Thursday 26 July 2012

Meeting David Cameron and the Duty of the Politician

Chief Officer Derek McAuley talks to Prime Minister David Cameron in Downing Street garden.

Politicians in Britain have rarely been so low in public esteem. A series of scandals have eroded public confidence in Parliament and to many politics seems irrelevant, particularly at this time of austerity. I have had a lot of contact with a number of politicians, as well as civil servants, over the last year during the campaigning for equal marriage. On Tuesday of this week I attended a Reception at No. 10 Downing Street at which David Cameron spoke and I later had the opportunity to briefly talk to him. I also spoke to Equality Minister, Lynne Featherstone and backbench MP, Mark Menzies. A few weeks ago I attended a round table conference convened by Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper and I have an invitation to an event in September from the Deputy Prime Minister. 

It was prompted to think about the "duty of the politician" when I read a recent article on a Unitarian politician, John Sutton Nettlefold. Whilst we must be careful not to dream of a "golden age", we can rightly look back to previous generations to draw some lessons.

Unitarians in Britain have been active in political life far beyond their numbers. John Sutton Nettlefold, a prominent Birmingham Unitarian politician, sheds some light on a Unitarian perspective on the "duty of the politician". Writing in the "Journal of Liberal History" (Issue75, Summer 2012 p 30-37), Michael James, a Lecturer in the School of Management, University of Wales Institute Cardiff,  describes Nettlefold as one of "the leading figures in the town planning movement". A City Councillor in Birmingham from 1898 to 1911 he was chairman of the Council's Housing Committee. He was also chairman of the Association of Municipal Corporations and member of the Garden City Association but he was never a Member of Parliament during his political career. 

Nettlefold was a prominent Birmingham businessman. He was related by marriage and religion to the well known Chamberlain family. According to James, he had strong beliefs in the Victorian values of thrift and self-help. Yet this perspective was moderated by his Unitarian upbringing. James writes:

"Unitarianism is a form of Christianity that schews doctrines, in
particular that of the Trinity, emphasising instead the practical
application of the teachings of Christ in the gospels, both in personal
conduct and public affairs. In attributing Unitarianism as one of the
formative influences on Nettlefold's political ideas, it is important to
emphasise that it is not only a religion but also an ethic. It was in this
latter respect that it shaped his outlook and ideas. Unitarians were, and
are, heavily influenced by the Enlightenment ideas of reason and progress;
the duty of the politician is to improve the condition of those less
fortunate than himself. Nettlefold. together with Joseph and Neville
Chambelain, subscribed to this political creed, with its distinctive trait
of combining belief in self-reliance and self-improvement and
adherence to the civic philosophy known at the time and since as "the civic
gospel", the belief that local government should assume responsibility for
improving the conditions of life of its citizens."

Nettlefold's energies were concentrated on housing and town plannng. He saw town planning as the way for achieving better housing for the working class and dealing with the slums of the Industrial Revolution. This needed statutory powers. James argues that he is the least remembered of the leaders of the early town planning movement. He was a man of action and his efforts ultimately led to important legislation in 1909 and 1919 shaping statutory town planning as "one of the pillars of British twentieth-century social policy - which for better or for worse, would change the face of many of Britain's towns and cities".

The phrase "the duty of the politician is to improve the condition of those less fortunate than himself" seems rather old fashioned these days but at its heart is a truth. And Unitarianism has moved away from many of the ideas of the early twentieth century both in belief and values. But surely it is still important that politicians must look beyond their personal or party interests and test their policy against the impact on the poorer sections of society. 

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