Sunday, 21 March 2010

Keeping the Faith in Tony

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation is given a boost this week in the unlikely pages of New Humanist magazine, where long-time Blair acolyte Ruth Turner (you may remember the dawn raid on her home by the Metropolitan Police searching for evidence in the cash-for-peerages affair) lays out the rationale for the organisation. As with Blair's own remarks on the subject, it comes down to the claim that religion has the unique ability to inspire people to socially-useful activities.

According to Turner, by the middle of the century 80% of the world's population will be "people of faith"; this proves, she argues (or, rather, simply assumes) that this demonstrates that religion is "at the very core of life for billions of people, the motive for their behaviour, the thing that gives sense and purpose to their lives." Of course, it proves no such thing. The fact that the majority of the world's population is counted for statistical purposes as belonging to one or another of the "great religions" says nothing about their personal conviction or about the extent to which their religious belief move them to action, socially beneficial or otherwise. It is a great disservice to the complexity of human beings to reduce their behaviour to simple obedience to religious teachings or supernatural beliefs. Yet that is what Blair, and Turner, repeatedly do.

"Religious leaders are given a high level of trust," comments Turner approvingly. Well, you don't need to be Irish (or an Iranian exile) to realise where that can lead.

But here's what struck me about Turner's article. She says a great deal (albeit vague and feel-goody) about "faith", but little or nothing about Tony Blair. Yet the Tony Blair Faith Foundation is at least as much about Tony Blair as it is about Faith. More, probably. There is, after all, no shortage of faith-based initiatives, faith-based charities or faith-based talking-shops in the world today. And, to judge by Turner's hackneyed claim that faith motivates people to act in socially positive ways, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation has so far to discover any original angle on the role of religion in society. What, then, is unique or different about the Tony Blair Faith Foundation? Surely, it is the patronage and insight, the unique networking ability and global prominence of the former Prime Minister. Without Blair, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation would be unknown, unfunded and irrelevant. With Blair, it is known about and discussed throughout the world.

Ruth Turner may like to believe that the good things the TBFF wants to achieve (such as an increase in the supply of mosquito-nets in Africa) are the outcome of the role of faith in giving "sense and direction" to the lives of billions who otherwise would find it impossible to get up in the mornings. But religious faith has nothing to do with it: the money, the support structures and the inspiration are all coming from Tony Blair. It is not faith in God, but faith in Tony Blair that powers the thing - to be specific, the faith Tony Blair has in his own transcendant mission to the world, and the undoubted capacity he has to raise money, principally it must be said for himself, but also for the work of his eponymous Foundation.

This is the fundamental misconception that lies at the centre of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Imagine that it was a purely secular organisation with the same broad goals of increasing international understanding and bringing mosquito-nets to the world's poor. Imagine it was like the foundations set up by Bill Clinton, or Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. How different would it actually be? Well, there wouldn't be the pious platitudes about bringing about international harmony through inter-religious dialogue. But that's largely a distraction, at most indulging Blair in his quest for continuing relevance now that his domestic political reputation is in tatters.

For the religious leaders, many possessors of fine beards, who are happy to attend his expenses-paid seminars, BlairFaith merely provides an opportunity to meet their peers and boast to each other about the size of their followings. It may suit Blair's ego to imagine that world peace will result from such encounters, but centuries of conflict have deeper causes than "faith". Religion, ultimately, is not the solution to the Middle East or any of the world's trouble-spots. It isn't even the main problem.

Someone else apparently putting their faith in Tony Blair, if not in his Faith Foundation, is Gordon Brown. We learn today that the Blairster will be the Labour Party's secret weapon during the election campaign. In what is described as a "high risk strategy", Blair will make "a series of carefully timed interventions in the run up to polling day." He's said to be "absolutely up for it." Of course he is - especially given the narrowing in the polls. The last thing he'd want is for a surprise Labour victory to be seen as a personal triumph by Gordon Brown.