God In Number 10: The Personal Faith of the Prime Ministers, Balfour to Blair, by Mark Vickers (SPCK Publishing, 512 pp., $33.99)
The Christian faith of England’s prime ministers has never leant itself to easy generalization. If in the early nineteenth century Lord Melbourne, Victoria’s first prime minister, lamented how “things had come to a pretty pass when religion could be allowed to invade the sphere of private life,” toward the end of the century William Gladstone would reaffirm his belief in what he deemed the “impregnable rock of Holy Scripture” at a time when the Bible religion of the Protestant English was in fair tatters. Neither exactly devout nor altogether apostate, England’s prime ministers have always tended to mirror the faith—or lack thereof—of their compatriots.
In God In Number 10, Mark Vickers revisits the faith of the country’s twentieth-century prime ministers, from Balfour and Churchill to Macmillan and Brown, to show that while England might have become a secularized society in his period, it never became an irreligious one. The appeal of the faith so central to the country’s history and identity survived, even if it was often left unheeded.
A convert, who toyed with the idea of following a career in Westminster before practicing law in the City and, eventually, becoming a parish priest in West London, Vickers is well-suited to turning his theme to proper account, possessing as he does the exactitude of a good lawyer and the psychological acuity, indeed, caritas, of a good priest. He also has a good sense of humor, which redounds to the book’s readability. In his introduction, for instance, he confesses, “On being told the subject matter of my research—the personal faith of the twentieth-century prime ministers—one wag retorted that it would be a very small book.”
Well-researched, well-written and unflaggingly lively, Vickers’s book is a model of insightful biography. It is also witty, judicious, and tailor-made for that elusive customer, the general reader. The author, in 2013, of a superb life of Cardinal Francis Bourne (1861–1935), By the Thames Divided: Cardinal Bourne in Southwark and Westminster, Vickers has now written a book that will fascinate all readers interested in English history, church history, and political biography, not to mention the persistence of faith in a world sworn to conformist secularism. An intriguing example of this persistence can be seen in something the Tory prime minister Edward Heath said toward the end of his life, which Vickers quotes from the statesman’s diary:
The only principles I have ever had firmly implanted have been religious but these never had any intellectual backing. I never even realized what the grounds of belief are and how they compare with anything else. The result was that the religious beliefs I had were undermined at Oxford. I felt that they were silly, that I couldn’t defend them against other people. Only now am I beginning to realize their justification. I may be slowly coming through the valley of bewilderment.
Despite his unfamiliarity with Christian doctrine, Heath clung to the Anglican Church. Indeed, as a young man, his first job was as a news reporter for the Church Times, which, in 1948, was an Anglo-Catholic paper. After he became prime minister, he took his duties regarding the appointment of bishops seriously, though he conceded that the National Church was rather slack when it came to providing “real instruction in the tenets of its faith.” Now that those tenets are indistinguishable from the incoherent impulses of the zeitgeist, no such instruction would do Anglicanism any favors.
The only committed Church of England men in Vickers’s period, besides Heath, were Stanley Baldwin, Alec Douglas-Home, and the Anglo-Catholic Harold Macmillan, though the last nearly poped as the result of his fondness for Ronald Knox, the brilliant convert apologist whose witty books still send Anglicans across the Tiber. The majority of the prime ministers—including Arthur Balfour, H. H. Asquith, David Lloyd George, Bonar Law, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Anthony Eden, Harold Wilson, and James Callaghan—were not Christian. Callaghan, for example, despite being brought up Baptist, was, in effect, a practical atheist, though when his wife succumbed to Alzheimer’s, the prime minister was deeply appreciative of the Augustinian nuns who looked after her. Whether such affectionate respect changed his thinking about the God who inspired the nuns’ caregiving is anyone’s guess. For Vickers, not even a practical atheist is an uncomplicated atheist. As for Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, Vickers treats both as sui generis, the one subscribing to an Evangelicalism without charismatic fervor and the other subscribing to a Catholicism without any adherence to the Roman Church’s more controversial moral teachings.
Arthur Balfour presents a good case study of a prime minister who desperately wished to believe but somehow could never swing it. Vickers quotes Caroline Jebb, the American wife of the Cambridge don, who saw only “sadness” in the prime minister’s faith—arising, as she said, “from the fact that the spirit of the age prevents him, a naturally religious man, from being religious except on the humanitarian side.” Of course, this reduction of faith to a kind of philanthropic association now degrades the Protestant and Catholic churches alike, though it is striking how Jebb’s wife saw this trend so clearly in Balfour. “All the Balfour family take hold of the end of religion they can be sure of, the helping of people here,” she wrote. “Their mother, Lady Blanche, belonging to a different generation, was absorbed in dogmatic religion, and they inherit her unworldly nature, without the power of her unquestioning faith, so they miss her happiness.” Lady Blanche’s dogmatic faith was not “unquestioning”—she had very decided dogmatic views—but it is nevertheless true that Balfour’s undogmatic faith left him unhappy.
For all his misgivings when it came to the Christian faith, or, perhaps because of them, Balfour never lost his rather rarefied sense of fun. “I am more or less happy when being praised,” he once confessed, “not very uncomfortable when being abused, but I have moments of uneasiness when being explained.” That he spent much of his life trying to explain his faith to himself and others only added to its inexplicability.
If many of Vickers’s prime ministers hungered for some sustainable faith, most never found it or confused it with a kind of rationalist self-complacency. For instance, Vickers quotes Ramsay MacDonald writing of the fin de siècle poet John Davidson: “His religion is agnostic and yet he is evidently seeking out a faith . . . there is too much Celtic mysticism in him ever to allow him to settle down quietly in the cold calm of a scientific (narrowly speaking) creed.” Of course, as Vickers notes, this could apply to MacDonald himself, who was no wiser in his faith than in his conduct of policy. Yet MacDonald’s comments could also apply to the most Celtic of all Britain’s prime ministers, David Lloyd George, about whom Vickers dryly observes: “Lloyd George’s faith in himself was considerably stronger than his belief in God.”
Churchill, too, believed in himself, as Andrew Roberts shows in his brilliant biography of this man of destiny. He was also plagued with skepticism, though Vickers reveals what few may know: that the question that most consumed Churchill in his old age was whether there was any truth to the Christian faith. Indeed, he hounded his doctor on the matter. “You have been trained in logic,” he pleaded with Charles Wilson. “Tell me why you believe such things.” Wilson’s gloss on these importunate inquiries was apt: “I had a feeling that he, too, wanted desperately to believe . . . but from what he said he did not find it easy.”
As it happened, Churchill died, as many English Protestants die, believing in little more than Providence, which John Henry Newman regarded as the Englishman’s faith of last resort, when he had any faith at all. For the great convert, “what Scripture especially illustrates from its first page to its last, is God’s Providence; and that is nearly the only doctrine held with a real assent by the mass of religious Englishmen.”
Vickers offers insightful reflections on the man most responsible for robbing the English of their Bible religion, the historicist Ernest Renan (1823–92), whose profoundly influential Vie de Jésus (1863) reduced Christ to a teacher of morality and Christianity to a religion of moralism, a Socinian corruption of the faith that continues to confuse and repel would-be Christians today. When the historian Robert Tombs gets round to revising his otherwise wonderful book, That Sweet Enemy: Britain and France: The History of a Love-Hate Relationship (2007), he should follow Vickers’s lead and pay attention to Renan’s influence on the English: it was devastating to their faith.
Yet far from simply chronicling secularization’s progress, Vickers reaffirms faith’s indispensability—not just for statesmen but for everyone. After noting how Balfour, MacDonald, and Churchill beguiled their lack of Christian faith with belief in the paranormal, Vickers remarks: “The aphorism once attributed to G. K. Chesterton comes readily to mind: when we stop believing in God, we don’t believe in nothing: we believe in anything.” The degree to which wokery has been taken up as a religion in our own addled age—and not just by academics, doctors and bureaucrats keen on cashing in—proves Chesterton’s point.
Vickers’s most striking achievement in God In Number 10 is to humanize his prime ministers by showing their struggles to find faith in an office demanding faith at every turn. That most of them failed to do so only underscores the dignity of the effort. As Vickers remarks, “Even when they rejected faith, it is important to know why this happened and what they were rejecting or thought they were rejecting,” especially since biographers often pass over the religious life of prime ministers. Macmillan certainly shared the author’s appreciation of the vitality of his theme. “I don’t think a nation can live without religion,” the outspoken statesman insisted. “If you don’t pray every night, and if you don’t believe in God, and if you don’t think you can serve God eventually, you can’t solve all these problems and you can’t even survive them.” These are the trials of faith that test all public men and women. In God In Number 10, a brilliant biographer has recreated them with illuminating empathy.
Photo by William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images