Tony Blair this week revealed how as Prime Minister he wanted to sign off a speech with ‘God bless Britain’, only back down in the face of disapproving civil servants and aides. Indeed one can imagine Alastair’s Campbell’s reaction when he read the draft speech. It’s ironic that the government which ‘doesn’t do God’ was led by the most religious Premier in a generation.
That aside, it’s worth exploring why the words ‘God bless Britain’ taste so bitter. We number among the most irreligious societies on earth; perhaps the idea that our good fortune as a nation depends on a transcendental deity seems faintly preposterous. America, from which Blair took so much of his inspiration, is a different matter; there a public confession of faith is a pre-requisite, not a barrier, to high office. But this side of the Atlantic, politicians selling God is tacky, even slightly vulgar. It’s just that proselytising politicians are a bit spooky. There’s something about summoning heavenly powers and conferring blessings that smacks as odd.
Not that we’re country of militant atheists – most of us are ambivalent towards religion’s theological claims but still identify with the cultural tenets of a faith. David Cameron’s speech at Christ Church last year tapped into this. Biblical values he told us – presumably excluding the genocidal, homicidal and infanticidal ones – should fill the moral vacuum left by the summer’s riots. We remain a ‘Christian country’. The sad fact for British humanists is that he’s probably right.
Of course God is part of our national vocabulary. We’re happy for him to save the Queen, for instance. Perhaps that’s why American Presidents – the head of state – get away with it. Prime Ministers don’t possess the gravitas to make reverential allusions to the transcendental. Heads of State do. The historical significance of a divinely ordained monarchy still pervades our national consciousness. Similarly, the President embodies a nation born of divine providence. All myths, naturally – but for us to believe something as silly as God blessing Britain, they are myths we’re obliged to believe.