Onward Christian Socialist
By Terry Wynn
"Shine, Jesus, shine,
Fill this land with the Father's glory;
Blaze, spirit, blaze,
Set our hearts on fire.
Flow, river, flow,
Flood the nations with grace and mercy;
Send forth Your word,
Lord, and let there be light."
Graham Kendrick (1950 - )
SO WHAT IS A CHRISTIAN SOCIALIST?
In the introduction I said that this could have been written simply as Terry Wynn, citizen of Leigh, but as Terry Wynn, MEP it may have more clout. It may also bring on more ridicule and I'm sure the story of the voice in Chapter 1 has already bracketed me with James Anderton having a hot line to God.
It also stressed the importance to me of Jesus' two commandments to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself.
I've tried to set out what I believe and why I believe. The chapters about homosexuality and abortion were included to illustrate how I feel about these two issues, at a time when many Christian fundamentalists condemn both subjects.
I've tried to show, in an implicit way, how the Christian faith naturally leads me to be a socialist. It's about time that I became more explicit. If I am to exploit my role as an MEP for this, book then it is only fitting that this final chapter should look at where I stand politically and why.
One sad fact of life in the UK is the general apathy to politics and a distrust of politicians. "They're all the same", "They're all a bunch of hypocrites", "They're in it for themselves", so many people say about politicians. I always say you get the politicians you deserve. Politics determines your life in many respects. It's local politicians who determine how your schools function, how the elderly are cared for, how roads are maintained, how your streets are lit, and a host of other things. If people can't be bothered how these things are done and who is responsible for them, so be it, but don't let them start complaining when they are unhappy with things. The ones who do the most complaining invariably don't vote in elections.
A lot of us politicians are far from perfect, probably reflecting a good cross-section of the population. Yet it is these same politicians who will make the decisions that determine events which affect your life. If some politicians are corrupt, inadequate or just lazy, then in a democracy the people have the power to get rid of them, and they can. What it needs is a real interest in politics, in what is being done in your name, by influencing politicians - even by joining political parties. In short, by taking democracy seriously and not letting it be abused by ignorance and low turnouts at elections.
As someone who observed the South African elections in April, 1994 then returned home to see the abysmal turnouts for the local elections and the European elections the following May and June, I have a real concern about democracy in the UK.
So what do people expect from politicians? I can tell you what I expect - first and foremost, integrity. An ability to be honest all the time, if that's possible (it isn't, I can easily vouch for that) or at least to have a reputation which can lead to a certain amount of trust from the public.
In the 1980s and 90s the extramarital affairs of certain Cabinet Ministers hit the headlines even though they had nothing to do with their public life. That's true, but if a man will lie and cheat to his wife, there's a pretty good chance he will do it to others in public office. Apart from which, the taxpayers are the employers of the politicians and expect certain standards of honesty from the people they employ. The media scandalizes the lack of morality but it's the lack of honesty that does the damage.
All that sounds patronizing, self-righteous, idealistic and ignorant of man's second natural instinct. But those who go into public life (especially in the UK) must know that one gets judged (and invariably condemned) not just by one's political acts. Politics is a dirty game where cunning and deceit are all part of the craft or so I'm told. I don't believe it has to be like that. Perhaps if it wasn't, perhaps if there was more integrity, then the general public may not be as apathetic and critical.
Regardless of the intrigue of politics; the wheeling and dealing; the plotting and everything else, I love it - probably because of that. I reckon I have the best job in the world, being paid to do something I love doing. To represent the area I do, the old industrial areas of South Lancashire, Wigan, Leigh, St. Helens and the Merseyside areas of Huyton, Kirkby and Garston, is a great honour. To be a Labour Party member for people who are the salt of the earth, mainly working-class folk who are my people, from places like Platt Bridge, is a thrill that I cherish.
I can remember an old preacher once saying, "You can't be a Christian and a Tory". I'm not too sure I can agree with that, but I do know that my political beliefs are firmly rooted in the concepts of equality, fraternity and liberty and I could never agree to support the policies of a Thatcherite Government that has wreaked havoc on the weakest of our society.
My politics and my faith are inseparable: for me socialism and Christianity go hand in hand, from Christ's teachings to the Apostles' distribution of wealth where they gave "to each one according to his need" (Acts 4:35). Yet I have to admit many socialists I know are not Christians and many Christians I know are not socialists. At our ecumenical gatherings in Strasbourg, only a couple of us are socialists and what always puzzles me, or should I say amuses me, is the way a lot of people equate the word socialism with anything but Christianity, especially in Europe.
This was vividly brought home to me in October, 1994 during the first reading of the EU Budget. I was the Budget Rapporteur and, therefore, responsible for it on behalf of the Parliament. I had been asked to consider an amendment that had originally begun as an idea of Jacques Delors. It asked for funding for the great religious and philosophical traditions of Europe, Christians, Jews, Muslims and the Humanists, to explore "Giving Europe a Soul".
Now, maybe the title was wrong but the idea was sound. Jacques Delors had floated the concept of a great debate within Europe on the type of society we want, to encourage informed contacts with science, religion and humanists and those elements of civilized society which are the most concerned with ethics and meaning.
The amendment passed through the Budget Committee with the support of the Christian Democrats (the European People’s Party group) and the Liberals. When it was discussed in the Socialist Group afterwards, I was virtually on my own to defend it. The strongest opposition came from my Spanish colleagues and those who had experienced the power of the Catholic Church in their societies. No way were the Socialists to support such a move which they saw as giving the Church a say in shaping Europe's future direction. This is a pity because I saw the process as getting down to grass-roots level where everyday people could have an input into what they thought the EU should be about as far as its citizens were concerned.
Consequently, it didn't get through Parliament. That experience illustrated to me the different traditions in Europe; whereas the British Labour Party has real roots in the Nonconformist Churches, many Christians are socialists and the Christian Socialist Movement is an accepted part of the Party, in mainland Europe things are different. There, socialism does not equate to the Church or Christianity.
So then, for a moment, let me begin to define this word "Socialism". What does it mean to me and why can I equate it so easily with Christianity?
Labour MEPs rightly sit as part of the Socialist Group within the European Parliament and every member of the Labour Party will claim that she or he is fighting for socialism. So will Militant supporters and the leadership in China. So will Castro as would the former Albanian Government; so would the Gonzales Government of Spain and the previous governments in France, Norway and Sweden. Past and future Labour Governments in the UK will make the same claim also, yet there are immense differences in all these parties and countries.
So when asked how do individual Labour Party members define what is a socialist or what we mean by a socialist system of government, what is the reply? A good question to ask is, "If we could point to the socialist system we most admire, which country would we select?". The obvious answer for many of us used to be Sweden but after they lost their long- standing Socialist Government, would our alternative be Spain or Cuba or some other?
Mrs. Thatcher and the Tories, and the followers of George Bush, kept boasting of the defeat of socialism in central and Eastern Europe, and the triumph of capitalism. It makes for easily repeatable propaganda, but nothing of the sort happened. The Stalinist systems were not socialism and the systems of Western Europe are not purely capitalism. The West European systems that those in the East now want to emulate, have social services, public services, systems that operate for the benefit of the weakest - systems that would have no role in an unbridled capitalist state. The mad dash for true capitalism has had a traumatic effect on the East Europeans. It was brought about to get away from communist systems where economic ends meant individuals suffered because of the means. Now individuals suffer because the present free-market means are seeking different economic ends.
To quote John Kenneth Galbraith, when he addressed the Socialist Group of the European Parliament on the 5th July, l990, "What is being seen in the West from east of the one-time Wall, is not traditional capitalism but an imperfect social democracy. Our task is to seek and find the system that combines the best in market-motivated and socially-motivated action".
He spoke of Switzerland, where people travel on a publicly owned railway; use a publicly-owned telephone system; homes are insured by the commune and farmers are accorded income in keeping with their need. In Switzerland, a good house is a human right. Many shops are co-operatives and there are publicly-owned banks. No one would say that Switzerland is a socialist country since the Swiss are celebrated for their diligent adherence to free enterprise. Equally, Switzerland is not the capitalist Utopia that many on the right seek.
If then there is hesitation as to what is an ideal country, then at least we can aim to improve upon the imperfect social democracies we do see around us.
A definition of democratic socialism, as the socialist parties of Europe proclaim, is a definition that includes the right of every citizen to live in freedom and with dignity; a definition that eradicates privilege based on wealth; one that aims for the highest standards of health, education, housing, pensions and social provisions for all; one that is internationalist in outlook; one that seeks to banish economic hardship and deprivation and one that stands above national passion, prejudice and conflict, and I happily subscribe to that. For me it's a socialism that seeks to deliver social and economical well-being for all, not just a few; a socialism that Jesus can subscribe to by putting need before greed.
The dilemma remains. If it's so good, why do the imperfect social democracies fail to gain perfection, and why in the UK in the early 90s have we moved far far away from being an imperfect social democracy to an imperfect free-market system.
I understand why Labour lost the general election in l979 and in l983. Following the 1983 defeat, I never thought a Labour Government was possible ever again. In the defeat of l987, I was very disappointed but the feelings then were nothing as to how I felt when we failed to win in l992. I wrote the following after the general election of 9th April, when Labour didn’t become the Government after thirteen years of Conservative rule.
An abridged version appeared in the publication of the Christian Socialist Movement shortly after the election: "In the shell-shocked period immediately after the general election, many people were trying to analyse what went wrong. There was no shortage of bellicose Labour MPs who relished the opportunity to deliver condemnation on the Party in front of TV cameras each knowing exactly the reason for Labour not winning power. As the analyses poured forth over the days that followed the 9th April, there was one comment that probably reflected more truth than many others. It appeared in the ‘Daily Express’ on the Tuesday, the day after Neil Kinnock had announced his resignation and made his comments about the tabloid press.
"The front-page response was to say that socialism was no longer wanted, which is understandable from the ’Express’, but then it went on to boast that the electorate had shown it did not want a redistribution of wealth.
"It could simply have been a sub-editor’s throw away line but in truth, it's probably the reality of the legacy of l3 years of Thatcherism. The seeds of her selfish, ‘I'm-alright-Jack’ philosophy have borne fruit. The electorate were convinced that a vote for Labour would take money from them, whilst a vote for the Tories would not.
"The comments on the Nick Ross phone-in radio programme showed how unemployed people thought that Labour would tax them. The ‘8 out of 10 will be better off’ message failed to get across, while the Tory message of ‘everyone will suffer’, did.
"A week or so before the election, I had been speaking to a couple of hundred pensioners. I outlined the differences between British pensioners and their Continental counterparts and how UK pensioners on £7.40 per day are on the lowest incomes in Europe bar one.
"The question was asked how can other EC countries afford to pay more. The simple answer is because those in work pay more taxes and national insurance than we do. The European high tax/high benefit system is being replaced in the UK, by the US style low tax/low benefit system, and so it will continue. Our pensioners, our unemployed, our disabled will remain in poverty. Our schools will continue to crumble; opting out for schools will be Hobson's choice for financial reasons; local education authorities will virtually cease to exist; all of these will not enhance our education systems. The key to advancement for poor kids is a good education and it's being thrown away.
"Our main European competitors see training as an investment for the future. Our lack of investment in this area will make us even more uncompetitive.
"The future of the NHS was the issue of most concern for voters, so they said to pollsters, yet they voted for the party that made Jennifer's ear a reality.
"The British people want decent pensions for the elderly; they want to see poverty eradicated; they want a decent education system and NHS. The problem is they don't want to pay for them - and that is the reality of the general election of l992.
"The Thatcher years have given too many people a credo of self-centred materialism. As long as they contribute to ‘Children in Need’, or ‘Telethon’ or ‘Red Nose Day’, they feel their consciences will be salved and the next five years will probably reinforce this.
"This is what the Labour Party is now facing and must be prepared to challenge over these coming five years. The Labour Party is a crusade or it's nothing and that crusade should be about bringing a morality back to the British way of life that is at present missing. Not an insular, self-righteous morality, but one that teaches the lesson of the Good Samaritan. On 9th April too many people were content to walk past and pretend to ignore the society that was lying battered and bruised. It's the simple message of Christian Socialism but it's a message that is more relevant today than ever before.
"The redistribution of wealth is at the heart of it and it's a theme that we have to keep advocating. How to get the message across is more problematic. The people who needed a Labour Government are not only those who live in poverty, but also those who live in fear; pensioners who are scared of venturing out; those who are trapped in apartment flats where filth and decay abound; those whose jobs are in jeopardy; those who see their homes being repossessed; and those who accept violence as a norm.
"The rush from personal responsibility has seen more breaking up of families than ever before, more kids left in emotional limbo and more problems for the future.
"We have become a society that accepts things such as these as commonplace, we tolerate poverty, fear, lack of respect and bad manners as part and parcel of British society. Yet, at the same time, the vast majority of people seek only to live their lives in dignity, in a society of which they are proud to belong.
"The Labour Party has to give hope for the future for a society that can be distinctly different from the type we live in today.
"How do we preach a doctrine of co-operation, of helping your neighbour, of caring for the weakest, of people before profit, in our present society where hedonism is king? With great difficulty. But we must if we are to be seen to be different from the Tories and this is where we should be.
"The ‘Daily Express’ may gleefully proclaim that redistribution of wealth is unwanted - but is this really true? I believe the unconscious selfishness of many who voted Tory can be altered - of that I'm sure - by getting a moral message across, one that can help all our nation to live their lives in dignity.
"If Neil Kinnock was the Moses who gave us a glimpse of the ‘promised land,’ then John Smith can be the Joshua that takes us into that better society; a better society that is rooted in Christian Socialist doctrine."
I was a "Kinnock man" and felt deeply that Neil did not become Prime Minister but his successor could not have been better. I voted for John Smith because of his Christian Socialist approach to politics and was convinced that had he lived he would have become Prime Minister, that he would have been the person to give reality to that definition of socialism above.
On his sudden death, I wrote this for the Catholic Pictorial.
"In the same way that people remember where they were when they heard of the death of John F. Kennedy, so in years to come will people remember the moment when they heard of John Smith's death. I was in a high school in Burnley when a colleague said, ‘Brace yourself, John Smith's dead’. It didn't quite sink in then and even now as I write this some ten hours later, I still find it hard to believe.
"I'd voted for him as leader, met him many times and genuinely liked the man. I remember at the last Labour Party conference at the Sunday morning church service, we were not far from each other. We began to sing, 'Shine, Jesus, Shine' - one of today's great new hymns. Normally during the last line of each verse there is a hand-clapping routine, of which I chickened out and gently tapped the pew in front of me. Later, when we spoke, he said, ‘I was waiting for you to clap, then I could have joined in’, to which I replied, ‘I was waiting for you’.
"He had a great sense of humour which came out best in informal, small get-togethers. Above all he had a vision of what he wanted for the British people - based on his Christian Socialist beliefs. He was an elder in the Church of Scotland and his Christian faith was the bedrock on which his politics were founded.
"Last year the Christian Socialist Movement printed a book called 'Reclaiming the Ground' about Christianity and socialism. It contained several articles by leading Labour politicians like Tony Blair, Paul Boateng and Chris Smith, but the title is based on a speech given by John Smith at the annual Tawney lecture of the CSM in 1993. The speech probably best illustrates the kind of man he really was. On Christian principles and public policy he said:
‘Let me assert my profound conviction that politics ought to be a moral activity and we should never feel inhibited in stressing the moral basis of our approach... let us never be fearful of saying that we espouse a policy because it is quite simply the right thing to do. And let us not underestimate the desire, which I believe is growing in our society, for politics based on principle.’
"On moral foundation for Christian Socialists he said that one has to argue the cause on the basis of its moral foundation:
‘It is a sense of revulsion at injustice and poverty and denied opportunity, whether at home or abroad, which impels people to work for a better world, to become, as in our case, democratic socialists. The powerful contribution of Christian Socialists in all the denominations of the Church, has always focused on the moral purpose of political action.’
"And on Christian obligations:
‘The earth upon which God has placed us should be for us a special trust from one generation to another.’
"He was a man, not only of vision, but one who could inspire hope for the future. I liked him, not only because he was genuine, honest and decent, but because he based his convictions on his faith. His final paragraph in that Tawney lecture said this:
‘The second commandment calls upon us to love our neighbours as ourselves. It does not expect a frail humanity to be capable of loving our neighbours more than ourselves; that would be a task of saintly dimension. But I do not believe we can truly follow that great commandment unless we have a concept for our fellow citizens which is reflected in the organisation of our society. In this vital way we can ally our Christian faith to our democratic socialist conviction. In the pursuit of both we can aspire to lead our country to find real wealth which only a good society can provide.’
"John Smith had so much to offer, not only to the Labour Party, not only to the British people, but to the European Community and the world at large. As the next Prime Minister he would have been a statesman of whom we all would have been proud. At a time when politicians are despised and distrusted, it's a disaster to lose one who was respected and admired by all.
"I shall miss him and so will you."
So what is a Christian Socialist? Look no further than John Smith's words, words that tell of social justice, of freedom, of opportunity, of equality, of democracy and of love. Words not simply in a national context but applicable to all who suffer. It isn't just our society in the UK that is our only concern; we can't turn our eyes away from the problems of the wider world.
Our problems are as nothing when compared to some of those of the Third World. Nor can we ignore the long-term damage being done to the planet in our pursuit for short term profits and consumer niceties.
The words of John Smith, and his whole political outlook, emanated from his love of God and his love of his neighbour; he had the ability to act out those two great commandments.
Many of my colleagues are hard-working, striving for the same goals as I, honest and trustworthy. Not all are practising Christians. Many are atheists. What stimulates them? I don't know except for a belief in right over wrong but, as stated in a previous chapter, I believe that the Holy Spirit works through non-Christians, to help bring about a better world. I can't speak for them, only for me. I don't suppose I am much different from them, probably I'm inferior in many ways. But I do know what stimulates me, what gives me the energy to get involved and what encourages me. It is a love of God and for God relayed through Christ's teachings. That means trying to live my life as Paul said it should be lived in Chapter 8 by not being proud, by being compassionate, by trying to help others - whoever they are - by being patient, tolerant and forgiving. To do that all of the time is impossible but it is what the Christian should be striving for.
Link that to the definition of democratic socialism above, and the words of John Smith, and you have in any Christian Socialist, someone with a commitment to build a Heaven on Earth for all God's people.
I don't always say the right things or vote the correct way. I once saw a Wayside Pulpit notice that said, "Nothing is politically correct that is morally wrong"; I try to abide by that but I know I often fall short of it.
All I can be is honest with God, to submit my life for His purpose, warts and all, to do my best to follow those two instructions that Jesus gave, unable to do one without the other and to be one of His army taking on whatever there is. It's my privilege and I never cease thanking Him for it.
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