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Politics needs a realistic view of human nature

06 April 2023

Frank Field reflects on how his theological beliefs shaped the policy programmes that he sought to implement

I HAVE always thought that the Prayer Book’s command that we should live this day as though it were our last was an impossible one to fulfil. Indeed, I wonder to what extent my own experience is similar to that of most other people who are similarly placed by being treated in a hospice. I was admitted to a hospice in October 2021, and was released after a week or so, once the staff had sorted my drugs

Ever since leaving the hospice, I have felt in better health than when I went in, and, if truth be told, it is difficult to think that the Prayer Book saying about this day is relevant to me.

I have, therefore, spent most of the time since I left the hospice not thinking about last things. I have not contemplated whether I am about to die, and, if so, whether I reflect most on Good Friday — a demonstration of the Fall — or on Easter Day — a celebration of redemption.

The irony is that such contemplation — which is the more relevant, the message of Good Friday or Easter? — seems to be less important to me now than during my active political life.

AS A member of the Labour Party, trying to help to shape the current debate, I have been too conscious that one of Labour’s great weaknesses has been its view of human nature; and it is here that the choice of holy days is relevant. For most of my political life, Labour behaved as though we were redeemed, whereas I argued that we were fallen creatures, and that redemption had yet to take place.

This was most clearly seen in welfare. I believed that, because we were fallen creatures, there was much more fraud in the system than Labour ever allowed for.

It was, ironically, when death was believed to be a far-off event that I considered not only a comparison with Good Friday and Easter, but with Easter and Christmas. The Fall and our redemption have played a most fundamental part in my political thinking, and the contribution that I have tried to play in public debate.

It put me at odds with the Labour Party. The latter, I saw, took an idealistic view of human nature. I argued that such a position was a dangerous illusion.

So, for much of my life, I have emphasised the Fall, arguing that it is no use building idealistic programmes that are not based firmly on human nature. Moreover, politics cannot be based on an expectation that people will behave with altruism.

At the very best, we can hope for a reign of self-interested altruism. In other words, in respect to welfare, we may be encouraged to offer benefits, and to pay for those benefits, which we ourselves do not immediately draw. But part of the agreement must be that, when we need to draw those benefits, the contributions that we have currently paid will exercise that choice.

We see this most clearly in the National Insurance scheme, and that is why I always thought, as a Christian, that we needed to have insurance-based welfare rather than a means-tested welfare state. Insurance-based welfare sets a universal provision, whereby individuals, when they are entitled, may claim benefit. This is in stark contrast to means-tested welfare, whereby individuals are called on to pay for benefits which they may never need to rely on.

IT IS also important to consider this in personal terms. Of the great days of Good Friday and Easter Day, the one that holds most power and promise for me is Easter Day: i.e., the Lord is risen and shows that he has vanquished sin and death. Please God may that be true, even if I do not immediately dwell on its truth.

Which of these two holy days is more important to me when I remind myself that I am dying? Again, Easter Day is clearly the one holding more promise. If the great story is true, those of us who have died in faith may rise eternally.

Before that occurs, I have to go through the process of dying. I hope that it will not be a period of prolonged pain, surprise, and a wretched death. So far, I have been very fortunate in that I am in no great pain, even though I am in an advanced stage of tertiary cancer. Long may that last on my way to Jerusalem.

Lord Field of Birkenhead is a cross-bench peer, who was the Labour MP for Birkenhead from 1979 to 2019. His book
Politics, Poverty and Belief: A political memoir (Books, 24 February), is published by Bloomsbury.

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