The Tory party’s pagan politics
Witchcraft and the cult of saints—is this the Tories' secret 1990s reelection strategy?By John Ryle • 6 April 1997 • City of Words • The Guardian • Expanded • Posted 2016 • 851 words
In this year of the comet, of heavenly portents, could the Tories be turning to occult forces to stem the tide of electoral defeat?
You wouldn’t really call John Major a new-age figure. The closest he gets to the supernatural is probably a garden gnome. Yet he has called an election for the first of May, the principal witches’ sabbat of the year, thus—knowingly or unknowingly—invoking the long-banished spirits of the pre-Christian religions of Europe. Following the government’s embrace of voodoo economics, we now have pagan politics too.
Do the old gods favour a Tory victory, though? May Day Eve, in the neo-Pagan calendar, as any road protester can tell you, is Beltane, the festival of the Celtic god of light, midsummer’s answer to Hallowe’en. The celebration divides the year, ushering in a seasonal change. In Scotland it is marked with bonfires on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. In Finland they set fir trees alight.
Further south, in England, there hasn’t been much to show for the old religion since the maypole vanished from the village green. Yet witches’ covens from Lewes to the Lake District will be holding their summer sabbats on the night before the poll. And it doesn’t take a soothsayer to see that the seasonal change that Beltane ushers in may also presage a change of government.
A Faustian pact
In Germany the May Day Eve tradition is known as Walpurgisnacht. Here’s another connection that doesn’t augur well for the Tories. Walpurgisnacht is the time when the witches of Central Europe rendezvous in the Harz Mountains, circling round the bare peak of the Brocken, a granite crag higher than Snowdon, plotting evil. On the day we go to the polls wise folk in Lower Saxony will be staying indoors.
The Brocken is the place where Goethe’s Faust, after he has negotiated the sale of his soul to the Devil, is taken to witness a witches’ sabbat. Faust’s deal involves a generous wealth-and-worldly-power package in return for loyalty to a shadowy individual of dubious moral standing. If such an arrangement puts you in mind of the recently-revealed professional conduct of certain British MPs, you won’t find me arguing with you.
As Faust found out, such arrangements can go wrong. And it’s increasingly hard to see a Walpurgisnacht election working out for the Tories. The dark forces of European history have divided them, some in favour of further European integration and some against it. It’s notable also that the Harz Mountain range, which lies on the border between the former GDR and Federal Germany, was once the site of a listening post for the Stasi, the East German security police. Today, on the summit—where the lightning flashes and the witches gather–you can visit the ruins of a high-tech bunker and a vast antenna. From this spot, for forty years, the witch-finders of the communist world listened in on Western telecommunications traffic.
In the Communist bloc, of course, May Day, the pagan festival, was recast as International Labour Day, and officially dedicated to a new god, the proletariat. Hardly the Tories’ friend, either.
The patron saint of lost causes
There’s one crumb of comfort for the government. The pagan revels of the Harz Mountains are named, oddly, after an eighth-century British saint, Walburga, a devout nun who was sent to evangelize the heathen Germans and ended up running an abbey at Heidenheim. Somewhere along the line folk logic merged St Walburga with a local Saxon fertility goddess; in this manner a Christian saint ended up lending her name to the witch’s sabbat.
St Walburga herself was originally from Wimbourne, a town now in the safe—or fairly safe—Tory constituency of North Dorset. She is invoked, according to hagiographical manuals, in cases of frenzy and the plague. Frenzy and plague are possible diagnoses for what currently afflicts the Tory party, so the member for North Dorset would be well advised to render offerings to St Walburga with particular devotion this year.
And Mr Major likewise, having seemingly tilted towards the witchcraft lobby with his choice of election date, might be well advised to shift back to Christian devotion. There are other saints the Tories should not ignore. St Blaise, the healer of sick cattle, could be of help in the BSE crisis. And given the state of the Tory party, there’s a case for Gregory the Wonderworker, who is invoked in desperate situations. Or they could turn to Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. These are the saints of last resort. In the Conservative Party office in Smith Square they may already be lighting candles for them.
Politicians of all stripes should be warned, though, that none of them are favoured in the cult of saints. Although there are patron saints designated for practically every profession—including accountants, arms dealers, flight attendants, fortune-tellers, tax collectors, thieves—and, mirabile dictu, journalists—there is, it seems, no patron saint of politicians. Presumably because they are, the whole lot of them, considered irredeemable. ★