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Lord Glasman: ‘Catholicism has entered the mainstream’

Maurice Glasman: 'The most important thing is to express my gratitude to the Church, to the Catholic tradition for the intellectual nourishment'

Lord Glasman’s Hackney office overlooks the synagogue where his grandparents married. It’s a mosque now but was “a huge, thriving shul [Jewish religious community]” up until about thirty years ago. Then the Jews left and “they all moved to the North Circular”. Glasman remained.

The academic turned Labour peer has something of the mafia don about him, but he’s disarmingly sincere from the off. “My objective in this is to initiate a conversation with Catholic Herald readers, and establish some real trust” he tells me while showing off his office – lined with books, overflowing ashtrays and with a neon electric guitar propped up against one wall.

Why should Catholics listen to a word Labour has to say? This is the party that abolished Catholic adoption agencies and which promoted our culture of extreme secularism. “That’s a completely legitimate concern. I understand the scepticism from Catholics, from all faithful people. There’s a lack of understanding and a lack of appreciation for family. The first thing is to acknowledge that Labour has been captured by a kind of aggressive public sector morality which is concerned with the individual and the collective but doesn’t understand relationships.” It’s a diagnosis that will resonate with many. Labour under Blair and Brown sometimes felt like a narrow, bureaucratic alliance between barristers and social workers. “Being respectable is more important than respect” jokes Glasman – referring to the Blairite ‘Respect Agenda’ which sought to solve community and family breakdown via ASBOs and court orders.

All well and good, but does Ed Miliband buy his agenda of relationships and respect? “All I would say is that we’ve come quite far, quite fast.  It’s a very complex internal battle. I’m very conscious I haven’t done everything right and I don’t want to demonise the other side. But these are huge forces in Western society – the market on one side, with the maximisation of profit, and the state on the other side, with collectivisation and bureaucracy. These are the dominant forces. And what’s astonishing in a way is that Catholic Social Teaching is the basis of the new politics, of the new consensus.”

It might seem unlikely that this left-wing, Jewish, north London intellectual should be such a champion of Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. But it forms the cornerstone of Glasman’s politics – and, he believes, will be at the foundation of any real attempt to move on from what he describes as “England’s two failed dreams” of 1945 welfarism and 1979 Thatcherism. 

He stumbled across CST by accident, while studying for a PhD in Florence, dismayed by Thatcherism and its “concentration on money and individuals”, and unconvinced by Neil Kinnock’s social democracy. His girlfriend was Italian – “it was inconceivable to me that this girl was a practising, confessing Catholic at Church every Sunday and also a full member of the Italian Communist Party”. She shared the Rerum Novarum with Glasman and an intellectual love-affair began.  “I read the Novarum, I read the commentaries, I read the Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical marking the centenary of Catholic Social Thought.”

A lost soul redeemed. “The most important thing is to express my gratitude to the Church, to the Catholic tradition for the intellectual nourishment that it’s given me and so many other people who are not Catholics. It’s a gift to the world. It’s at the heart of the great battle that’s going on – about whether we’re about justice through relationships and tradition or, for the other side, human rights and procedural things.” 

Glasman spent his early career as an academic, falling out with a British Left that rejected his concerns about big state social democracy. He was made a member of the House of Lords by Ed Miliband and has influenced the leader’s inner circle, even if his relationship with Miliband has cooled.  He’s close to Jon Cruddas – in charge of Labour’s policy review – and Arnie Graf, the American community organiser who is helping to restructure the party. It is these relationships, one suspects, that keep Glasman so upbeat about the prospects for his project. He sometimes gives the impression that Blue Labour’s eventual success, and by implication that of Catholic Social Teaching, is inevitable. The crash of 2008, he believes, rendered both Thatcherism and welfarism irrelevant – and CST is the only consistent way out of the mess.

“This is the first time, for Britain, really since the Reformation, that Catholic thought has really entered the mainstream.”

But what does it mean to those of us, myself included, who aren’t immersed in the Papal encyclicals? “It’s pro-business, pro-worker. With equal weight.  It’s about workers on boards. Being very serious about decentralisation – to city governments – because place really matters. It’s about access to capital, and we’ve made a very strong case for regional banks, because there’s a lack of enterprise and vitality in the regions. And it’s about tackling what I call ‘mentalism’”.

“Mentalism”, according to Glasman, is our education system’s unhealthy obsession with academic learning and rejection of vocation. He is ambivalent about the kind of social mobility that the political spectrum seems united in promoting “social mobility has been understood and measured as how far you can move away from your mother” and, in the past, he has run into hot water for expressing dismay over the extent of mass immigration. Glasman loves faith and tradition, but he also loves slaughtering sacred cows. 

I ask whether he would support the mooted tax allowance to reward married couples. He’s ambivalent about “the drip, drip of 39p a week” but comes up with an alternative plan. 

“I’d like to see us redistribute resources to people who care – for each other, for children – so that couples can have a night out on a little date. I would have a weekend away for five years of marriage. A week’s holiday for ten years of marriage. Maybe a cruise for twenty five years. Just a present, an acknowledgement that this is not easy – to stay together, to care for others, to be faithful and to forgive and rebuild.  The whole direction of society is to reward freedom and so some generosity for people who make it work and do their duty – that’s what I mean when I say ‘rewarding virtue’”.

He also sees the potential for Catholic Social Teaching to reset Britain’s foreign policy. He is passionate about the Middle East and has visited Kurdistan three times in the last year alone – most recently just two weeks ago.  What he saw there has clearly profoundly affected him.  “I went to Kirkuk. Close enough to see the black flags of ISIS.  We have to bear witness to the expulsions and the killings of Iraq’s Christians. It’s a terrible thing. It’s awful to say, but the Middle East’s Christians really are the new Jews. I visited the church in Kirkuk, it’s been there for 1700 years and it used to serve 20,000 people. There are only 400 now. The Priest told me ‘We will never kill. But we are ready to be killed because we are not going.’” 

Glasman wants to see the British Government give Iraqi Christians preference in the asylum system because – like his Jewish ancestors facing pogroms – “they have nowhere to go and no-one to protect them.”  He singles out Labour MP Tom Watson for praise.  The backbencher recently wrote an article calling on the Government to do more for Middle Eastern Christians – they are working together to apply pressure on the Labour leadership.

“We’re about building the common good. And that means bringing together people with shared interests. Kurdistan, Israel and Iran – the Christians, the Jews, the Shiites – are all minorities being threatened by this brutal strain of Sunni jihadism. It’s not naïve to say that if you turn your best face then there’s a chance that they will turn theirs.” Glasman is serious about the potential for an alliance of interests in the middle east that would break the rules of our foreign policy assumptions. 

And his strength of purpose comes directly from his passion for Catholic Social Teaching – whose lessons he believes stretch far beyond the political economy.

How far Glasman can take his party remains to be seen. He sometimes seems like a political Cassandra, his insight ignored. But the Church has adopted him as one of its own – he was awarded a papal medal when he addressed the Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation last year. His speech got a mixed reaction, with one American denouncing Glasman as a ‘Communist’. “I didn’t have to say anything” Glasman chuckles “because a German cardinal stood up and talked him down – he said ‘Nein. This interpretation is correct’.” The Cardinal’s name, in a delightful twist, was Marx – Reinhard Marx, the famously Left-of-centre German cardinal. 

Glasman loved going to the Vatican, and so did his wife. “I think after everything, that was probably the only thing I’ve done that Catherine was actually impressed with.” He’s an eternal and irrepressible optimist, despite his melancholy about what has been lost to England and to the party he loves. Even if Ed Miliband ends up rejecting his Catholic agenda for change you get the impression that Maurice Glasman will stay and fight.  He never left Hackney. He won’t be leaving Labour.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (15/8/14)


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