Is the Holy Ghost a vote-winner? Prime Ministers and God, from Balfour to Boris

Prime Minister Tony Blair meeting Pope John Paul II in Vatican City, 2003 - Osservatore Romano/AFP/Getty
Prime Minister Tony Blair meeting Pope John Paul II in Vatican City, 2003 - Osservatore Romano/AFP/Getty

Shortly after winning the 1945 general election, Clement Attlee’s wife held a séance at No 10. “They attempted table-lifting and spelling out messages by means of moving a glass”, and when one of the company entered a trance, the lady of the house was duly impressed. “I think that it was all too well done to be acting,” said Mrs Attlee. “It was really most uncanny.”

Mark Vickers, himself a Catholic priest, has given us a wonderful new reference book of the beliefs (and non-beliefs) of 20th-century PMs – a meaty volume that can also be consumed as a social history of British religion.

In the early part of the century, Ramsay MacDonald dabbled in palmistry and horoscopes. Anthony Eden’s mother used a medium to speak to his brother, Jack, who was killed in the trenches. And Arthur Balfour, who struggled to accept the Christian teaching on the afterlife, regarded talking to ghosts as a more rational alternative.

The spirits he met were “not politically neutral”, writes Vickers. They told him that “the return of a Conservative government under Balfour was essential to save the Crown from revolution.”

The mainstream churches had taken a knock from Darwin, doubt and the horrors of war, but Stanley Baldwin, a mystic of sorts, still believed himself to be “God’s instrument for the work of the healing of the nation.” The old, One Nation Conservatives were motivated by spirit; materialism was anathema.

As Britons became richer, swapping the privations of war for package holidays and indoor toilets, Alec Douglas-Hume took dinner with Billy Graham and Cliff Richard, and warned that prosperity was no substitute for “service and sacrifice”. Faith, he said, remained the “basic if subconscious influence in the life of the British people”, demonstrated by an abiding loyalty to Christian teaching. Or rather, argued Churchill, to Jewish philosophy. When Churchill met David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, the two men debated who was greater: Moses or Christ? Ben-Gurion said Jesus. Winston preferred Moses.

Labour leaders, on the other hand, sought to translate piety into social action. Attlee believed in the “ethics of Christianity,” he told an interviewer. “Can’t believe the mumbo jumbo.” (What he thought of his wife’s dabbling in clairvoyance, we do not know.)

For an atheist, Attlee was surprisingly enthusiastic about ecclesiastical affairs, being of the view that the Church of England needed a kick up the aisle. Many politicians despaired of the Church’s obsession with personal morality and feared it was out of touch. Yet much of the Left retained a streak of nonconformist puritanism. One of the very few things Harold Wilson is praised for today is the liberalisation of abortion and homosexuality, but Vickers speculates that he found both distasteful.
Perhaps he was sensitive to the views of his Huyton constituency, which contained many Catholics? By contrast, when Jim Callaghan was seeking adoption to represent Cardiff South, he had to reassure the locals that his name might be Irish but he had been raised a Baptist.

The book contains many such episodes of anti-Catholic prejudice. Eden seems to have loathed Rome, and Harold Macmillan’s flirtation with Anglo-Catholicism nearly put his mother in an early grave. Over time, sectarianism evaporated. Callaghan, who never personally harboured hostility to Catholics, came closer to the Church when his wife was cared for in a home run by nuns. Tony Blair converted to Rome under the influence of someone more indomitable even than the Holy Spirit: Cherie Booth. “This all began with my wife,” he explained.

When Blair was spotted alone at Westminster Cathedral in 1998, the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, expressed his concern: “Could he not occasionally be seen attending Anglican or Free Church services?” It’s remarkable that there should have been any controversy so late in Britain’s loss of faith. Liz Truss’s remark that she shares “the values of the Christian faith” but is not “a regular practising religious person” today speaks for the vast majority of her countrymen. When the twice-divorced Boris Johnson got married in Westminster Cathedral, not an eyelid was bat.

Margaret Thatcher blamed some of the loss in Christian zeal on the CofE being more political, she complained, than religious. She felt no hesitation telling a “socialist CND-promoting vicar” that his views were the cause of his “lack of a congregation”.

Vickers concludes that PMs overwhelmingly “derived their sense of identity from party politics” not from church-allegiance, and even though he ranks Blair as perhaps our most religious prime minister, it’s striking that when John Paul II personally advised him against the Iraq War, Tone ignored him.

Protestants long warned that a Catholic PM would take his orders from the Pope. On one occasion when this might have profited us to be true, it sadly was not.

God in Number 10 is published by SPCK at £25. To order your copy for £19.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books