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God in Number 10: The personal faith of the Prime Ministers, from Balfour to Blair by Mark Vickers

by
13 January 2023

Nick Spencer reviews an account of faith in 10 Downing Street

GIVEN the power that they wield over us, we are naturally curious about our Prime Ministers. In particular, we want to know what really makes them tick. Deep down, when the cameras are off and there are no votes to be won, who are they? By common consent, there is no deeper down than a PM’s religious faith, or lack thereof. This is, presumably, why we are so fascinated by whether our leaders “do God”. If you can’t discover the truth about someone in their metaphorical confessional box, you never will.

A tiny handful of 20th-century Prime Ministers have entire books dedicated to their religious faith — some justifiably (Thatcher, Blair), others not (Churchill) — but there has not been a group spiritual biography until now. Mark Vickers, a priest of the diocese of Westminster, has gained access to archives, scoured prime-ministerial publications, read autobiographies, and studied biographies to produce a long, rich, detailed, and engaging survey of our leaders’ souls.

Vickers has a good grasp of the Established Church, but is just as comfortable writing about Roman Catholicism, Nonconformity, and Unitarianism (of which there is quite a bit before 1940). He covers prime-ministerial beliefs, churchgoing, and habits of prayer, episcopal appointments, and church-state, ecumenical, and, latterly, interfaith relations. If there is one lacuna, it is how far and in what way the PMs’ religion shaped their politics. The book’s focus is admittedly on the personal faith of PMs, but the million-dollar question is surely how (or whether) this personal faith ever shaped policy.

It is inevitably tendentious to draw conclusions from a sample of only 19 individuals, but you cannot help notice how they became more religious as the century moved on. Before 1950, leaders needed to appear Christian, even if they weren’t. In reality, perhaps only Stanley Baldwin was, the others holding to a mix of theism, Providentialism, and spiritualism, bound together by a sincere commitment to Christian ethics. After that date, however, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas Home, Margaret Thatcher, and Tony Blair were all genuinely devout, and Harold Wilson and Edward Heath loosely so — as were Gordon Brown and Theresa May, whom Vickers mentions in his conclusion.

This could simply be coincidence, but Vickers might be right when he remarks on how many earlier PMs were, in their youth, bored beyond endurance by long church services and joyless sabbaths. “The relaxation of Victorian mores may be partly why later Prime Ministers were more likely to be practising Christians,” he muses. It is an interesting theory and would prove, if true, deliciously ironic. Welcome to secular Britain, ruled by religious Prime Ministers.


Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos and host of the
Reading our Times podcast.

 

God in Number 10: The personal faith of the Prime Ministers, from Balfour to Blair
Mark Vickers
SPCK £25
(978-0-281-08728-0)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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