Vive les différences

Winston Churchill made a speech in the cabinet before declaring: “Well, gentlemen, I think we can all agree on this course.” Attlee politely but effectively responded, “You know, prime minister, a monologue by you does not necessarily spell agreement.” I have never been a supporter of Attlee’s political creed, but he set a good example of how to do politics in a democracy facing a crisis.

During my last fifteen years in the day job, with a small specialist team, I was responsible for helping local churches strengthen relationships with other faiths, particularly after the 2001 Bradford riots, which I observed at close quarters. Interfaith dialogue is a little too pretentious a label to describe what we did. It was rather more about interfaith conversation and deliberately shared experiences as human beings. Anyone who has gone beyond dipping their toes into this particular pond (which in our city includes the Humanists these days), soon realises that this sort of activity is not primarily about looking for similarities amongst different faiths. It is about gaining a clearer appreciation of the differences. Time and time again, I have heard people say that it has helped them understand their tradition better. In the quest for human solidarity, celebrating diversity is infinitely more satisfying than blurring differences.

When there is talk about “putting party politics to one side” I think we need to make distinctions between destructive party politics and civilised political debate. In responding to crude partisanship in these polarised times, we have got to offer more than simple appeals for “unity”, both in terms of our internal disagreements and on the broader political scene. Yes, the tone might change somewhat, as it did between the period of wartime coalition and the furious arguments between 1945 and 1951. Still, we owe it to our opponents, and indeed one another, to be honest about who we are and what motivates us.

I remember the fatuous “I’m Backing Britain” campaign with much waving of flags as a tool to close down debates. Single party government has no problem trying to convince people that everything it does is in the national interest. Whatever part we play in responding to the present emergency, we need to remember that when the immediate crisis is over, while in many respects we shall be living in a different world, we should not be looking forward to a completely blank sheet on which we shall start writing history afresh.

At a ceremony in Churchill’s honour, held shortly before they both retired from front rank politics, Attlee delivered a glowing tribute to the man he called Britain’s “daring pilot in extremity”. When a Conservative MP referred to the Labour leader as “silly old Attlee” in Churchill’s presence, he came back with a thunderous response: “Mr Attlee… played a great part in winning the war. Mr Attlee is a great patriot.” They knew a thing or two about handling political disagreement.

* Geoff Reid is a retired Methodist minister and represented Eccleshill on Bradford City Council for twelve years

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  • Lovely article, Geoff. As an old B.G.S. boy and Yorkshire ex-pat I can tell you my heart wept in 2001. So, thanks for all you have done and said. I don’t know if you’ve seen it but there’s a new book out by Leo McKinstry : ‘Attlee and Churchill: Allies in War, Adversaries in Peace Hardcover – 3 Oct 2019 Leo McKinstry’.

    Past and presen ? George Lansbury was replaced as Labour Leader by Clem Attlee in 1935. Some folk think there are parallels with the Corbyn/Starmer situation today. We could certainly do with a second Attlee now….. › politics › are-the-1930s-the-true-histo…
    6 Feb 2020 – No, not Jeremy Corbyn, but George Lansbury,… and the accession of Clement Attlee as leader.

    A memory of the past : I was Lib PPC for Sowerby in the late sixties and got to know the sitting M.P. Douglas Houghton. He was always kind and generous to me. I was a student doing history at UCL at the time and remember a fascinating conversation with him about Gallipoli. He’d served with Clem Attlee there and admired him enormously (both were wounded). I still treasure the memory.

    As Jo Cox said, “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”.

  • Katharine Pindar 1st Apr '20 - 10:49am

    An original and thought-provoking fine article, thank you, Geoff. It has prompted two thoughts for me, one short-term, one for longer. The first was, how can the churches enlist the Christian populace in our great ceremonies of Easter in this crisis? I have found it all too easy to ignore church for two weeks, but on Good Friday and Easter Sunday I fully engage with my faith, and want communion with other Christians.

    Secondly, there will soon be a new Labour leader, probably Sir Keir Starmer. We can hope that after this crisis the Labour party will re-emerge as social-democratic rather than Socialist. How far do we engage with them then to promote progressive politics, particularly in tackling poverty and inequality, environmental issues and the threats of Brexit under this government, while keeping our individuality and the deep strength of our values visible to the public? We must not rely only on the continual good work of our excellent councillors. I will try to contribute thinking as well as practical politics, and hope that our autumn conference can still go ahead, to meet in person with each other then for our debates and decisions.

  • I note that the word “own” between “their” and “tradition” would make the point a little more clearly.
    David – I nicked the quotes from a review of the book you mention!
    Katharine – I know that many churches have been looking to alternatives but they need to find ways of engaging with those for who have no awareness of the World-wide Web (could this be an alternative to the traditional dove as an image of the Holy Spirit ???). There will be quite a few folk who will be using the Good Friday-Easter Sunday pattern as an aid to coping with the crisis.
    Meanwhile let’s remember Muslim communities who have Eid al Fitr coming up on 23/24 May. If we are still likely to be in anything like lockdown by then, there will need to be careful preparations in places like Bradford.

  • Richard Underhill 1st Apr '20 - 8:00pm

    The UK cabinet was chaired by Clem Attlee when it decided to offer political union to France. PM Winston Churchill was in France. France had been defeated by Germany and refused the offer, but also asked for help from the RAF, which both France and the UK needed.

  • Richard Underhill 1st Apr '20 - 9:21pm

    Winston Churchill became Prime Minister with the support of Labour MPs and welsh wizard David Lloyd George. He did not become Conservative leader until later as Roy Jenkins records (also the author of Gladstone as the sleeve notes.)
    Mr. Attlee: an interim Biography, Mr. Balfour’s Poodle, Asquith, Truman, Baldwin,
    ISBN 0 333 78290 9,

  • Richard Underhill 1st Apr '20 - 9:27pm

    Peter Wrigley 1st Apr ’20 – 4:49pm
    His father was a prosperous solicitor. His constituency in London was impoverished.

  • Am reminded of Senator McCain arguing with his own supporter that Obama was a “decent family man”. How long ago that seems now.

  • Peter Martin 2nd Apr '20 - 1:02pm

    @ Katharine,

    “We can hope that after this crisis the Labour party will re-emerge as social-democratic rather than Socialist.”

    I would have thought, from a Lib Dem POV, that it would be better for Labour to be Socialist. That way the ‘Social Democrats’ in the electorate will perhaps remember that the Lib Dems are supposed to be an alliance of Libs and Social Democrats. Or am I slightly behind the times in thinking that?

    From a wider political perspective it’s better that we have, not counting the Nationalists, three main distinct political groupings. That way everyone has someone to vote for.

  • @Peter Martin “I would have thought, from a Lib Dem POV, that it would be better for Labour to be Socialist. That way the ‘Social Democrats’ in the electorate will perhaps remember that the Lib Dems are supposed to be an alliance of Libs and Social Democrats. Or am I slightly behind the times in thinking that?”

    Well it’s no secret that a vocal minority of the party want a very close relationship with Labour (even a merger). Some even boast of their close friendships with Labour MPs.

    Personally I think it’s better for the electorate as a whole for Labour to be Socialist. It is, after all, what they were founded to be.

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