Tony Blair, Catholic

So, Mr Blair’s become a Catholic, and there are a billion pop explanations in play — that Blair’s keen to wallow in guilt for his disastrous foreign policy, and nobody does guilt better than Catholics (cf going straight into the Middle East job after doing so much, and in such a well-intentioned way, to bollocks up the region) — that it’s the long-term result of being married to Cherie Booth, once you’ve jumped through all the Carole Caplin papaya-flavoured hoops that have been set up along the way — that you can’t quite keep that much moralism bottled up inside you without letting it spill out all over something, and now he doesn’t have the British people anymore he might as well absorb himself into the Holy Roman and Apostolic Catholic Church. (I’m sure we can always come up with more: if you do, pop ’em in the comments).

But it seems to me there’s a more interesting, longer-term trajectory at work in what we can usefully for the purposes of this post call Blair’s mind, and I’ll say a bit about that over the fold.

Back when he was leader of the Opposition, as articles like this one in today’s Observer point out, Blair did talk quite a bit about God. And it was nicely opportunistic on all sides: Blair’s revival of a moralistic vocabulary was useful cover for the accelerating retreat from identifiably left-wing politics; it was a useful weapon for the Party in the ongoing attack on Tory “sleaze”, allowing Labour front-benchers to suggest that they weren’t like that; and it allowed backbench MPs to signal their subservience to the incoming regime ahead of time by picking up on the new rhetoric and thereby inflating a mini-mid-nineties bubble of Christian Socialism (of which very few traces now remain).

And what Mr Blair said from time to time could be delightfully confused. Here he is, for example, in a talk (sermon? not sure – probably not) at Southwark Cathedral in 1996:

For myself, I start from a simple belief that people are not separate economic actors competing in the market-place of life. They are citizens of a community. We are social beings, nurtured in families and communities and human only because we develop the moral power of personal responsibility for ourselves and each other. Britain is simply stronger as a team than as a collection of selfish players. Our relationships with and commitments to others are not add-ons to our personalities: they make us who we are. Notions of mutuality and interdependence are not abstract ideals: they are facts of life. People are not just competitive: they are cooperative too…

[That’s from the indispensable New Britain, by Tony Blair, pp.299-300.]

In passages like this, he oscillates away, pinging back and forth between two quite different accounts of community, pretty much sentence by sentence. We move sharply, though hardly seamlessly, from the claim that we are “human only because we develop the moral power of personal responsibility for ourselves and each other” to the stupid platitude that “Britain is simply stronger as a team than as a collection of selfish players”, before moving back to more John-Macmurrayesque reflections on how relationships with others constitute personhood itself. In other passages from his speeches and writings of that period he uses the language of community to describe what de Alexis de Tocqueville called self-interest rightly understood, and then we’re straightforwardly back onto the terrain of liberal individualism again. Taking it all together, it looks as if he’s gripped by an idea of community — or perhaps he’s gripped by the idea of having an idea of community — but that has no idea how to articulate a coherent intellectual position. (Perhaps there was a moment of self-knowledge in his confession once upon a time that he wished he’d studied political ideas at university, rather than Law?)

In a smashing 2002 essay which deserves to be far better known than it is, “Professor Macmurray and Mr Blair: The Strange Case of the Communitarian Guru that Never Was“, Sarah Hale has argued that those commentators who trace Blair’s so-called communitarian so-called politics back to the “personalist” philosophy associated in this country with John Macmurray were making a mistake, on the grounds that Macmurray’s concept of community was characterised above all by non-instrumental relationships, above all that of friendship, cultivated for their own sake. What Blair calls community, she tells us, Macmurray called “society”, a form of human association organised around the shared purpose of the common good. Hale quotes Macmurray as saying that in society “the good man is the man whoserves his country, serves his generation, identifies himself with the good of the community and devotes his life to the accomplishment of the social purpose”. She then notes that this is “so exactly the sort of thing which Blair says”, and she goes on to observe that “this morality is being set out in detail” by Macmurray “only to be condemned… [as] a false morality… false because it thinks of human life in biological terms, as if we were animals, not persons.”

[She’s recently in fact published a book on the topic, which I’ll have to read, and I see that it is, along with my friend Ben’s excellent new book about egalitarianism on the twentieth-century British Left, a victim of Manchester University Press’s absolutely insane policy of publishing some of the best work by young scholars in readable prose on topics in British politics of fairly general interest, and then giving them a price that screams out “Crappy Obscure Academic Book! Keep Out! Librarians Only!” (Hale’s book is £55 and Jackson’s £60), thereby denying the authors much of the recognition they deserve for their excellent work, and the Press much of the reflected glory that they’d thereby hoover up (if reflected glory is amenable to hoovering up.)]

Anyway, to get back on track… I think Hale’s absolutely right to see that Blair is no consistent disciple of Macmurray (and, to be fair, just for once, I don’t think he has ever claimed that he is), but rather than having someone who has just catastrophically misunderstood His Master’s Voice, it seems to me we’ve got someone who eclectically mixes together fragments of political and ethical language that sound good to him, in the hope that they add up to something coherent, or, better still, electorally attractive.

Now the reason I got interested in this stuff is that I continue to worry away from time to time at the rhetorical connection I detected once upon a time between Mr Blair’s rhetoric and what I call the left-wing apology for Marshal Pétain’s Vichy France. And what it seems to me you get both in Blair’s speeches about “values” and in the writing of the former Italian Communist turned French Socialist Angelo Tasca (which I’ve written about before) is this unstable combination of what me might somewhat pretentiously call a personalist metaphysics of the person — the bit that says that we are “human only because we develop the moral power of personal responsibility for ourselves and each other” — onto which these men are trying, against the grain of that personalism, to tease out an Amitai-Etzioni-style communitarian ethic, and one that lends itself fairly easily to authoritarian political solutions.

What’s this got to do with Blair’s Catholicism? Just this, I think: that “personalism” resonated powerfully within mid-century Catholicism. I don’t know much about the subject, and I’d like to know more than I do, but I think Pope John Paul II’s day job before he became a Catholic full-timer was teaching personalist ethics and metaphysics at Krakow. And I suppose if you are attracted in a superficial way to this kind of philosophical language, but struggle to keep the key distinction between “society” and “community” in focus, then the kind of Catholic hocus-pocus that identifies the career of the church in the world with the workings of the divine Logos, or whatnot, might become really quite attractive.

Relatedly, finally, speculatively: it’s interesting to note that personalism resonated outside Catholicism, too. Glancing at Vaclav Havel’s philosophical writings suggests someone who’s fairly invested in this strand of thought. And I think the personaist commitment does inform both Havel’s and JP2’s instransigent opposition to Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism. That may sound odd, given what I’ve already said about the role of personalism in constructing elements of the apology for Vichy (but then ideologies generally contain contradictory elements, which is what makes them interesting). But because of the characteristic and insistent personalist emphasis on the decisive separation of personal from political and economic life, it seems to me that personalism has provided resources for resistance against totalitarian and (as Havel called them) post-totalitarian governments. And so I also wonder whether those fragments of personalism that Blair imbibed once upon a time, that chimed in with his sense of religiosity, and which he used to talk about in the mid-nineties, but then shut up about because, famously, we the Great British public might have thought him a “nutter” (another moment of self-knowledge, perhaps), might also help to explain how he became quite so invested in the construction of a totalitarian Islamicist political Other after 11 September 2001, joining the crusade against Evil (or whatever W. was calling it back then) with a zeal that he couldn’t sustain any longer on the domestic front.

Ross McKibbin once wrote that

“There is… a profound tension within the Government between its strong radical-rhetorical traditions and its practices which has particularly affected the Prime Minister. Whether or not he is aware of the extent to which he is frustrated in domestic affairs by his own political choices and New Labour’s political limitations — I think he is aware — the consequence is that his deeply felt moralising-utopian urges have been displaced onto foreign affairs.”

I think that’s right, and I thin perhaps that the thoughts above might tell us something about how he got here from there.

Here ends this Sunday’s sermon. For an alternative view, try Ken MacLeod from last June: “Antichrist role ‘could hinder’ Blair’s conversion [thanks, NB].

11 thoughts on “Tony Blair, Catholic”

  1. I wonder whether trying to locate a particular conception of the person, or of society, might miss the point about Catholicism. In my experience, what attracts converts to the Church – indeed, what keeps many deeply sceptical people inside it, and what causes even atheists myself to feel that we can’t entirely leave – is simply that it’s TheChurch. It’s the one that’s been there all the time, it’s the originally founded institution, it’s not simply somebody’s interpretation of the Bible. It’s not just another choice, one among many. It’s The Holy Roman Catholic And Apostolic Church.

    That’s not to say that the particular ideological stances of the Church are irrelevant, but they’re not really central either. It’s not a man-made Church, it’s a God-made church and and if you don’t accept or understand everything that’s not so important: you’re just part of it, you’re a sinner seeking the understanding and forgiveness of God and expressing the desire to do His Will. It didn’t matter very much that the medieval peasant understood nothing of the Latin in which the service took place (it only mattered when people started leaving the Church for religions they could understand): it mattered only that they were within the Church. It is, if you like, the thought that counts. Not the idea.

    It may perhaps be that this lack of ideological clarity, combined with the particular, historical sense of Catholicism as God’s instrument, is what enables such a monstrous and sanctimonious hypocrite as Blair to find the Church so attractive.

    If any of this makes any sense to anybody not brought up a Catholic, I’l lbe surprised.

  2. This is tangential, but it’s very nice to see that Ben’s book has come out — and infuriating to see that Manchester have done their best to make it inaccessible (Harvard doesn’t seem to have a copy in their system; this will have to change …) (They do however have Sarah Hale’s book, which I’ll have to check out — though I don’t look forward to having my illusions dispelled, and therefore no longer being able to blame Blairism on Amitai Etzioni.)
    More on-topic: my own hunch is that Blair’s confusion between a more truly personalist-communitarian position and a more managerial-instrumentalist conception of community (or ‘society) reflects a larger inner tension between his strong desire for moral righteousness, and his strong desire for power (generally a very dangerous combination). All the nice talk about community and moral personality reflects, I tend to think, a genuine hankering for these things on his part — and also a recognition that it sounds very nice and could serve as a selling point. At the same time, I think he adopted a more instrumentalist rhetoric (alongside this more personalist one) partly out of a desire to succeed in a post-Thatcher ideological and rhetorical terrain — but also because he also hankered after the sort of power that’s hard to make sense of in communitarian-personalist terms (or at least is while keeping up the appearances of fidelity to democracy), but fits quite nicely in a more instrumentalsit, managerial approach to politics and society.
    (Incidentally, and as Chris may know — I forget if we’ve discussed this — the idea that the conflation or mingling of these two strands of thought was actually quite common, and influential, in twentieth century political thought, at least in Britain, is one sub-theme of my own work. So while Blair’s position may not be very intellectually pure — or even coherent — I don’t think it’s as strange or as much of a departure as some have suggested.)

  3. Re-reading the first quoted Blair speech, I’m struck by what nonsense it all is. On the first reading I thought it was just a Newspeak retread of Will Hutton, but it’s far worse than that.

    Blair confuses ‘should be’ and ‘is’ from the start. People *are* ‘separate economic actors’ in all sorts of ways: of course they’re a lot more than that, but Tesco does pretty well assuming that’s all people are. We’re not all citizens of a community: a lot of people in the world aren’t citizens in the way we understand it (if we are citizens and not subjects of HMQ), and children and prisoners aren’t at all in very important ways: they don’t have freedom, but instead are governed by rules and pecking orders. We’re human because we’re human: Kaspar Hauser, Mowgli (The Jungle Book), Romulus and Remus would be human. There are people – the chronically mentally retarded, the schizophrenic, the substance abuse impaired, the victims of unbearable abuse – who don’t develop any such power (and besides, small children don’t have this – are they not human?).

    The rest as you say is platitudinous. While I agree that it’s quasi-religious, it’s more Carole Caplin that Catholicism. The Trinity and all that stuff may bypass logic and comprehension, but it’s still a lot less vapid that Blair.

  4. People *are* ’separate economic actors’ in all sorts of ways: of course they’re a lot more than that, but Tesco does pretty well assuming that’s all people are.

    I’m not sure what point’s being made here. Of course Tesco does well assuming that people are separate economic actors, because that’s the portion of reality to which Tesco caters: similarly, Manchester United do all right assuming people just want to support a rich and successful football team. Is there a question here of what we mean by what people “are” – what is innate, on the one hand, and what is “a social reality with which human beings are comfortable”, on the other?

    (Note: the writer of this post has never studied philosophy and is well aware that he is probably asking questions which are elementary for anybody who actually has. Apologies. It’s not my field of expertise, not that I actually have one.)

  5. “In passages like this, he oscillates away, pinging back and forth between two quite different accounts of community, pretty much sentence by sentence. We move sharply, though hardly seamlessly, from the claim that we are “human only because we develop the moral power of personal responsibility for ourselves and each other” to the stupid platitude that “Britain is simply stronger as a team than as a collection of selfish players”, before moving back to more John-Macmurrayesque reflections on how relationships with others constitute personhood itself. In other passages from his speeches and writings of that period he uses the language of community to describe what de Alexis de Tocqueville called self-interest rightly understood, and then we’re straightforwardly back onto the terrain of liberal individualism again.”

    Chris, it may be my own lack of knowledge and understanding of the relevant -isms, but what is the tension between the different conceptions of community Blair is oscillating between? I don’t think you’ve spelt it out for those not antecedently associated with the theory.

  6. Josh: the idea that the conflation or mingling of these two strands of thought was actually quite common, and influential, in twentieth century political thought, at least in Britain, is one sub-theme of my own work.

    I didn’t know that, and I’d love to hear some more about. Who are the key people who do this?

    James: what is the tension between the different conceptions of community Blair is oscillating between?

    I’m helping myself to the assumption (which seems to me to be plausible) that when Blair says something like “Our relationships with and commitments to others are not add-ons to our personalities: they make us who we are”, that’s a reflection of his undergraduate interest in Macmurray. And if that’s right, then the contrast is between the entirely anti-political conception of community that someone like Macmurray spells out, and this alternative politics-of-the-common-good strand that we get, either when he talks about people being “co-operative” as well as “competitive”, or when he says Britain is “stronger as a team”, yuk yuk. Does that make it clearer? (I may just be hopelessly confused myself.)

  7. One way of thinking of the contrast might be by thinking about the difference between cooperation and coordination. Ants are coordinated: they fulfill functions within a kind of mechanistic whole in which individuals don’t really matter, but only the good of the collective is important. Humans can be cooperative, though, which is more: you do not cooperate when you are being directed by unvarnished coercion, but only when everyone’s good is taken into account in the division of burdens and benefits. When Blair’s talking about how we achieve more working as a team, he’s thinking of coordination, but when he’s talking about our relationships to others constituting us as moral agents, he’s talking about cooperation.

  8. “it seems to me we’ve got someone who eclectically mixes together fragments of political and ethical language that sound good to him, in the hope that they add up to something coherent, or, better still, electorally attractive.”

    I don’t think he’s ever given a fuck or a damn about being coherent.

    Good post though, and I think your speculations are probably right.

  9. ejh:

    I think Backword Dave is simply making the elementary point that what Blair said is straightforwardly wrong when you break the sentence down. That is, he says:

    “I start from a simple belief that people are not separate economic actors competing in the market-place of life”

    Which is rather a silly belief if he really holds it. This is because human beings are embodied beings which we individuate as being separate in space and time, and what is more they often act economically. To some extent, human beings *just are* separate economic actors. That’s just a fact about us. What Blair means is that we are *more* than merely isolated economic actors. Firstly, this annoys philosophers because it isn’t what he’s actually said, and secondly the expressing of the belief is itself a bit vacuous, because anybody who has ever had a family, been in love, played for a football team or been to a rock concert can tell you that we are more than selfish economic actors.

    However, the reason Blair is using that rhetoric is obviously to attempt to put space between his position – or rather, the position he wants certain people to think he has – and the prevalent political-economic ideas of the previous 20 years, which had a tendency to think of and treat people as rational utility-seeking economic automatons and nothing more.

    So while what Backword Dave said is certainly true – and i sympathise whith him, because as a trained analytic philosopher inaccuracy and terminological sloppiness infuriates me – you can see why Blair said what he said, even though when you examine it analytically it’s straightforwardly stupid.

  10. “Does that make it clearer?”

    Right, it does a bit. But now what I’m thinking is Blair has simply misunderstood, and doesn’t actually agree at all with, Macmurray. He is actually just a communitarian appropriating the language of personalism (mistakenly? duplicitously?). Indeed, his “human only because we develop the moral power of personal responsibility for ourselves and each other” to me sounds not too far from “citizenship… brings with it duties: duties to behave as a good citizen should” (a more obviously communitarian Blairism).

    Which, I think, would unsettle your hypothesis that his move to Catholicism is an attempt to fasten two conflicting conceptions by magic. For he doesn’t actually have any commitments to one of those conceptions. Besides, I would have thought that Catholicism shares enough in common with a simple-minded, authoritarian form of communitarianism that the move isn’t at all surprising. That is, they basically both preach subservience and prostration to a higher order (the Vatican or the Community) who serve as the moral authority; plus we all get to feel awfully guilty when we’re not good boys and girls and don’t do as we’re told.

  11. Interesting post. One small point: is there really anything so odd about the move from a personalist metaphysics of the person to a communitarian politics? That’s the move made by Michael Sandel, for instance. Sandel (mis)reads Rawls as deriving a liberal politics from an individualist account of the person, rejects that account in favour of a picture of the self as communally constructed, and derives communitarian political recommendations. Isn’t this a pretty standard communitarian move? Not that I’m suggesting that Blair has any very coherent political philosophy, mind.

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