Why have you chosen Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land?
I found Tony Judt, who has just died, very honest and wise. All the obituaries said he was a wonderfully stimulating teacher, but I only know him through his writing. His thesis is that over the last 30 or 40 years life has been dominated by the pursuit of wealth, by an excessive individualism, and by the desire of people to express and fulfil themselves. He castigates the west for having that sort of philosophy, but then he gets interesting, because he admits honestly that now there is no persuasive left-wing narrative, and that what we’ve got to try and do now is to recover the moral framework within which we think about society.
Given the society we have now, there will always be the question of how we balance the action of the state and the action of private individuals. Because there is no political ideology that is going to be persuasive, we’ve got to have this moral framework by which we seek to evaluate policies. The last part of his thesis is that we now seem to have reached a stage where the state is always regarded as the worst possible solution to any problem. What he tries to show through examples of the Roosevelt government, France under de Gaulle and various others, is that the state is not always the worst possible actor. He tries to elicit a sense of what the state achieved under those governments, and, although it sounds very minimalist, he says we should recover a sense of gratitude, for example, for what the post-World War II government in Britain achieved. We should not just take it for granted but recognise and learn from its approach.
It sounds as though he is saying that when the left-wing narrative died then ethics died with it?
Well, a Marxist analysis has never been concerned with the moral dimension in itself; it’s been a political narrative based on a particular reading of economic history. A lot of people may have been Marxists because of strong moral convictions, but Marxism itself is really just a reading of history. That was different from, say, Christian Socialism, which was very dominant in Britain for some time, and indeed half the members of Tony Blair’s government claimed to be Christian Socialists. This is a morally based socialism rather than a Marxist one. Harold Wilson said of the Labour Party that it ‘owed more to Methodism than it did to Karl Marx’. In short, it owed more to a morally based sense of social justice than to a simple reading of economic history.
So Judt is saying that we have to recover a moral framework to view politics, and this chimes with my own book Faith in Politics?
Judt’s book reads very well, and his opening sentence sets the tone: ‘Something is profoundly wrong in the way we live today.’ But he’s not offering any easy or obvious solutions, which is where something of his honesty comes through.
His other books have been history books, but this one, which he wrote while he was dying, is about the problems he sees today.
Yes, but it draws on history and his extensive knowledge of governments over the last 50 years, and how they tackled some of these problems. And one aspect of this history is the growing inequalities, not just in wealth but in health and life expectancy.
It sounds like a familiar call for left-wing renewal.
It’s not quite so familiar as you might think, because, as I said, he thinks there is no persuasive left-wing narrative for people to latch on to, and politics as a whole is much less clear now. It’s much less satisfactory for those of us who like a clarion call for an unambiguous ideology. It’s a kind of centrist position, with a left-wing bias, one based on the recognition that very few are out-and-out statists and nobody with a sense of social justice is going to be an out-and-out free marketer. In deciding where to strike the balance we need a moral dimension.
Was Judt a religious man?
I didn’t know him. He’s not either religious or anti-religious in the book. I assume that he was a secular agnostic. He seems to be writing from that standpoint.
Tell me about the Habermas book.
Habermas is also writing from what I imagine is a secular agnostic background. But what is so interesting about this book is that he is quite unequivocal in his affirmation of what religion has given to western society: concepts like the value of the person and solidarity in society, for example. He thinks our society has derived these values from Christian faith. He believes that in the politics we have at the moment something is missing, hence the very intriguing title of his book, An Awareness of Something Missing. He says that none of the political nostrums we have on show at the moment can motivate people or bind people together in society with a sense of belonging together in a way that religion at its best is able to do. We need to recover a moral vision, which for Habermas draws very deeply on the wells of religion. And he has a very interesting approach to religion, because he thinks that while religion has been essential and is essential now, religion must translate its concepts into what the philosopher John Rawls would call ‘public reasoning’, concepts which the ordinary citizen can understand.
He is very critical of so-called enlightenment thinkers who regard religion as irrational, and says that religion does have a rationality in its own terms and that there must be a recognition of that by secular non-believers. The interesting phrase he uses about religion is das Unabgegoltene – the unexhausted force of religious traditions in what they have to offer to society; there is more that society can draw from religion. But (and this is, I suppose, one of the reasons he regards himself as a secular thinker) religion has to make its treasures or its moral vision available in terms which can be grasped and assimilated by secular people.
What does he mean when he says that religion is ‘rational in its own terms’ ?
That’s not quite the phrase he uses; he says that religion always stands in an opaque relationship to society. It can’t be totally transmuted into secular terms and it can’t be totally assimilated. Religion has more to give, it has an opaque and mysterious quality, which means that it will always be juxtaposed with secular society. I’m not defending his position, I’m just saying that it is an unusual and an interesting one – on the one hand clearly to be so affirmative about what religion has to offer, and how much religion is needed now, but at the same time remaining firmly a secularist and insisting that religion has to translate its terms into terms which secular people can assimilate.
He argues that secular and religious people mustn’t simply talk about each other, they must talk to and with each other in a new kind of dialogue, and one of the conditions he lays down is that ‘secular reason must not set itself up as the judge concerning the truth of faith, even though in the end it can accept as reasonable only what it can translate into its own, in principle, universally accessible discourses’.
Let’s move on to Jonathan Fenby’s biography of de Gaulle.
I am interested in de Gaulle because he was clearly a towering figure, and apparently the French regard him as the greatest Frenchman who has ever lived. Somebody said he conveyed the sense of being a ‘king in exile’, and with absolutely no authority at all he just declared: ‘I am France, I am France.’ Although he was totally dependent on the British for everything, nevertheless he stood up to Churchill and insisted on being treated as an equal partner in the fight against Nazism. He had a quite extraordinary sense of self-confidence, which, as we know, led to a lot of rows, and he was obviously a very difficult person to work with. And another amazing fact of his life is the way that he managed to save France from a civil war over Algeria by sheer political cunning.
Another aspect this very well-written book brought home to me was how much suffering and violence the French have been through, for example in the Occupation, the Resistance, the Vichy government, the reprisals, all the killings that went on over Algerian independence, and the numerous assassination attempts on de Gaulle himself; an extraordinary period of violence which on the whole we escaped in Britain.
Do you think that makes France a more grown-up country?
No I don’t. I’m not defending or attacking the French. The reason I’m interested in this book is because de Gaulle offers a particular model of leadership – very autocratic, in a way that people today would not regard as acceptable, and yet a leadership that literally saved France on at least two occasions. What I think enabled him to get away with the huge risks he took in life, betting everything on extraordinary uncertainties, was because he was deeply rooted in his religious faith, and in a traditional family life, with a very supportive wife. He was a very good father, and in particular he had a Down’s Syndrome daughter to whom he was totally devoted, and he was reported as saying that everything he had done he had done for her, and without her he would not have done it. So it was his deep rooting in what you might call the very best of traditional values that enabled him to lead this high-profile life, taking extraordinary risks all the time.
So de Gaulle was the conviction politician above all other conviction politicians. In fact, he despised all professional politicians, and of course he had a lot to despise in the kind of political manoeuvring that went on in the 1930s in France which eventually led to the Vichy government. He saw himself as standing above all politicians and refused to see himself as such, even though he was more astute, calculating and cunning that any of them. For a long time he refused to form a Gaullist political party and instead stood above the political fray.
Tony Blair and Mrs Thatcher were conviction politicians, as we know. When right in their judgment then they can carry the country through to something wonderful, but if they are wrong, as many of us thought Tony Blair was over the Iraq war, then they can use all their power and conviction to lead us down a disastrous road. The point about de Gaulle was that he was clearly right on two absolutely crucial issues: first when people would have said he was mad to think that he could stand and represent France himself and get the French people to see that he did actually symbolise France, although the official government was in fact the Vichy one. Then, he recognised very quickly that independence for Algeria was inevitable, even though the Pieds Noirs, the French settlers in Algeria, who had helped him to come to power, looked to him to help Algeria remain part of France.
Was he politically shrewd in the Machiavellian sense, or was he highly principled, because normally one thinks of those as opposites?
Normally, yes, we think of these as opposites, but somehow he combined both. He was absolutely uncompromising in one way and yet extremely shrewd and politically calculating in another, which is something that enabled him to steer France through the Algerian crisis. Towards the end of his life he did get something wrong – he didn’t grasp the scale and extent of what was happening in France in 1968, though in the end he even pulled France through that.
But he does pose a question about the kind of leadership we want. How wonderful it is to have strong leaders, and yet how dangerous. They’re great if they’re right and terrible if they’re wrong.
Now Climbing the Bookshelves. Was Shirley Williams a strong leader?
That’s very interesting, because I think that there is a fascinating juxtaposition of the de Gaulle book with Shirley Williams’s book. Shirley Williams is also a person of very strong conviction, but, as she herself said, she perhaps lacked enough confidence and ruthlessness to aim for the top job. She is a woman who had to fight her way in what was then a very male-dominated world, and, although extremely able, clever and with very passionate convictions, did not have that extraordinary sense of destiny that de Gaulle appeared to have. She is not the kind of person who thinks that in every situation she is bound to be right and must therefore push ruthlessly to get her way, as de Gaulle did. So she does offer a different model of leadership, one which would be much more consultative.
But she wasn’t actually the leader.
She was not the leader of the Labour party, but she has been the leader of the LibDems in the house of Lords, and she has occupied very senior positions in government. A good number of people would like to have seen her as Britain’s first woman Prime Minister instead of Mrs Thatcher. But she never really made a ruthless bid for the supreme position because she’s not that kind of person.
So what does that tell us about faith in politics?
Well, that’s another interesting dimension to the book. Shirley Williams, as I think everyone knows, is a serious Catholic, and she talks about her upbringing and her father who was a Catholic convert. Yet the religious dimension to her life is very low-key in the book, and she certainly doesn’t claim the high moral ground as a result of it. She mentions, just as an aside, that Anthony Crosland was as regular about watching Match of the Day as she was about going to the Mass, and that’s about the only clue as to how important her Catholic faith is to her! She does come on to it a little more at the end where she talks about her admiration for the Liberation Theologians and of Jesus as a liberator who stood alongside the poor and the vulnerable, so that gives us an indication of where she stands. She is a serious Catholic, but also a Liberal, so it is not surprising that she is strongly opposed to the Pope’s views on contraception and she would like to see a married priesthood. She is a left-wing Catholic but she’s still a loyal Catholic. Her father was an intellectual who thought his way into the church, and she had many intellectual conversations with him when she was a child, conversations which had a good element of religion in them. So it was a good start from her father and also, on the emotional side, from the people she was very fond of who often looked after her when she was a child. In the House of Lords she has voted in line with the Catholic position on some things such as embryo research, although on a number of issues she is very much opposed to the present teachings of the church.
So what does all this tell you about what needs to change in our politics?
What we need is people to go into politics who want to serve society. Now this may sound a bit sentimental, but the fact of the matter is that in the history of politics in this country, over the last 150 years, people went into the Labour party with a sense of a crusade, wanting to change society for the better, and there were a lot of people in the traditional Conservative party who had a sense of noblesse oblige who wanted to do their duty to the country. Now I’m not being blinkered – selfish ambition and legitimate ambition is there in all of us – but there was often a very strong sense of service in people who went into politics, and it would be a terrible shame if people only went into politics to pursue their own careers and their own ambitions.
That’s a popular belief propounded by the media, but on the whole aren’t politicians a good deal more conscientious than the average?
Yes, the problem is that the press assume that all politicians are only pursuing their own interests. That is totally untrue and very unfair. The fact of the matter is that politicians are a mixture like all of us and there is still a lot of altruism around. I’d like to see this strengthened so that the concept of serving society through politics is regarded as a very worthwhile vocation and one that is recognised by society as a whole to be such and not regarded in a totally cynical way, which it is by the newspapers at the moment.
And your last book is Dishonest to God by Mary Warnock, published this month.
Yes, she’s arguing for politics without religion, taking religion out of politics. It’s a very dramatic title, and I have a lot of sympathy with what she’s saying. She’s particularly irritated and indeed angry about the impression being given by some religious people that religion is the source of all morality and that it holds the high moral ground. For example, she is annoyed by the assumption of some that the bishops in the House of Lords are custodians of public morality, whereas of course the bishops are neither better nor worse than most other members in terms of their capacity for moral discernment. So I have a lot of sympathy with her for that and also for her plea that there is a basis for moral values that is not simply religious, but is rooted in our capacity for imaginative sympathy with other people and our sense that we are all human beings, frail and subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It is that which enables us to create a morality as well as an aesthetic, and also, she argues, religion, but this capacity she regards as rooted in our human nature.
I entirely agree with all that, and my view is that we must recognise and celebrate values whoever puts them forward, whether people are believers or not. But where I think Mary Warnock goes badly wrong is the impression she gives that all religious morality is of the command variety – these are God’s commands, these are God’s laws. She seems to suggest that these are God’s laws only for believers. Indeed, she begins her book suggesting that’s the kind of religion she was brought up in. But, actually, traditional Christian thought contains what is called natural law, and the basic assumption behind this is that all human beings have a basic capacity, by virtue of being human, for moral insight and moral discernment; in short, however flawed, doing what is right, and discerning what this is belongs to our nature as such. And certainly St Paul argues for that, saying that people have the moral law written in their own hearts, so you don’t have to be religious to have a strong moral sense. I think that Mary Warnock is creating a wrong impression when she suggests that all religious morality is of the command and obedience sort and that this is just for religious believers. In fact, not all religiously-based morality is like that; it involves the use of reason reflecting on what it is the right thing to do as a human being in society, whether we have a religious belief or not.
In the debate in the House of Lords on euthanasia, nobody appealed to specifically religious arguments – despite what Polly Toynbee continually says in The Guardian – that euthanasia bills are blocked by a cabal of bishops, rabbis and so on. There was no specific appeal to religious considerations. However, I think that religion does come into it in a much more subtle way, when you are evaluating suffering, and whether suffering is the worst evil. When you’re thinking of human beings and whether they are isolated individuals or whether it’s essential to our human nature that we are mutually interdependent, it seems to me that a religious perspective on existence will weight the argument in a particular way, a different way perhaps from someone who hasn’t got a religious faith. If we use John Rawls’s term of public reasoning, then everything that went on in this debate was public reasoning, something which Mary Warnock would approve of: morality without any ostensible appeal to religion. But a religious view of what it is to be a human being in society evaluated those arguments in slightly different ways.
For instance, since the 17th century Britain has had an over-individualistic understanding of what it is to be a human being. But from a Christian point of view we are not isolated individuals, we are persons in community. Again, a secular point of view tends to think that being totally in control of one’s own life is what is fundamental to our human worth and dignity, and that if you lose control of it somehow all is lost, whereas the Christian faith would want to emphasise that life is a process of dependence and independence, it’s a mixture, and to be dependent and not in total control, which we all are for some of our lives, doesn’t mean to say that we in any way lose our human dignity or value.
That’s a Christian consideration, which influences the argument in a rather more subtle way and which makes one understand a person who is in a terrible state in a somewhat different way from a person with a different view of what it is to be a human being in society. I very much feel for some of the people we read about who ask to die, and I do not know how I would behave in that situation. But I certainly do not see them as having lost all their value or dignity or worth as a human being because they are not in control of their life.
So were these euthanasia discussions in the House of Lords the sort of dialogue that Habermas is calling for?
Yes, I think they were, there was public reasoning in that anyone can grasp in non-religious terms what was being said, but actually a religious perspective has been fed into it in a particular way, a way that has been assimilated, and that, I suspect, is a good example of what Habermas might mean.
Do you think that there is at the moment a kind of religion in politics that does not belong there?
Yes, religion has a very bad name in certain quarters at the moment, and very understandably so. When it is associated with violence, when it is associated with right-wing fundamentalism, when it is associated with an authoritarian approach to morality, when it’s associated with claims for the high moral ground, when there’s any insinuation that people who don’t have a religious view of life are by that very fact immoral, then there are powerful reasons for keeping it out of the political arena. My point would be that those are not the only forms of religion around and there are other forms of religion that can make a valuable contribution to politics.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.