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Benedict Rogers: Faith, music and poetry in politics: we need a narrative – a story to tell

BRBenedict Rogers is a human rights activist, a former Parliamentary Candidate, and is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

Life is not easy. Faith is even less easy. And the job of Prime Minister is even more challenging still.

So when David Cameron declares, as he did yesterday and has done on several previous occasions, in a refreshingly honest way, that he is a Christian, that the teachings of Jesus Christ are a good guide for life for us all, but that he finds some of Christ's teachings difficult to live by, all of us - especially people of faith, of whatever brand - ought to cheer him on. Whether or not we have always agreed with everything he has done, we should find this declaration exciting. In this day and age, it is rare in Britain for a politician or public figure to profess such beliefs, with such simple, honesty clarity. Tony Blair, famously, did not 'do God' - and yet actually, he did, but didn't want to admit it too often in office. Cameron may appear to 'do God' less often or overtly, or in a less orthodox way, but he is more ready to talk about it, honestly and with humility.

We are very good at tearing others down, particularly in the arenas of politics and religion. Indeed, we seem to be especially good at tearing down others within our own particular creed. People of a different wing of our political party, or a different denomination within our religion, are often met with more vitriol than those of entirely different beliefs. One only has to think of Brown v Blair, Sunni v Shia, Catholic v Protestant, Wet v Dry, Europhile v Eurosceptic, and there are umpteen other divisions and subdivisions to pit against each other.

So when a political leader does 'do God', it is refreshing, and we ought to encourage it. Not in the way American politicians 'do God', where God is politicised and claimed for one particular political agenda. That is a path down which I hope we will never go. Indeed, it is very healthy that there are Christians, Muslims and people of other religions, and none, in all our major political parties, because if there is a God, he is surely much bigger than all of our political parties combined.

When I stood as a parliamentary candidate in Durham in 2005, American friends told me I'd win the "Christian vote", and I said that there is no such thing - and I hope there never will be. I'd rather live in a society where Neil and Glenys Kinnock, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg can freely admit to being atheists, than where a candidate for high office has to conjure up a faith they didn't previously have. I always felt sorry for Howard Dean, caught off guard when he was asked what his favourite New Testament book is, and he answered: 'The Book of Job'. 

But in this era of austerity, and largely managerial politics where the difference between parties is less one of profound ideology and more of competence, tone, size of government and degree of so-called 'progressiveness', there is room for some faith, some music and some poetry in our politics. In other words, a narrative, a vision, a dream.

As I write this, I am watching Mitzuko Uchida perform Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.4 in G Major at the Proms. One of the world's greatest pianists, she has returned Lazarus-like to the Proms after almost twenty years away. Her performance was bursting with life, her facial expressions indicating a savouring of every single note as a moment of life-giving excitement. Beethoven was then followed by Berlioz's 'Symphonie Fantastique', conducted by the incredible Mariss Jansons. Earlier in the day, I had sat in a beautiful sunlit English garden, overlooking the Dorset countryside, reading the writings of Timothy Radcliffe. Any one of these experiences is surely enough to ask if there is a God? All three makes one question how anyone could doubt that there is a creation without a Creator.

In past eras, our politicians spoke at least in poetry and literature, and with romance and vision, and often of faith. It was possible to combine idealism with pragmatism, to be a dreamer as well as a deliverer, a person of belief as well as a person in touch with the electorate. As Jesse Norman's superb biography of Edmund Burke and William Hague's biographies of William Wilberforce and William Pitt show, politicians of previous eras could be romantics as well as realists. Churchill's use of the English language was proof alone of the possibility of politics as poetry, that the practise of politics could be an art as well as a science.

But it is important in politics, and especially for a political party, and indeed in matters of faith too, not to be limited to one strand alone. To take the musical analogy, politicians need several strings to their bow. Indeed, as Tim Montgomerie has so beautifully articulated, we need to be a full orchestra. Political parties - and of course I speak here on this site most directly of the Conservative Party - are at their strongest when they are full orchestras, and perform at their best when they are performing full symphonies.

So David Cameron's challenge, over the next two years before 2015, is to conduct the party in a way that brings in all our instruments - those of a more liberal and libertarian persuasion who backed him on, say, gay marriage, alongside those who may not have supported him on that issue but would back him, say, on supporting marriage and the family; those who might back a tough law and order stand, alongside those who want more of his compassionate conservatism, social justice, 'broken society' theme; those who emphasise trade, economic growth, tax cuts, welfare reform, alongside those who liked his early emphasis on international aid, poverty, the environment; those who wish to see stricter immigration controls, alongside those who have an internationalist outlook. It is possible to combine all these instruments under one conductor. As a side note, UKIP can stay on the fringe playing the bongos if they wish, but I prefer a full orchestra playing a full symphony.

A key part of that symphony is establishing a narrative. Not just a series of tunes, but a story to tell. As Timothy Radcliffe writes: "we are summoned to the fullness of life". That is what faith is all about, and it is what politics should encapsulate too. Faith, music and poetry all tell a story, and our politics is enriched when it has more of each.


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