Why British politicians don't 'do God'
When Alastair Campbell famously declared that “we don’t do God” he was speaking not just for his master Tony Blair, but for British politics in general.
It is a strange squeamishness which goes way beyond the separation of church and state. There is in British politics an unspoken understanding that religion should not feature at all, in any way (save for the Islamic question, which has its own dynamics). While God is invoked in almost every major American political speech, the Almighty seems unwelcome in the mother of all parliaments.
Even those who are religious keep it quiet. The Catholic MPs who gather for the House of Commons service on Ash Wednesday normally clean their foreheads pretty quickly before heading back to the House.
The British political system has no equivalent of the Christian Democrat parties which are everywhere in Europe. While America can be divided for months over the issue of gay marriage or civil partnerships, it is passed without a whisper in Britain.
Take the decision by David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, to adopt a child from America. Why did he have to go abroad, it is asked? Two statistics explain why. Fewer than 300 children under the age of 12 months are put up for adoption in Britain each year. Each day 500 abortions take place. Unwanted babies tend not to make it to the maternity ward in a Britain where one in four pregnancies now ends in abortion. So parents who want a newborn must go abroad.
Good luck to the politician who makes this point. There is nothing more toxic in British politics than being seen as a religious nutter: it devalues anything that an MP says on issues that are seen as religious themes. But for all this, the House is full of very religious people who have learnt not to use religious language in debate.
Tony Blair was perhaps the most religious occupant of 10 Downing Street since Gladstone and his speeches were peppered with biblical allusions which could be detected by journalists, like Matthew Parris, with an eye to recognise them.
Gordon Brown never tires of talking about his “moral compass”, which he was apparently given by his father, a Church of Scotland minister. When the Prime Minister visited the Vatican, he handed the Pope a collection of his father’s sermons. These words from a pulpit are the closest Mr Brown has to a personal credo, although he knows better than to admit it.
His friends say his religious upbringing led to his rather messianic approach to politics, which he talks of as a moral crusade aimed at fighting poverty, helping disadvantaged children and the Third World. The Conservatives’ main line of attack is to say that he is doing none of those things. Perhaps the most influential campaign of the year has been that conducted by Iain Duncan Smith and his Centre for Social Justice. The pro-marriage “broken society” critique is now the most powerful Tory weapon. And it is one which grew out of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, formed because it believes that Labour policies are fuelling poverty by encouraging mass dependency with 14 per cent on benefits.
This annoys Mr Brown so much that at the last Labour Party conference he blew his cover. “No Bible I have ever read says: bring just some of the children,” he fumed, to puzzled silence from the floor. It went down badly: spinning the word of God was a novel technique even for this Government. But we had a brief glimpse of how religious ideals remain a motive force in Westminster – albeit in a country where religious debate has been closed down.
As so often, Alastair Campbell wasn’t being quite straight. They do do God. But almost no one is willing to admit it.