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How would Jesus vote?

Theo Hobson

Featurevote1.jpgThis year's election will be the closest race for 20 years. We've already had months of tetchy arguments about policy detail and dodgy statistics. The economy obviously dominates debates, but as things hot up unforseeable events with little bearing on the issues will grab the headlines - maybe Michael Gove will punch an egg-throwing heckler.

Does the campaigning-circus really help us to decide who to vote for? Yes and no. Yes, we have to look at each party, to decide which looks worthy of office - or least unworthy. But as for the ideas behind politics - forget it. Squabbles over policy detail will crowd out thought about the bigger pic- ture. We have to step back from the media narrative in order to reflect on the underlying ideas.

Politics is largely about faith. I don't mean politicians' attitudes towards religious communities, or whether party leaders profess piety. I mean
faith in a looser sense - vision, idealism, that sort of thing. When an opposition leader wins over the electorate, it is because he or she has a new version of faith in the national future, and it is infectious. We value leaders who help us to believe in a better future - in a sense they are shamans of social hope, which seems to be a necessary fuel for society. We saw the clearest possible instance of this in the USA, with Obama's 'Yes we can' campaign. A decade ear- lier, Blair created a smaller-scale faith-event, and two decades before that Thatcher worked her own brand of faith-magic. What is David Cameron's ver- sion of this? Does his political vision have enough faith-content to swing the voters this year?

The popular distinction between left-wing idealism and right-wing pragmatism is of course too neat to be accurate: in reality, all parties employ idealistic rhetoric. When the Tories last won power, in 1979, they promised a fresh start, based in a new culture of individual responsibility and respect for free enterprise. As Thatcher gained strength as a leader, this became increasingly bold, and increasingly faith-like. In some ways she was like a religious leader, for she was the icon of a new faith in eco- nomic aspiration, middle-class values. To call this an ideology of greed is a bit simplistic, for Thatcher sincerely believed that a new culture of economic responsibility would lead to a moral regeneration.

The nation gradually lost faith in this vision, and the political landscape became simpler. The Tories stood for greedy individualism, and Labour gained the ideological high-ground. Blair found it pretty easy to be a political goodie, full of faith in the future, in society, in community. Now we could believe in social justice without having to sign up to dogmatic socialism. In fact, we could stick with Thatcher's sleek capitalist machine, and turn it to moral ends. Surely a new era dawned.

On one level Blairism certainly worked: a boom- ing economy funded public services, and had some success in modernising them. State education was improved: lots of failing schools were turned around. There were some liberal reforms, for exam- ple relating to homosexual equality, and reform of the House of Lords. Let's leave foreign policy aside.

On the other hand, social harmony did not descend upon us. Our culture seemed to get more aggressive- ly capitalist, more full of celebrity-worship, hedo- nism, greed. Despite all the public spending, inequality increased, and welfare-dependency grew. Despite better schools, parents became more anxious about state education. The government found it harder than it had expected to spread the nation's wealth beyond the middle-class, to trickle it down. Also, mainly thanks to Islamic extremism, our latent doubt about British identity became a long-running crisis. And then came the crash. We already knew that our economy was too reliant on the banking industry, but we had not realised how risk-addicted this industry was. Surely a really pro- gressive government would have kept the City on a shorter leash? This is easily said, but (to change the animal imagery) the City was the goose laying golden eggs for the Treasury, and it's risky to inter- fere with such magic. So New Labour's record is hard to assess. Public services were improved by huge spending. But this spending was made possible by a dangerous reliance on casino capitalism. Also, it seems that huge public spending is frustratingly ineffective; it is too blunt an instrument to address our social ills.

David Cameron's success has been based in one key insight. He realised that he must sound deeply concerned about reforming public services, not in order to save the taxpayer money, but in order to help the disadvantaged.

He has portrayed Labour as well-meaning but wasteful, dogmatic, old- fashioned. In this version of events, Brown is like a bad dad, trying to throw money at his kids' problems rather than showing the necessary tough love. Cameron's performance has been just as impressive as Blair's in the mid-1990s: he has managed to seem more compassionate than previous Tory leaders, but just as hostile to wasteful state spending, just as keen on middle-class self- reliance. In 2008 he said: 'I'm going to be as radical a social reformer as Margaret Thatcher was an economic reformer'. Since the crash his charge of Labour wastefulness has gained credibility; he now mainly poses as the bringer of sharp clarity, ruthless honesty.

Maybe we need a dose of this, to keep the econo- my from meltdown. But does this add up to a posi- tive social vision, capable of mending 'broken Britain'? Does Cameron have the ability to make the nation more at ease with itself, to make it feel like 'one nation'? He has identified with the 'one nation' tradition of Toryism, founded by Disraeli, that seeks to subordinate capitalism to the good of all classes, and he has criticised extreme free-market econom- ics. But his main theme has been the ineffectiveness of the big state, its failure to address local needs: he made the point countless times in his last conference speech.

With some cautious endorsement from Cameron, the theologian and social philosopher Phillip Blond has been setting out a new Tory radicalism, and has founded a think-tank called Respublica to push his ideas. His key point is that neither the free-market nor the big state is to be trusted. Capitalism must be de-centralised, dispersed throughout the nation, rather than left to an elite in the City. The ideal of a property-owning democracy must be pursued with new gusto. It is an attractive idea: that the alienating complexity of capitalism should be broken down, and people given more of a stake in the economy. Perhaps it is unrealistic that welfare dependency can be cured by the setting up of local co-operatives, but it's worth thinking about. Blond also criticises con- sumerist culture, the permissive society, hedonistic individualism, and demands a politics that re- moralises society.


This is also a point worth making, for a key lesson from the New Labour years is that it's not enough to redistribute money: a culture of greed and isolated individualism must be addressed. But it's unclear how any political programme can address this huge cultural issue, and turn back the tide of selfish individualism.

Does Cameron really have the nerve to pursue radi- cal new ideas that put the general good first? Can we really believe that a Tory government would be more daringly reformist than New Labour has been? Aren't the Tories still primarily interested in protecting the interests of the well-off? Can we take seriously George Osborne's repeated claim in his conference speech: the burden of the recession must be shared more equally, he said, because 'we're all in this together.' Cameron and Osborne are hardly men of the people. But does it matter? Many people seem to find their aura of patrician confidence reas- suring. It is not often admitted, but the national psyche is still deeply impressed by confident posh men, with good manners, suave jokes, and an air of unruffled competence. Cameron and Boris Johnson clearly have this quality (and Osborne certainly thinks he does).

In a sense very little has changed since 1979. The Conservative party is still a combination of sincere idealism about spreading wealth more effectively, and bourgeois pragmatism. You could sum up its philosophy as social idealism within the limits of middle-class values. Perhaps Cameron embodies this more convincingly than any recent predeces- sors, for he communicates social idealism more effectively than them. But what is it that he is ideal- istic for? Is he asking us to have faith in a vision of national renewal? Yes and no. On one hand he wants to seem a conviction politician, fired up by a vision of new social harmony. On the other hand he wants to reassure the middle classes that no dreamy vision will get in the way of sober stability, calm realism. Despite some flashes of Blairish speechifying, he does not in general ask for us to have faith in him, but to trust him. Trust is calmer and more realistic than faith.

Perhaps this is the core difference between left and right. Left-wing politics is necessarily faith-based. It promises a new sort of social harmony, a move away from the old divisions caused by privilege. The old idea of the common good will gain new reality, a new spirit of unity will be forged. Those who have been marginalised will be given the opportunity to make a fuller contribution to society. If we trust the state to be bold on our behalf, it can move society in this new direction.

Right-wing politics warns that this reforming spirit, this pro- gressive faith, is dangerous; it undervalues traditional habits and structures. The nation does not need to leap into the unknown; it can find harmony by rediscov- ering old familiar truths, and by allowing the spirit of enterprise to flourish.

By refusing a utopian vision we can make the world a slightly
better place, a more orderly place. As I see it, Christians ought to be
deeply attracted by the left's vision of new social harmony, for it chimes with the idea of the Kingdom of God. We want a new world, in which injustice is no more. Yes, the full version of this is humanly impossible, only God can bring it, but surely it is good for this ideal to inspire our politics. Surely it is a good public narrative. And these days the need for a new era of co-operation is particular- ly urgent, with environmental catastrophe looming. Surely this political tradition must be adapted for our new predicament. It's unfashionable to say so, but I think Tony Blair deserves credit for liberating this progressive vision from the dogmatic socialism of old.

So Christians should be on the left? Yes and no. Yes, I think a leftish social idealism ought to come natu- rally to Christians. But whether they should there- fore vote for a left-wing party is not quite so straightforward. For the progressive vision is so eas- ily tainted by dogmatism, self-righteousness, hubris, illiberalism - and sheer incompetence. Sometimes those who claim to represent this vision must be rejected. Sometimes those on the right have genuinely fresh ideas.

In this election there is another consideration. Which party has the best chance of restoring pride in British democracy, after the MPs' expenses scandal? Only the Liberal Democrats have sounded serious about constitutional reform, but they have not real- ly tried to enthuse the British people with a reform- ing vision. To my mind (I know most Christians disagree) they ought to put forward a secular agen- da, and say that real constitutional reform entails the creation of a secular state, in which all religions are officially equal (and faith schools are forced to be more inclusive). I think the renewal of our democracy must involve a break with our ancient religious settlement. We should at least be having this debate in earnest.

Does it matter who governs us? The weary mantra that they're all the same has become more true dur- ing the New Labour years. The two main parties have been fighting for the centre-ground, and steal- ing each other's clothes. Most of the party policy- wonks seem ideological siblings. This convergence is usually seen as a depressing thing, but I'm not so sure. In a sense the demise of ideological party poli- tics is a good thing. It is an admission that party pol- itics is a deeply limited thing. It is clear enough that, despite their lofty rhetoric, none of the politicians really know how to revive a sense of community, how to renew Britishness, how to make us happier. From a religious perspective, this is entirely unsur- prising. It confirms one's hunch that our deepest problems are cultural and indeed spiritual, and that, while politics is obviously indispensable, religion is also needed.