By James Crossley
If you’re British and are vaguely interested in politics, the title, Liberal Democrats Do God, obviously alludes to Alastair Campbell’s famous phrase ‘we don’t do God’. Despite the title, Liberal Democrats Do God, I think a good case can be made for the Liberal Democrats (and the Tories, as well as Labour) all being Campbellites now. This requires first an understanding of Campbell in context.
After the Sunday Telegraph published an infamous interview with Blair in April 1996, Campbell claimed in his diaries:
I could see nothing but trouble in talking about it. British people are not like Americans, who seem to want their politicians banging the Bible all the time. They hated it, I was sure of that. The ones who didn’t believe didn’t want to hear it; and the ones who did felt the politicians who went on about it were doing it for the wrong reasons….I felt fully vindicated. As I said to TB…Never talk about God…GB [Gordon Brown] called and we agreed God was a disaster area.
This is crucial to understanding Campbell’s position on God. He may be an atheist but his reasons are pragmatic (we might speculate that he’d happily do God if he thought it would work). In this instance he was to some extent right: the British press, not to mention the satirical Private Eye, would pounce on anything smacking of Blair-the-trendy-vicar or a spiritual collaboration with George W. Bush. Indeed, the press’ instinct when faced with the use of God and the Bible by Lib Dems is similar to the days when Blair mentioned God and the Bible – take the piss.
Campbell’s claim that ‘we don’t do God’ was made when Blair was asked a question about religion by Vanity Fair journalist David Margolick. It is this response that has typically been taken to refer to New Labour’s queasiness on issues relating to religion and public presentation of policy, or even that the New Labour government were not prepared to entertain religious questions at all. However, Campbell has claimed that this ‘was not a major strategic statement’ but an attempt to end the interview when Margolick kept asking a ‘final question’ and the last example happened to be about his faith. Even so, he still argues that ‘we don’t do God’ was ‘simply part of a view that in UK politics, it is always quite dangerous to mix religion and politics, not least because the electorate are not keen on it, and the media and politicians tend to misrepresent it whenever it happens’. Again, it was, ultimately, a pragmatic decision and one I suspect Tories and Lib Dems likewise make.
Of course, God and the Bible did appear from time-to-time for Blair. While Blair might have wanted to foreground his Christianity more in his political career, what we instead saw was a more carefully managed downplaying of such beliefs with the intention of not scaring off parts of the electorate (he famously feared the label ‘nutter’). Indeed, it seems that biblical references Blair wanted in his speeches were, according to John Burton (Labour Councillor and Blair’s agent for 25 years), given the red-pen treatment by Campbell. Or, perhaps, those biblical references that Campbell spotted – assuming Burton is right, it would be interesting to know to what extent Campbell knew. Whatever, biblical phrases and allusions remained present in Blair’s writings and speeches. But they are even more vague than the vague, faintly Judaeo-Christianised, biblical citation found among successful American politicians such as Clinton, Bush and Obama and designed (ideally) to speak to believers without (ideally) alienating non-Christians and non-believers, as Jacques Berlinerblau has shown. That’s for another post.
Campbell recalled in his diaries that Blair ‘often’ read the Bible ‘when the really big decisions were on’. One example is instructive. In 1998 Blair had a ‘wobble’ about the British and American bombing of Iraq after reading the story of the death of John the Baptist. According to Campbell
Wednesday 16 December [first day of bombing] TB was clearly having a bit of a wobble. He said he had been reading the Bible last night, as he often did when the really big decisions were on, and he had read something about John the Baptist and Herod which had caused him to rethink, albeit not change his mind.
Campbell explains in the accompanying footnote: ‘After John the Baptist denounced the marriage of Herod Antipas, Herod ordered him to be imprisoned and later beheaded.’ The story of John the Baptist confronting the court of Antipas and, after a daughter danced, losing his head could presumably be absorbed into Blair’s justification for bombing a third-world, tin-pot dictatorship. A question we might ask is this: would the Bible and Blair’s understanding of it have made any difference one way or another? Unlikely; Iraq was going to get bombed irrespective, as, presumably, Syria will be. And it was only with the much later publication of Campbell’s diaries that we knew about Blair and John the Baptist.
Yet Labour (and the Tories) have associated Christian groups who do do God more openly, and this is precisely what’s going on with the Lib Dems, in this instance the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. In practice, the extent of this being a departure from Campbell’s concerns about God is minimal. Of course, we will certainly hear of figures in the Coalition, such as Cameron or Gove, come out and tell us on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible that the KJV (and sometimes the Bible or ‘the Gospel’) is wonderful, beautifully written, English, British, part of our culture and heritage, and entirely compatible with liberal democracy and tolerance, and so on, but nothing much more. Cameron still talked defensively about the haziness of his Christianity (‘it sort of comes and goes’) and doing God is not remotely close to the presentation of any major policies. So far there is no indication that God or the Bible will be at the forefront of Lib Dem arguments in government, at least in public presentation, and certainly not from Clegg. Only when (the atheist) Clegg starts talking about God openly can the Lib Dems be said to do God in a different way from the other parties. And this is no different from what was happening when New Labour were in power.
Whether Christian lobbyists have a more covert influence is, of course, another matter.
So, yes, the main political parties are all Campbellites now.