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Lost: one nation

02 November 2012

NOSTALGIA is not what it used to be, as they say. But the country church brought tears to my eyes - and it was not the uncomfortable pews; it was simply something lost.

The political parties are competing for the right to the "One Nation" label. Ed Miliband used the phrase 44 times in his conference speech last month. Wisely, in his riposte, David Cameron avoided 44 further mentions, producing instead perhaps the best joke of the confer-ence season, in which he dismissed Labour as a party not of one nation, but one notion - borrowing.

Labour has further to travel on this branding adventure, with its roots as lobbyist for the working class; whereas it was the Tory leader Benjamin Disraeli who coined the phrase in the 1840s. By the middle of the 19th century, the industrial revolution had created a wealthy middle class at the expense of an impoverished working class - a fact that could not be ignored after the Reform Act of 1867 gave the vote to working-class men.

It was clear that, if the Tories wished for power, social reform was necessary, but under the One Nation umbrella, with society developing not by revolution, but organically; and with a benevolent hierarchy built around the paternal obligation of the upper classes to help the classes below.

The village church, however, was always a more powerful expression of one-nation England than any political programme; and we said goodbye to it in the 19th century. The industrial revolution ripped up the social fabric, and moved everyone to cities. Not only did it group people in polarised ghettoes: it cut them off from the church where they had worshipped.

The village church is now perceived as a lifestyle choice for the religious, or those wanting a pretty setting for their wedding. But for six centuries of its existence it was embedded in the fabric of local life. It was where people came on a Sunday, Christmas, etc., whatever their status; and where they were buried when they died. It was the embodiment of the one-nation ideal: people of different means glued together by something bigger than themselves; one nation under one God.

But, if we have lost one nation, we have also lost one God. A client of mine was recently in tears. She suspects that, for her own well-being, she must leave her church for one that is less dogmatic. But she is fearful: "I just can't believe God will be with me if I move." It seems that leaders now use God to promote and maintain brand loyalty in the competitive religious market.

The village church was not a vision or an initiative, but an accident. It was a happy one, however, incarnating one people, one nation, one God. Beyond that, there is only Babel.

Simon Parke is the author of Pippa's Progress (DLT, 2012).


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