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'Fascinating': the Bishop of Southwark reviews 'God In Number 10'

St Paul's Cathedral, 1985: Margaret Thatcher with then archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie | Alamy

Bishop of Southwark

Bishop of Southwark

4 min read

A well researched and unique study, Mark Vickers sheds fresh light on the influence of faith on our prime ministers

A  window into the souls of the prime ministers of the 20th century, we are in Father Mark Vickers’ debt for this well-researched and unique study. Each receives in turn a brief review of their political career before he turns in more detail to the religious background, beliefs and practices of each PM. Even those of us who are familiar with the political biographies of the past century will find a great deal we did not know, some of which may cause us to smile or shake our heads.

Vickers attributes his interest in writing this book to a summer’s reading of Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower and the realisation Arthur Balfour had a philosophic interest in the interface between science and theology. Modern British history, outside specialist studies, ignores the role of the Church and religion generally.

Having waded through library stacks and private papers, Vickers brings to the fore something of each subject that sheds a fresh light on them and their actions. Balfour’s formidable intelligence, his studied languor (recently copied, but not bettered), and his long public career are of a piece with his cool insistence on the rationality of belief. David Lloyd George found English religion (and the preaching that accompanied it) to be a poor substitute for that which he found in Wales, although he had little personal use for either.

Margaret Thatcher’s faith is handled in detail

The depth of the faith of Stanley Baldwin may surprise some. That of Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home rather fewer. Of Harold Wilson’s congregational upbringing we are left with the impression that it fused with the Scout Movement’s sense of duty to one’s fellow human beings. Of James Callaghan, we hear of the early and intense Baptist faith and the fellowship which sustained him and his widowed mother through poverty but is said to have fallen away in the face of a socialist education. But it is surely suggestive that Callaghan chose a quotation from Ecclesiastes 9:11 for his autobiography, Time and Chance.

Margaret Thatcher’s faith is handled in detail with acknowledgment of her willingness to speak publicly of her Methodist roots and values. Tony Blair’s confident, ecumenical Christian faith, is surveyed through to his embrace of Catholicism. Tellingly, when in office, his director of communications, Alistair Campbell memorably said, “We don’t do God,” by which he meant to keep God out of politics and faith an entirely private matter, akin to philately.

It is hard to fault Vickers’ study and one should not try. He discerns a lack of contemporary apologetics available to most PMs (although he notes that Thatcher valued CS Lewis’s work highly), and it remains an area of weakness. But Vickers is largely silent on the role of political theology, a little of which Blair imbibed. History has since been made – in the weeks since I received this book to review – with the appointment of Rishi Sunak as our first Hindu Prime Minister.

At the level of public business, the shaping of a personality by faith is a relevant question to which at least two responses are found here. Gordon Brown – who laid aside the right of prime ministers, should they wish, to have a determining say in the choice of diocesan bishops – offers one, “A religious conviction cannot be equated with a private preference… It is something that shapes your life, public as well as private.” The other approach is exemplified by Edward Heath for whom Vickers recounts, “speaking at the Westminster Cathedral centenary… he argued that there were relatively few matters in politics that required the application of the values of faith”.

Vickers gives us a fascinating study of the lives of our PMs and how they grappled with the enormity of what their life brought them. I commend this as a perfect Christmas gift.

Bishop of Southwark is a non-affiliated peer

God In Number 10: The Personal Faith of the Prime Ministers, from Balfour to Blair
By: Mark Vickers
Publisher: SPCK Publishing

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