September 15, 2015 by James Crossley
In Harnessing Chaos: The Bible in English Political Discourse since 1968, I argued that the Thatcher-Blair understanding of the Bible/Religion/Christianity—a construction associated with economic (neo)liberalism—effectively, pushed the Radical Bible—a construction associated with a specifically English or British socialism (broadly understood)—out of parliamentary political discourse. Tony Benn was the last major parliamentary figure who was associated with the Radical Bible/Religion/Christianity, particularly in its Nonconformist garb. Of course, the Radical Bible did not disappear and was still to be found outside parliamentary discourse, in contexts such as direct action groups, leftist church movements and Occupy.
Its presence could still be found on the fringes of parliamentary discourse, as when Russell Brand emerged as a potential endorser of Ed Miliband, or alternatively, Ed Miliband emerged in Russell Brand’s house to try to gain some youth votes. Brand’s Bible, whether presented in words or through Brand’s Jesus-chic (alongside his reference to plenty of other religions) is emphatically constructed as recognisably socialist and revolutionary. But, when Miliband failed to become Prime Minister in May, so the Radical Bible failed to get some kind of foothold in parliament.
The immediate aftermath of the Conservative victory last May led to leading Labour figures and potential party leaders mimicking Tory rhetoric (remember ‘aspiration’?) and making what came next seem even more unlikely. Obviously, I’m building up to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn who emerged as Labour leader through a combination of various political misjudgements (esp. on welfare), disillusionment with corporate-style managerialism of mainstream politics, a lack of awareness that a lot of Labour members were to the left of most Labour MPs, and a remarkable amount of popular support for a political figure.
The Bible/religion/Christianity does not seem to have played play an overt part in the Labour leadership debates (though a number of the locations were churches). But it has been present, and notably in discussions of Corbyn. There have, of course, been ironic comments about Corbyn as Messiah (he shares those noble initials, JC), reports that he is bigger than Jesus on Google, predictable references to Life of Brian (‘he’s not the Messiah’ etc.), and ‘revivalist meetings’ is a common enough description of Corbyn’s rallies. Here is a more explicit example from a sympathetic source:
The atmosphere in the hall itself was charged, partly evangelical, a sense of a revivalist meeting. One speaker mentioned a ‘revolution’. Hyperbolic, of course. England, as we all know, doesn’t ‘do’ revolutions. But maybe this was the nearest we would get, this sense of a passion reborn, people revitalised, those who had felt in the wilderness, who, despite deep convictions had no-one to vote for, who longed for a more just and fair society but had nowhere to go as almost every automoton of a politician of every shade, every apparatchick mouthed the same platitudes and accepted with barely a blink a doctrine of austerity…I wondered, did the Tories have their own anthem? Jerusalem? Perhaps, except that was penned by a mighty radical, William Blake and thus seemed, despite the cosy bottled jam connections of the WI, slightly ill-fitting…How knackered he must have been after these endless revivalist meetings!
This combination of socialism, nostaligia, religion, Bible, and an English or British tradition can be found in other relatively sympathetic sources. Some political commentators such as Peter Hitchens (h/t John Lyons), a notable example from the small ‘c’ conservative right who have been disillusioned the current political elites, have made similar remarks:
I walked on creaky knees to Great St Mary’s church, to find it ringed by a shuffling queue of Soviet length. These were the people who’d signed up online to attend. Presumably because the thing was being organised by the unions, they were all being subjected to a minute bureaucratic examination, and the line was barely moving. Tangled up with it was another queue, for people like me who hadn’t signed up in advance. Having sorted out which was which with some difficulty, I joined this (the Biblically learned will understand why I referred to it as ‘the Foolish Virgins’) on the basis that you never know.
And so I spent a pleasant hour or so in the lovely, elegiac Cambridge dusk (gosh, September can be the loveliest of all months when it tries) , with the sky fading from gold to blue behind the pinnacles of King’s College chapel, chatting with the interesting variety of people who’d come along.
By the way, it’s interesting to note that Great St Mary’s holds 1,400 people, and was totally full, and that there were at least several hundred outside who couldn’t get in.
I warmed to Mr Corbyn personally for two things . One was the unaffected, barely conscious way he bent down to scratch the head of a dog belonging to someone in the crowd. The other was when he acknowledged the majesty of the setting, the beautiful heart of one of the loveliest places in England, at sunset.
It is impossible to imagine any other politician living who could draw such a crowd. Tony Benn could have done, and they’d have paid, but that was because he had become a holy relic and because what someone once called his ‘lovely, wuffly Children’s Hour voice’ could create great waves of nostalgia for long ago teatimes in the hearts of a certain generation. (Peter Hitchens; see also Peter Oborne’s take)
Then there is this fairly self-explanatory piece from Kaya Mar (h/t Creston Davis on Facebook):
And, finally, in his victory speech, Corbyn managed to give me a much-wanted biblical allusion: ‘we don’t pass by on the other side’ (16.00-16.20).
Whether this was intentional, I have no idea, but some version of ‘pass by on the other side’ is looking like one of the handful of biblical verses politicians and journalists tend to quote from the seemingly implicit authority of the Bible (alongside e.g. ‘love thy neigbour’ and ‘render unto Caesar’). Thatcher famously discussed the Good Samaritan as an example of charitable giving (over against the welfare state) and, more recently, Cameron has used it to justify a monopoly on violence and any bombing of ISIS. Context is, obviously, key to understanding how the Bible is being constructed. And, in this instance, Corbyn is firmly and recognisably in the tradition of the Radical Bible as the quotation was in the context of a direct attack on the Welfare Reform Bill (in sharp contrast to the party line before him): ‘misery and poverty to so many of the poorest in our society…we want to live in a society where we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system. Instead we reach out to end the scourge of homelessness and desperation that so many people face in our society’.
Is the Radical Bible now back in parliamentary political discourse? Yes, sort of. But it is striking how much of an anomaly Corbyn and his close allies are in parliament and that the Corbyn movement is built on popular non- or extra-parliamentary support. Its longevity presumably depends on the fate of Corbyn and the movement which has pushed him to the leadership of the Labour Party.
UPDATE: as soon as I write this, George Monbiot writes “The model for a leftwing resurgence? Evangelical Christianity“