Hywel Williams

Sons of the Manse

Sons of the Manse
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Governments recycle policies, pledges and promises. Gordon Brown has decided to recycle his rhetoric as well-with some fine-sounding phrases about what he owed his father, a minister of the Church of Scotland. Tony Blair in his time talked about the 'giving age' to the Labour conference. The Brown version recalled a lesson learnt at his father's knee-that it was more blessed to give than to receive: the object of the giving being-in this case-'society'.

It's now some months since the prime minister started to share his thoughts with us about his own special status as one of the 'sons of the manse'-a grouping typified supposedly by industrious virtue and devotion to the common good, whose classlessness results from rubbing shoulders with all kinds of people in church, and whose respect for learning results in relentlessly impressive self-improvement.

As one of these characters myself I suppose I should be flattered by such rave reviews. But a politician who rejoices in his own secure moral purpose should always be regarded with suspicion. And this 'son of the manse' stuff is more complicated than Brown's sermon suggests.

The category is mostly Scottish and Welsh in its application-referring to domestic clerical lives in those countries. In Anglican England the churches served by those clergy—mostly Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Baptist—would be called 'dissenting' or 'non-conformist'. The career of David Frost-the son of an English Methodist minister-shows the self-publicising flair and love of the limelight which recur among these clerical children. A link with the stage is after all a natural extension of church life with its ritual and public performances. The mannered performances of Laurence Olivier—born a hundred years ago and the son of an Anglican priest—is the best 20th century example of that connection between the pulpit and the stage.

The peculiar pride of the Scottish and Welsh varieties however comes from the fact that they are not 'dissenting' at all but part of the establishment fabric in their own national context. There the churches which look to Wittenberg and Geneva, to Luther and Calvin, for their inspiration have always been quick to dismiss Anglicanism as intellectually lightweight: a very English religion. It's the manse training-by contrast-which is supposed to inject a bit of mental rigour. And since the link between religion and politics remained stronger for a longer period in Scotland and Wales than it did in England, the public consequences of that ambition were very striking.

These manse sons come in all shapes and sizes-there are roués and lushes as well as dull Gordons. A very large number go into some part of the entertainment industry—of which politics has long since been a part—and many are seriously keen on the idea of success. The sense of being somehow special and set apart never leaves most children of the manse-and seeing your father as both a private person and public figure is a good preparation for public life with its need to play a role. Perhaps John Buchan was the great 20th century example of manse-driven motivation in the 20th century. While C G Lang in the 1930's and A.C. Tait in the late 19th century were two sons of the Scottish manse who changed churches and became archbishops of Canterbury.

Success in any field demands drive-and the protestant work ethic—derived from an idea of 'calling' and the need to justify the time one spends on this earth—is no myth. But there's a striking ruthlessness about the way many sons of the manse exploit their background—especially perhaps when they stop believing in God. Perhaps it's the guilty element in their agnosticism which explains why they turn so easily to sentimental stories about the days of their youth. But it's also a tactic which ministers to their advantage as well. This is their form of 'privilege'—something which gives them a special insight and a right to be heard as they build their careers.

The successes enjoyed by Gordon Brown's recent exercises in this vein came as no surprise to those familiar with Scottish and Welsh examples of the genre. And the British middle classes in general have quite a taste for moral stories which make them feel good about themselves. Now they're in the mood to compliment themselves on having a prime minister whose moral compass would never allow him to steer towards holidaying with Silvio Berlusconi. What they think once house prices start falling may be quite another matter.