the General Election
that Labour was expressly not trying to resurrect a form of
the disastrous Back to Basics campaign with its Victorian
double standards over sex. Furthermore the well-funded Christian
right, who somehow managed to convince themselves that because
Blair was prepared to own up to being a Christian he was going
to accept their agenda (tax breaks for married couples, clampdown
on abortion, homosexuality etc.), are busy crying betrayal,
a call that warms the cockles of the average Telegraph
This poses a profound difficulty for all modern socialists.
If morality can too easily descend into sententious cant,
if accusations of hypocrisy almost immediately attend anyone
who dares to proclaim an ethical creed and if large chunks
of the population believe that morality is entirely irrelevant
in politics, what have we to offer? Already Tony Blair, who
has on the whole tried to keep his religion to himself and
has only ever gone public to my knowledge on two occasions,
has felt the need to withdraw from the moral agenda because
it is too often misinterpreted as moralistic and the traditional
Labour Party conference service (which Attlee, Kinnock and
Callaghan all attended) will no longer be open to the press.
This cannot mean that we should abandon ethical socialism.
There are several tactical points to be made. The first is
quite simply that we should not surrender the whole of the
moral argument to do-as-you-will conservatism. Poverty, inequality,
injustice are wrong and we should not countenance them.
The second point is that democratic socialism is not about
telling people how to live their lives (except in so far as
every society outlaws violence, murder, fraud etc). If anything
a Labour government should be extending personal freedom.
The age of consent, for instance, should be equalised, for
the simple moral reason that the State should not treat one
person differently from another. Similarly the law should
give more protection to personal freedom, guaranteeing a smoke-free
work space, imposing a limit on the number of hours employers
can make their staff work in a week, guaranteeing a minimum
wage. All these legislative changes have been portrayed by
the Tories as evidence of the nannying tendency in socialism,
but in truth they are just as much about extending personal
freedom as is ensuring a decent education for everyone and
providing a National Health Service. As Oscar Wilde put it,
the true aim of socialism is individualism, not because we
want everyone to be an isolated individual greedily pursuing
his or her own ends, but because individuals can only fully
flourish in a society that is just, where the vulnerable are
protected and where the rights of others are recognised as
entailing obligations in ourselves. Live and let live may
seem a feeble ethic on its own, but allied to a belief in
equality and justice it may rescue socialism from the cry
of moral authoritarianism.
Thirdly Christianity is not a charter for hypocrites and
sectarians. Indeed without radical Christians we should never
have had a Labour Party at all.
Indeed it is perhaps ironic that I am writing this on Good
Friday, the 150th anniversary of the collapse of the great
Chartist demonstration on a sodden Kennington Common on 10
April 1848. For that same night a small band of brothers (they
were all 'brothers': the priest/novelist Charles Kingsley,
Professor The Revd F D Maurice, the half-French socialist
lawyer John Ludlow and later the novelist cum politician Thomas
Hughes) started to meet and produce a series of tracts, thereby
inaugurating the first Christian Socialism movement. In time
they would found the Working Mens College, the Co-operative
Wholesale and Retail Societies and the National Health League;
and their Christian Socialist successors would not only found
the first overtly socialist organisation in Britain (The Guild
of St Matthew), but found and lead the Scottish and English
Labour Parties (Keir Hardie, George Lansbury, Arthur Henderson)
and develop the concept of the welfare state (Archbishop William
Although the early Christian Socialists held many views that
we would now condemn (Kingsley was both a racist and an anti-Catholic
bigot), their central conviction still holds true: that true
Christianity was being abused and if it could be rediscovered
it would be a potent force for social good. Kingsley confessed
quite independently of Marx that the Bible was often used
as no better than a 'mere special constable's hand-book -
an opium dose for keeping beasts of burden patient while they
are being overloaded -a mere book to keep the poor in order'.
In fact the poor man has his rights, as well as the rich so
says the Bible. It says more it says that God inspires the
poor with the desire of liberty; that he helps them to their
All of this points to a political agenda that should be shared
by ethical socialists of all brands and all faiths and we
should fight hard to win the argument for it.
But finally, we should hesitate before we preach, remembering
the succinct if revolutionary ethic of Bertolt Brecht:
You gentlemen who think you have a mission
To purge us of our seven deadly sins
Should first sort out the basic food position.
Then start your preaching.
That's where life begins.
Chris Bryant, Chair of the Christian Socialist Movement,
is standing for the Labour Party NEC in the constituencies