THERE WAS a spirit of optimism in the Labour Life meeting at Brighton last week — at last a Labour woman MP has come out boldly for the cause.
Yvonne Jones, who won her seat in May, made a brilliant speech, although she had to leave early to meet the Home Secretary. I asked her to remind him that he is one of eight Christian Socialists in the Cabinet, including the Prime Minister. There was a good deal of discussion about Mr Blair's attitude among all of us, his loyal supporters. He has indicated that he does not find abortion personally acceptable but does not like to interfere too much in the private life of others. We in Labour Life remain hopeful that a regular Mass-goer with such a fine Catholic wife will improve as time goes on.
The hypercritical might have regretted the absence at the meeting of all reference to adoption, that immensely difficult subject. But they would not have found much else to complain of in an inspiring occasion. There is probably no greater expert on the whole subject, unless it be Lord Alton, than Peter Garrett of the charity Life. He staggered me by the amount he has already achieved and by his plans for further achievement. The Labour Life group is officially "non-confessional", in other words secular. But in my experience the leading spirits have always been Catholic, though none can compare with Lord Alton, now an independent peer, for his leadership in the struggle against abortion. I can only speak of myself, in words once singled out by Lloyd George, as the greatest of all openings to a speech: "Some will say that I have run my course. Some will say that I have not fought the fight. But no one can say that I have not kept the faith." I can at least recall that when the 1967 Bill was passing through the Lords I took the unprecedented step for a leader and spoke from the back benches against it. But I lower my eyes in the presence of those who have kept the flag flying through thick and thin over the years.
IMMEDIATELY AFTER Tony Blair's speech I was asked my opinion of it by another journalist. I replied: "The best speech that I've heard at this Conference by a Prime Minister." "Or," I might have added, "by a leader of the Opposition."
I spoke from some experience. I have attended Labour Conferences since 1935. On that occasion, George Lansbury, the pacifist leader of the party, lifted the audience to their feet with the cry: "As Jesus Christ said in the garden, 'Those who take the sword will perish by the sword. There I have taken my stand and if necessary I'll die'." To which Ernie Bevin replied: "I'm not going to have George Lansbury hawking his conscience all round Europe."
I saw the speech as a patriotic appeal which recalled memories of Churchill in 1940. The press described it as a speech which could have been made by the leader of either of the main political parties. Be that as it may it took an exceptional man to deliver it, one who could communicate his profound concern for his fellow humans into public concern.
But I added, when speaking to that journalist, that I regretted the absence of any reference to the Christian beliefs which in my eyes are the source of his inspiration. Two days earlier he had read the lessons in church. Here I had something to learn from the Daily Telegraph. They distinguished, as I had failed to do, the Christian evangelist speaking in a fashion that would draw his entire audience towards the essential Christian message.
As an old university don I gave it alpha minus in my mind but now I feel bound to improve the mark.