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Tony Blair photo: European Union, CC BY 4.0 licence. Others: public domain.
Tony Blair photo: European Union, CC BY 4.0 licence. Others: public domain.

The Faith of Our Leaders

Wednesday February 8

Adam McPherson introduces a new series exploring the beliefs of the UK's most famous political figures.

Andrew Bonar Law, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1922-1923, once said: “If I am a great man then a good many great men in history are frauds.”

Bonar Law was well-regarded by colleagues for his self-deprecating humour but he makes an interesting point. Why have certain men and women earned the epithet of 'great' while others have been forgotten in the sweeping tides of history? Why have individuals like Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee emerged as paragons of British values while Alec Douglas-Home and James Callaghan are retained spectre-like in the memories of the few, as names without faces, connected always to crises, people without personalities or principles? Which leaders are great and which are frauds?

Over the next few weeks, I will be exploring the faith of our most famous – or, perhaps, infamous - national leaders to find out how their religion shaped their visions of what the UK should be. In doing so, I will be drawing on the work of Mark Vickers, author of the excellent God in Number 10.

But which of our 57 national leaders are most deserving of analysis? Certain names rise to the surface of the public consciousness quicker than others: Churchill, Thatcher and Blair all regularly top lists of our most well-known national leaders. Undoubtedly, each is worthy of study, particularly because Churchill and Blair, while in office, maintained an ambiguity about their relationship to the Christian faith. All three had a profound impact on the course of British history. But there are others who saw through significant change to our cultural fabric which we might also consider investigating.

Clement Attlee's (1945-1951) social policies have endured far longer than many other leader's initiatives. However, Attlee's founding of the National Health Service, providing care from cradle to grave, built on the initiatives of his predecessors. Stanley Baldwin (PM from 1923-1929, with a gap of a few months in the middle) saw through the Widows, Orphans and Old Age Pensions Act in 1925, a major step towards creating the 'welfare state'. And before Baldwin, David Campbell-Bannerman (1905-1908) saw through social reforms, such as means-tested pensions, free school meals and free children's medical inspections paid for through general taxation.

Campbell-Bannerman, a Liberal party Prime Minister, dug the foundations for the social security net we rely on today. Baldwin, a Conservative, continued this project and the Labour leader, Attlee, legislated it through to completion. What would move three leaders from three different political parties to feel compelled to move in the same social-democatic direction? It may be that they shared a religious conviction which motivated them, perhaps unconsciously. All led the country when the Christian faith was more deeply embedded in the day-to-day lives of ordinary Brits.

God in Number 10 spans 19 Prime Ministers, starting with Arthur Balfour in 1902 and concluding with Tony Blair in 2007. We will look closely at the personal faith of four, the ones whom time remembers most vividly: Attlee, Churchill, Thatcher and Blair.

As noted with Attlee's social reforms, each continued the work of their predecessors and this should be acknowledged. For every Churchill, there is a Chamberlain. For every Blair, there is a Wilson, many of whom were no less 'great'. We shall also attempt to discern what might have united these four political titans and whether a shared Christian faith drove them closer together politically or pushed them further apart. How did each of them interpret the Christian message and how did it shape the policies they enacted when they were in power?

Tony Blair's 'spin doctor', Alastair Campbell, stated that “We don't do God” when referring to New Labour. Let's find out how true that really is.