The Gladstone Lecture: what Alan Beith said…

Alan Beith’s Gladstone Lecture – and specifically his comments that church disestablishment is “not necessary” – attracted much comment earlier this week on LDV. Here Jon Hunt reflects on this and much else…

The grand old man of Liberalism was given his due respect last month.

The phrase is generally applied to Gladstone but could almost be applied to Sir Alan Beith, the former deputy leader of the party, who was chosen to give the first annual Gladstone lecture.

Sir Alan, who is only 65, has just published his autobiography, marking 35 years as serving Liberal MP for Berwick. But if anyone expected an evening of reminiscence they were disappointed. Just like Gladstone – who retired from the premiership at the age of 84, Beith proved that a veteran politician can retain fire in his belly.

The aim of this new lecture series would seem to be to explore the historic relationship in this country between Christianity and Liberalism. It was organised by the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum and held in the National Liberal Club, ensuring that guests were steeped in images of the Grand Old Man (Gladstone) before taking their seats.

You can argue whether Gladstone shaped the Liberal Party – or the other way round – but Beith’s starting point was that, regardless, this was a politician of enormous stature, shaped by his faith. Too often Gladstone’s name has been hijacked as if he were a closet Tory, a prophet of the free market. In fact he was passionate about internationalism, about peace-making and about the rights of the oppressed. Ultimately he put his political career, and his party, on the line over the rights of the people of Ireland.

Beith’s premise, then, was that Liberalism and Christianity are not incompatible; he was he said “passionate” about his own beliefs and yet also passionate about the freedom and rights of others. Similarly, he argued, a liberal society should not be involved in suppressing expressions of faith or belief (such as Christmas).

This led to an interesting side-discussion on the role of the Church of England. Traditionally most Liberals have backed its disestablishment – and that included the non-conformists who backed Gladstone. Beith argued that the role of the church has changed within England since the 19th century – when it enjoyed enormous privileges – and that arguments for disestablishment now tend to be about purging Christianity and religion from playing any role within the State. For this reason, other Christian denominations and other religions now tended to favour the Anglican church retaining its leading role, he argued.

Sir Alan wants Christians and the churches to be involved in political life and sees cynicism as holding back many who could contribute. This is not about the churches arguing their corner or defending privileges but about offering a genuine challenge to ethics and morality within public life

Finally some discussion about the role of conscience in the life of an MP. Beith argued that conscience did not absolve an MP from supporting the hard decisions a party must take – but that there continue to be a range of issues where party whipping is inappropriate.

At a time when the membership of our party and the population of Britain is increasingly diverse, this was all a timely reminder of how politics must reconcile competing viewpoints. The history of the Liberal Democrats, along with the nature of liberalism, means the party could be taking the lead on such issues.

I’m looking forward to finding out who will deliver next year’s Gladstone lecture. It’s a chance to hear people who are often wrapped up in day-to-day politics taking time to be reflective – and a chance to consider the legacy of the Grand Old Man. There are some big outstanding questions to be addressed. For instance, although Liberalism and Christianity may not be incompatible, is there any natural attraction between the two creeds?

* Jon Hunt is a city councillor in Birmingham, where he speaks for the party on education, children’s services and public transport.

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39 Comments

  • Apart from liberalism, I think that antidisestablishmentarianism – the view that it is bad manners to accelerate the decay of an ancient monument – is the only ism that I have wholeheartedly adopted. I trust that Sir Alan’s avowal in the same sense will lead to the party informallly adopting this Gladstonian coinage as unwritten policy.

  • But will we have a Defender of Faith?

  • Personally, I haven’t noticed any evidence to support the view that the religious have any excessive influence. Indeed when you look at those issues that are contentious from a religious standpoint e.g. abortion time limits, if they have excessive influence, it is of the sort that influences their opponents into action.

    I would suggest their influence is because they care deeply, so they do something, just like those who are particularly green, liberal, conservative, socialist and even nationalist, and like us all their influence is in proportion to their efforts. Can’t see anything wrong in that myself.

  • Now let me see… Church Schools – in spite of Mat’s example, I’ve not seen many set up in quite a few years, and, even if it was true, bearing in mind the falling number of church goers, I can’t see any evidence of influence at all.

    As for “being forced to send your child to a school that teaches them to sing using songs such as ‘Jesus loves you’ is a little offputting.” Heck, the number of children who are permanently scarred by having to sing a hymn – life is so tough.

    Get real guys and give me some hard evidence of problematic influence not a few minor chips on shoulders!!

  • David Evans 18th Nov '08 - 6:45pm

    Laurence,

    I would suggest that the point is that they give a good education. That’s why they were set up in the first place, and most certainly that’s the main reason why they are there now. Indoctrination, do give over – I’m amazed that people look for conspiracies like that. Why do so many people in our party use such pejorative language and almost look on Christianity as an enemy, when over most of the last 120 years it has been the bedrock of the party? Christianity in the UK has largely grown up from arguing over these false divisions a long time ago, so did the Liberals, don’t let the Lib Dems walk back into that mire.

    As for poisoning the well of learning – where do you get it from!? Fight the real enemies of a liberal society, not those who would be your allies.

    Mat,

    I am still looking for you providing any real evidence of harm. Sex education being curtailed in Scotland, well it’s working really well in England isn’t it – not. As for moving schools, I would suggest that the only criterion I would look for is a better school, whether it was secular or not would be totally immaterial.

    Bishops voting, well I must admit I’ve long been concerned at masses of bishops turning out to subvert the wishes of the people. Who do you think you are kidding? Look at the record, most of the time they don’t vote, when they do they seem to be mildly left of centre. I just fail to see the windmills you are tilting against.

    As I said before look for real evidence of problems and if you can only find a few, I would suggest you are over-egging it.

    David

  • Of course, as athiest parents if my wife and I want to send our child to a school that isn’t based on an ethos we find repugnant and idiotic them we are free to send him to an athiest school… except of course we aren’t, because there aren’t any, because the government has explicitly blocked every attempt to set one up, presumably because they don’t have the stomach to try to push through the changes to the education act necessary to excuse such a school from imposing a daily act of collective servility.

    So don’t tell me that religious groups aren’t my enemy, they quite certainly are. They have made themselves my enemy by insinuating themselves into the education of my child, something that is more important and more emotive to me than pretty much anything else.

  • Laurence,
    In addition to Mat’s post, I would suggest you obtain a copy of “The Political Insight of Elliot Dodds” to see how non-conformist Christians contributed to keeping the Liberals in existence in the 1950s when we were down to 5 MPs. Without them there would have been no Lib Dems, possibly a bunch of Owenites, but probably not that either. And no I am not as you seem to want to imply an enemy of reason, I just haven’t seen any reason in your points – at best I see a few minor points blown up out of all proportion. Indoctrination – do give over. The definition of to indoctrinate means “cause to accept a set of beliefs uncritically through repeated instruction.” (OED online). I haven’t noticed Christian beliefs being accepted uncritically in young people today – have you?

    Real illiberaism and real indoctrination, look at a lot of the Murdock press with its continuous attacks on foreign workers, women’s rights etc etc, Labour and its doctrinaire authoritarianism (ID cards, 42 day detention etc), the Tories and their Devil take the hindmost philosophy and attack that.

    Jon,
    Wish you were right, but unfortunately there are groups (often those in power) who would destroy what liberal parts of our society remain. If you don’t fight them, they will win.

    Mat,
    As I said, most of the time the bishop’s don’t vote, when they do they seem to be mildly left of centre. If you can’t be bothered to provide evidence of a problem you say is there, I certainly don’t have the time to look for it for you. If you can provide any examples, I will gladly discuss them with you.

    As for forcing religion on children, your idea of forcing, is miles away from the definition of the word. If you use words that wantonly, you would talk of schools forcing biology or maths on children. Now – sing a hymn and say a prayer, listen to a story about someone who spoke in favour of racial harmony, valued the poor widow, railed against money lenders – Nowhere near the top of my list of illiberal stuff. Perhaps a bit of an unfair advantage for those who are religious but forcing? Honestly? Indeed it could be validly argued that for many schools, it’s the closest they get to raising moral issues.

    Andy,
    Indoctrination.
    I think you have missed my point. To indoctrinate means “cause to accept a set of beliefs uncritically through repeated instruction.” (OED online). As I said to Laurence, I haven’t noticed Christian beliefs being accepted uncritically. In that case the use of the word indoctrination is wholly inappropriate and indeed I feel that such terms are deliberately used by some to cast Christianity in a bad light, in itself that is very illiberal. Church schools may try to promote Christian values, but indoctrinate is simply untrue.

    Also I don’t agree with your view that religious schools usually teach in a rather less rationalist way. I would suggest 99% of teaching in all schools is as rational as it can be. Have you any evidence or is it an opinion? As far as rationalism goes, a bit of oddity in a teacher is often a good thing. I had an English teacher who thought Led Zeppelin were the best band ever and told us so on many occasions, equally I had a Chemistry teacher who was a Christian and didn’t go on about god half as much as the Led Zep fan. Both were good teachers because they used their beliefs/idiosyncrasies to intrigue and ultimately inspire their students.

    Bedrock.
    See above.

    False Divisions
    I was thinking more of an anti-Christian against Christian split. Certainly a lot of people in this thread seem to want to portray Christianity as massively illiberal and even more as a real threat to liberty. To my view this is simply untrue and will weaken us as a political force if we allow this lie to grow.

    Sex Education.
    I wasn’t making a point for cutting back sex education, but I see few people arguing it is working at all well. Indeed the stats seem to show things have been getting steadily worse for a long time, and over that time we have had ever more sex education. Hence the RCs may be correct in saying it is going down the wrong track, and could have a point in saying that it is so bad it is making things worse. They may be wrong, but like any group in society they are allowed to lobby and have influence. That’s a liberal society.

    Iain,
    I’m no expert on the law in the area of assemblies, but Jon in an earlier post did say that if schools wanted to opt out they could to apply to their local SACRE. I would support you if you chose to try this route.

  • David Evans 19th Nov '08 - 1:03pm

    Laurence,
    In addition to Mat’s post, I would suggest you obtain a copy of “The Political Insight of Elliot Dodds” to see how non-conformist Christians contributed to keeping the Liberals in existence in the 1950s when we were down to 5 MPs. Without them there would have been no Lib Dems, possibly a bunch of Owenites, but probably not that either. And no I am not as you seem to want to imply an enemy of reason, I just haven’t seen any reason in your points – at best I see a few minor points blown up out of all proportion. Indoctrination – do give over. The definition of to indoctrinate means “cause to accept a set of beliefs uncritically through repeated instruction.” (OED online). I haven’t noticed Christian beliefs being accepted uncritically in young people today – have you?

    Real illiberaism and real indoctrination, look at a lot of the Murdock press with its attacks on foreign workers, women’s rights etc etc, Labour and its doctrinaire authoritarianism (ID cards, 42 day detention etc), the Tories and their Devil take the hindmost philosophy and attack that.

    Jon,

    Wish you were right, but unfortunately there are groups (often those in power) who would destroy what liberal parts of our society remain. If you don’t fight them, they will win.

    Mat,

    As I said, most of the time the bishop’s don’t vote, when they do they seem to be mildly left of centre. If you can’t be bothered to provide evidence of a problem you say is there, I certainly don’t have the time to look for it for you. If you can provide any examples, I will gladly discuss them with you.

    As for forcing religion on children, your idea of forcing, is miles away from the definition of the word. If you use words that wantonly, you would talk of schools forcing biology or maths on children. Now – sing a hymn and say a prayer, listen to a story about someone who spoke in favour of racial harmony, valued the poor widow, railed against money lenders – Nowhere near the top of my list of illiberal stuff. Perhaps a bit of an unfair advantage for those who are religious but forcing? Honestly? Indeed it could be validly argued that for many schools, it’s the closest they get to raising moral issues.

    Andy,

    Indoctrination.
    I think you have missed my point. To indoctrinate means “cause to accept a set of beliefs uncritically through repeated instruction.” (OED online). As I said to Laurence, I haven’t noticed Christian beliefs being accepted uncritically. In that case the use of the word indoctrination is wholly inappropriate and indeed I feel that such terms are deliberately used by some to cast Christianity in a bad light, in itself that is very illiberal. Church schools may try to promote Christian values, but indoctrinate is simply untrue.

    Also I don’t agree with your view that religious schools usually teach in a rather less rationalist way. I would suggest 99% of teaching in all schools is as rational as it can be. Have you any evidence or is it an opinion? As far as rationalism goes, a bit of oddity in a teacher is often a good thing. I had an English teacher who thought Led Zeppelin were the best band ever and told us so on many occasions, equally I had a Chemistry teacher who was a Christian and didn’t go on about god half as much as the Led Zep fan. Both were good teachers because they used their beliefs/idiosyncrasies to intrigue and ultimately inspire their students.

    Bedrock.
    See above.

    False Divisions
    I was thinking more of an anti-Christian against Christian split. Certainly a lot of people in this thread seem to want to portray Christianity as massively illiberal and even more as a real threat to liberty. To my view this is a total exaggeration and will weaken us as a political force if we allow this view to grow.

    Sex Education.
    I wasn’t making a point for cutting back sex education, but I see few people arguing it is working at all well. Indeed the stats seem to show things have been getting steadily worse for a long time, and over that time we have had ever more sex education. Hence the RCs may be correct in saying it is going down the wrong track, and could have a point in saying that it is so bad it is making things worse. They may be wrong, but like any group in society they are allowed to lobby and have influence. That’s a liberal society.

    Iain,

    I’m no expert on the law in the area of assemblies, but Jon in an earlier post did say that if schools wanted to opt out they could to apply to their local SACRE. I would support you if you chose to try this route.

  • Iain,

    I’m no expert on the law in the area of assemblies, but Jon in an earlier post did say that if schools wanted to opt out they could to apply to their local SACRE. I would support you if you chose to try this route.

    No, the SACRE opt-out is to the “of a broadly Christian nature” bit, not to the daily act of collective worship itself, and a school will only be granted that opt-out if the majority of pupils are of a different religion, in which case “broadly Christian nature” becomes “broadly Islamic/ Hindu/ whatever nature”.

    As it stands I have only two options: to keep quiet and allow my child to be indoctrinated against my wishes (and whatever you think, indoctrination is EXACTLY what it is); or explicitly withdraw him from said indoctrination thus singling him out as “different” amongst his peers and exposing him to all the bullying that goes along with that.

    That the state should present me with such a choice in the 21st century is disgusting, and the fact that you aren’t disgusted by it doesn’t comfort me one iota.

  • Jon:

    No, they can’t. It’s just about possible for a humanist to get on a SACRE and exert a tiny bit of influence over the RE syllabus (and even this is a grey area legally) , but a school couldn’t apply for a determination excusing it from its obligations to provide daily christian worship even if every child in the school were of humanist parents.

    Still, the idea of ‘a daily act of collective worship of a broadly humanist nature’ gave me a chuckle.

  • Laurence,

    In response to your last post, I’m very sorry to have to spell it out to you, but here goes.

    There is no foundation in your claim that there is Christian indoctrination in faith schools, you haven’t provided any evidence, just a continuing series of extra arguments as I counter each of your points. It appears to be a myth that you seem to want to perpetuate by ignoring the facts when I present them to you, instead simply trotting out another hypothetical comparison to change the basis of your argument as each of your previous points are evidentially disputed or shown to be a total fallacy.

    I have done my best to give you real facts to consider, and asked you to justify your statements. If you have a particular problem with this fact based debate, just let me know and I won’t waste your time and mine.

    I judge theoretical problems by the scale of the reality of the injustice, not simply by “Well I don’t like the sound of that.” When there is evidence that rampant Christianity is becoming one of the top 20 problems this country faces, I will address it. At the moment, I consider illiberal anti-Christianity to be a much greater problem.

    Iain,

    I take your point, but a bit like Jon, I don’t see a lot of evidence of a problem with the content of assemblies I have seen; that’s why I wouldn’t use the word disgusted. However, if schools in your area are a particular problem, you obviously have much more of a personal case. Have you tried taking it up with others in your area? A small campaigning group can move mountains if it is well organised.

    David

  • David Evans 21st Nov '08 - 2:51pm

    • I don’t know if you are a Christian, but if you are then the demand for evidence is always a delicious irony.

    Not really. If I remember rightly, Christianity is a belief not a proveable fact and as far as I am aware almost all Christians accept that.

    • But in fact I know that indoctrination occurs in faith schools because I attended Catholic school myself. Of course that was a long while ago and was just one school.

    Laurence, somehow I don’t think the indoctrination worked on you! But seriously, if you have evidence it is still going on, I would be campaigning alongside you to oppose it and get it changed.

    • So you’re still OK. Anyway, why all the focus on Christianity? Have you heard of Islam?

    Now Islamic schools, I have no experience or detailed knowledge about. Again, if there is evidence, it should be campaigned against.

    • You haven’t provided a single fact in relation to faith schooling.

    Real facts already presented
    – I have seen no children from church schools walking around indoctrinated.
    – Historical perspective of the party as provided by Mat,
    – the Elliot Dodds book
    – definition of indoctrination.
    You, by comparison, state indoctrination is taking place, but other than the fact that it took place at your school in the distant(?) past, you have offered no evidence it is still happening. Again, if there is evidence, I would campaign against it.

    • Imagine that I set up a school with a special leaning towards science and technology. Somebody questions the wisdom of this. Are not music and the arts just as important? My response is: don’t worry, there isn’t a scintilla of evidence to support the claim that any of my students have the slightest idea about science and technology anyway. Most of them appear to be completely clueless on the subject. To which my critics reply: well done, you’re doing a great job.
    That’s how silly your argument is.

    Are you implying that some faith schools are deliberately not providing a good education, but only educating on a limited part of the curriculum? If so and you have evidence, I will be right alongside you in campaigning to get that changed.

    David

    P.S. How do you get italics in your posts, it makes them much easier to follow, but I don’t know how to.

  • David Evans 27th Nov '08 - 7:00pm

    Laurence,

    Thanks for the info on posting. Much appreciated.

    On your points, we know we will never agree, so I will merely reiterate my theme. I believe (tricky word belief if there are no facts) that there is a tendency by some in our party to want to ostracise Christians because some (in my belief, relatively few) of their beliefs lead to a different conclusion from some we hold dear. However, I still believe that most Christians would support the vast majority of our values very clearly. As a result, I believe we are in danger of weakening our support, which would prevent us from ever putting our values into practice at a national level.

    All the best,

    David

  • David Evans 27th Nov '08 - 8:08pm

    Now for the test.

    Can I get it to work?
    Can I get it to work?
    Can I get it to work?
    Can I get it to work?

  • David Evans 27th Nov '08 - 8:09pm

    Ah – not underline and not strikethrough, but two out of four isn’t bad.

    Thanks Laurence

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