Our new neighbours, lovely people, invited us to a Christmas cum house warming party in December and I discovered I was in a small minority in the room who weren’t practising Christians.
No, no, don’t close the page. I’m not going to have a Richard Dawkins style atheistic rant. You can believe what you want. I judge people by their actions not their belief systems. I just want to reflect on how things have changed during my life.
As I’ve mentioned before I was brought up in a Methodist family and went to church every Sunday until I was in my teens. In the sixties, in Hertfordshire, there were lots of people in church. They were all white, reflecting the town’s population. It was the respectable thing to do and I think a lot of ‘professional’ people thought they should be seen there. There were lots of hats too, middle class women wore hats to church then, with the notable exception of my mother.
In the seventies we moved to central London. Our local church in Pimlico could only muster a few old souls, so my parents took us to Notting Hill. This was thirty years before the Hugh Grant film, Notting Hill was edgy, not fashionable. In those days the carnival was not so much a tourist attraction as an opportunity for the Metropolitan Police to crack heads.
Notting Hill Methodist church was lively. There were still hats, but these were worn by the Afro-Caribbean women, the white women were modern, liberal, feminists and didn’t wear hats. There was big congregation, some gently radical sermons and lusty hymn singing. There was social action here too which I applauded.
But in the seventies most social action took place outside the church doors. We had strong trade unions with large active memberships. The so-called union barons may have wielded large block votes at Labour Party conferences, but they we they were under much greater pressure from their members than their equivalents today. In those days the trick was to have your dispute and win it before any of the full time officials could get involved. Activists today depend on the full timers in any action. Maybe that’s why there is so little going on.
If you wanted to see a change in society, if you were motivated by social justice, you gravitated to the unions and the proliferation of campaign groups. One term when I was at university there was a coach booked to take students down to London demonstrations every single weekend. CND, Nicaragua Solidarity, Anti Nazi League, Troops Out, the list goes on.
Karl Marx’s famous phrase about religion is that it provides “A heart in a heartless world, it is the sigh of the oppressed.” What I think I’m seeing now is that religion has become a place to organise for change, or at least the motivation for wanting change. This has happened before, the early unions were closely tied to the non-conformist churches. I think that’s why shop stewards in the print industry were called the Mother or Father of the Chapel.
The current decline of socialism as an ideology is usually linked to the fate of the Soviet Union, but I think it has far more to do, at least in Britain, with the fate of the miner’s strike thirty years ago. It was a decisive battle and the government rightly understood that most workers would conclude that “if the miners can’t win, then we won’t be able to”. The NUM was the best organised group of workers and the country depended on the coal they produced for power.
Socialism may not be so fashionable today but it won’t go away as an ideology. It puts the needs and rights of the many ahead of the greed of the few, to misquote Shelley. As long as we have an unfair society people will look for answers as to why that is and what can be done about. Where workers still have confidence – the RMT union for example, or the electricians working on the giant Crossrail project in London – they successfully defend their living standards.
As in many areas of life, whether it be the football pitch, or the stock market, confidence is crucial. The success of the Syriza party in the Greek election this week and their decisive actions on taking power – reinstating pensions and the minimum wage, halting privatisation plans – has given many socialists, me included, a great boost.
I think the rise of the church as a pole of attraction for activists is interesting. I think it is a symptom of the current weakness of the left. But we are still many and they are still few and when we get our confidence back I think socialism has a great future.
I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.