Mark Vickers, Catholic priest and author of God in Number 10: The personal faith of the prime ministers, from Balfour to Blair talks to Reform
God in Number 10 covers the diversity of the religious faith of the 19 prime ministers of the 20th century. Could you give us a flavour of the variety that you found?
I think a lot of people have the preconception that England a century ago was predominantly an Anglican country. One of the surprises was that there were very few conventional Church of England prime ministers in the first 50 years. There was only really one, and that was Stanley Baldwin. There were more from a Presbyterian background. Balfour counted himself as both Anglican and Church of Scotland. Campbell-Bannerman was a Presbyterian. Bonar Law had a Presbyterian background, Ramsey MacDonald had a Presbyterian background. Asquith was raised a Congregationalist and then later in the century Harold Wilson also had a Congregationalist background. Lloyd George was raised Baptist. You’ve got a Unitarian there in the person of Neville Chamberlain.
From the mid 20th century, the Anglicans are better represented. Churchill, Attlee, Eden all came from Anglican backgrounds, although I’m not sure that religion featured much in their adult lives. Harold Macmillan was the strongest churchman of the century. Douglas-Home and Heath were more or less conventional Anglicans. Margaret Thatcher was raised in a strongly Methodist home; her father was a lay preacher. She tended to practice more as an Anglican after her marriage to Dennis. John Major was baptised Anglican, although his own description is ‘a believer at a distance’. And then, finally, Tony Blair was an Anglican who converted to Catholicism. So there is a mixture heavily weighted towards nonconformity at the beginning, more to mainstream Anglicanism towards the end.
Do we see the gravity of the established Church here in that, starting out from all these different backgrounds, most if not all of them ended up with at least one foot in the Church of England?
There are some who moved that way. Asquith’s family was firmly Congregationalist; particularly after his marriage to his second wife, he practised, if at all, as an Anglican. He had admiration for what he saw as the dignity of the vocabulary, the Prayer Book and the music. But Lloyd George was completely the opposite. He said he never forgave Asquith, his predecessor, for – he felt – betraying the Free Churches and becoming Anglican. Lloyd George said he could conceive himself as being an atheist, but an Anglican never.
Asquith, though brought up Congregational and collecting money for the John Williams ship, didn’t have a lot of fondness for the memory.
There’s a sadness there. It’s obvious the commitment to education and social reform in the grain of this middle-class Nonconformist constituency. And yet both Lloyd George as a Welsh Baptist, and Asquith as a Yorkshire Congregationalist, reacted badly against Victorian puritanism – having to be in chapel three times on a Sunday, the restrictions, a feeling that the intellectual questions weren’t being answered. Lloyd George says this specifically. Asquith had been a more or less conventional chapel-goer, then gets to Baliol College and suddenly discovers that there are lots of questions out there. Much earlier than we had imagined, in the 1860s and 1870s, there was real scepticism in the educated classes from which prime ministers were generally drawn. So at Oxford he finds this really quite sceptical undergraduate body and thinks, at least in its orthodox expression, there isn’t an intellectual basis for Christianity…
This is an extract from an article published in the December 2022 / January 2023 edition of Reform