I am always ill at ease with the concept of religious
people in power. Their confidence in their belief somehow spurs them on to
imposing their generally miserable and intolerant views on others. I guess
that more secularly minded people are a little less sure that they know best
and tend towards a more civilised live and let live approach.
Tony Blair knows it is one of the most delicate of subjects. When asked
about it he squirms and tries to change to a more comfortable line of
inquiry. But quietly the Prime Minister is putting religion at the
centre of the New Labour project, reflecting his own deeply felt beliefs
that answers to most questions can be found in the Bible.
The Observer can reveal that Blair is to allow Christian
organisations and other 'faith groups' a central role in policy-making
in a decisive break with British traditions that religion and government
should not mix.
The Prime Minister, who this weekend becomes the longest continually
serving Labour Prime Minister in history, has set up a ministerial
working group in the Home Office charged with injecting religious ideas
'across Whitehall'. One expert on the relationship between politics and
religion described the move as a 'blow to secularism'.
Blair's move is believed to have the strong support of the two other
leading Christian members of the Cabinet, David Blunkett, the Home
Secretary, and Paul Boateng, Chief Secretary of the Treasury.
The working group will be chaired by the Home Office Minister with
responsibility for what is called 'civic renewal', Fiona Mactaggart. The
members will include Estelle Morris, the former Education Secretary who
is now the Arts Minister, and Christian organisations including the
Evangelical Alliance. Known as the Faith Community Liaison Group, it
will have an input into controversial policy areas such as faith
schools, which are allowed to select their pupils on the basis of their
beliefs, and religious discrimination.
Blair, a committed Christian who keeps the Bible by his bed, knows he
is taking a risk by revealing the importance he places on religion in
informing his politics. He also knows that many of his key officials
feel uncomfortable about the central role that God plays in his life.
There were furrowed brows of consternation when Blair, asked who he
would answer to for the deaths of British soldiers, replied: 'My Maker'.
Alastair Campbell, Blair's communications director, said 'We don't do
God' when the Prime Minister was questioned in a recent interview with
Vanity Fair about his religious beliefs. When Blair wanted to end his
televised address to the nation at the start of the war in Iraq with
'God bless you', he was advised against it.
Some No 10 officials are concerned that the Government will fall
victim to unfavourable comparisons with the Republican administration in
America, where President Bush makes no secret of his religious faith and
right-wing religious organisations have a powerful input into
policy-making, particularly on sensitive issues such as abortion.
Blair, in contrast, has always been cautious about speaking about his
faith. He sidestepped questions from Sir David Frost last year and
Jeremy Paxman this year when both asked if he prayed with the US
President when they met at summits to discuss the Iraq war.
The new high-powered ministerial grouping will have an input across
government. Although based in the Home Office, it will advise the
Departments for Education, Culture, Media and Sport and Trade and
Industry. Underlining its importance, William Chapman, the Appointments
Secretary at No 10, will have a key role. The Prime Minister's own
'religious envoy', Labour MP John Battle, will also sit on the
The Home Office announcement was slipped out in a parliamentary
written reply four weeks ago, and published here for the first time. In
it, Mactaggart outlines what the group will attempt to do: 'Its terms of
reference are to consider the most effective means of achieving greater
involvement of the faith communities in policy-making and delivery
across Whitehall [and] to identify the specific policy areas where this
input would be most valuable. The Prime Minister is aware of our plans
and attaches considerable importance to this. It will lay down the
foundations for the effective involvement of the faith communities'
perspectives and needs in policy development across government.'
Membership of the committee will also include representatives of the
Jewish, Sikh, Muslim and Hindu faiths.
Non-religious groups attacked the plans, saying they gave a special
platform to religious groups denied to others. In a letter to Mactaggart,
Keith Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, which
includes in its membership a number of Labour MPs, said: We feel this
is a further example of the Government's desire to favour and privilege
religious organisations, and wonder when the opinions and needs of those
who are non-religious will be similarly regarded. The non-religious feel
alienated and excluded from the political processes that help shape our
society. Wood said that despite repeated requests non-religious groups have
been excluded from any involvement in the religious working group.
Christian organisations said that there was much that could be learnt
from religious groups and the work they do in the community. This is an
important development that goes way beyond a narrower set of faith
community concerns like faith schools or regeneration, said Graham
Dale, director of the Christian Socialist Movement, of which Blair is a
member. The group will have the freedom to engage in policy issues across
the board but also to address other less tangible areas like values in
public life. It raises to a new level the recognition of faith as a
factor in government consultation and indicates the Government's
willingness to engage with people of faith in every area of public life.