Just More of the Same?

Geoffrey Kirk

THE NATION AWOKE on May 2 1997 with the political equivalent of a hang-over. Though no-one but the political activists could tell you exactly what had happened and why, there was a sense that great things had been done and new things were about to be achieved. The nocturnal catharsis (as great names conceded defeat and sleaze was swept from the Augean stables by a man in a white suit suitably assisted by a chorus of virgins) boldly demonstrated that democracy can provide quite as entertaining a spectacle as monarchy or absolutism – a show, in fact, which involves and invigorates its audience.

And thanks to the New Labour spin-doctors, the show went on. Tony Blair’s electric guitar made a not-so-solemn entrance into No.10 Downing Street, and Tony and Cherie walked hand in hand across Parliament Square to the State Opening in a Presidential gesture with echoes of Clinton and Carter, and even more resonantly of Thomas Jefferson, who, on the day of his inauguration left his lodgings, walked the two blocks to the unfinished Capitol, entered the Senate, took the oath from Chief Justice John Marshall, read his inaugural address in a barely audible voice, and returned to his boarding-house for dinner with the other guests at the common table. Like Gordon Brown, the senator from Virginia had no taste for the panoply of formal dress and formal dinners.

There is, if I am not mistaken, a whiff of revolution in the air. Though the Tories were more tired than wicked, it has proved unexpectedly exhilarating to the nation at large (and the Bishop of Oxford in particular) to portray them as a vicious ancien regime swept away in a paroxysm of moral fervour. And with the exception of John Major, who was honourable to the last, the party has obligingly lived up to the image. How on earth, we ask ourselves, as they clamber the greasy pole of leadership and make fools of themselves in the process, did we ever take any of them seriously in the first place?

All this is ultimately for the good, whether or not the new government can live up to its own expectations of itself. Democracy is a form of government revitalised by change. And our democracy thrives when the rhetoric of Titans re-echoes across the Commons. Another five years of Tory government would have left both administration and opposition hopelessly immured in their respective roles.

By a curious chance May 2 was a day I had set aside for one of my all-too-infrequent purges of the filing cabinet. Turning out the section marked ‘B’ – a catch-all collection which extends from baptism certificates to press clippings about Richard Kirker – I came upon an admonitory note from a bishop of my acquaintance on the writing paper of the House of Lords. How they enjoy it all, I said to myself as I binned it. And how long will it last?

The political life of our nation is, after all, a far cry from the political life of our own dear Church. The General Synod, with its circular debating chamber is ostentatiously non-adversarial, and its executive – the House of Bishops – is a self-perpetuating homoiarchy, about to take to itself still more power. For the most part they have the same acquaintances and the same opinions, went to the same colleges and gained preferment in the same way. This is a corral in which even the mavericks, like the Bishop of London, come from the same stable. They have developed, moreover, a doctrine of ‘collegiality’ upon which individual opinion is sacrificed like a holocaust to an alien god. They regain their own voices only in retirement, so that the well-earned repose of weary men is needlessly disturbed by garrulous indiscretions and by the urge to contradict former colleagues.

What, I wondered on May 2, when the Blairite cabinet has flexed its huge majority and dealt with problems more immediate and pressing, will it make of all this? Is the Church of England important enough to merit the sort of reform with which the House of Lords is threatened, or can a new government simply consign it as a personal fief to Frank Field?

Personally I hope that the days of notes from bishops on writing paper of the House of Lords are numbered, and that homoiarchy will be replaced by democracy. But I can see that even a soi-disant Anglican Prime Minister might see the C of E as a rotten borough scarcely worth the effort of reforming.

Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St. Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.