Why are the Conservatives doing God?

The Conservative Party ‘does God’, says Eric Pickles, contrasting the ethos of his government with the famous “We don’t do God” quote from Labour’s Alistair Campbell. His article stresses the importance of Christianity and, implicitly, backs the right of Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin to wear crosses at work, as David Cameron did earlier this year. (See previous posts ad nauseam.)

This overt emphasis on Christianity is fairly recent. It used to be said that the Church of England was the Tory Party at prayer but, at least during the twentieth century, the party has worn its religion fairly lightly. It’s hard to imagine the Tory party of Thatcher or Major having much enthusiasm for people demanding religious rights in the workplace. They would probably have thought someone insisting on the right to wear a cross at work was a nuisance and, well, a little bit odd.

For most of the last century there was very little political competition over religion. The left, as much as the right, invoked God with its trade union chapels and its building of Jerusalem. Harold Wilson once quipped that the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than Marxism. The Tories might have tilted towards Anglicanism and Labour to nonconformist religions but neither tried to out-God the other.

The new stridency of Conservative Christianity is all the more surprising given that, on all other fronts, traditional Toryism is in retreat. As David Goodhart said:

Whoever you vote for you get the same old mix of economic liberalism and social liberalism – Margaret Thatcher tempered by Roy Jenkins.

The two liberalisms – the 1960s (social) and 1980s (economic) – have dominated politics for a generation.

The Tory Party has long been an alliance between the traditionalist Queen, country army and church wing and a more financially orientated strain with an emphasis on free-market economics. Described by Rachel Sylvester in the Times as the Country Life and Economist reading tendencies, it is the latter who have made most of the running in recent years.

There isn’t much to comfort the traditional wing these days. Many of its concerns have been sidelined. The government talks tough on immigration but pressure from powerful interests in business and higher education will subvert and weaken its immigration cap. The old right may complain about high migration but international treaties and economic muscle will prevent the government doing much about it. Other Tory sacred cows are being sacrificed too. The armed forces have been cut to the bone and police budgets slashed. The Country Lifers may have forced a U-turn on selling off the forests but they will soon face the lifting of restrictions on rural development. The ascendency of the bread-heads, with their deregulation and austerity measures, brings with it a lot of things the traditionalists don’t like; moribund armed forces, fewer coppers, more new estates and out-of-town superstores and little more than token curbs on immigration. And, as Chris says, even the financial interests of the two groups clash in some areas.

All of which might account for the new emphasis on Christianity.

In his definitive book on Saudi Arabia, Robert Lacey describes the process by which religious fundamentalism gained ground in the Kingdom. As the modern world encroached on Saudi Arabia, it unnerved the traditionalists. To placate them, the Saudi rulers tried to prove that they were still good Muslims by enacting restrictive laws. With each new innovation, such as television and computers, the clerics had to be placated with further restrictions on women’s rights or the availability of alcohol. The Al-Saud knew they couldn’t stop the changes to Saudi Arabia, especially if they wanted to exploit their oil reserves and remain in power, but they also know that the clerics were against most modern innovations. Solution: do a bit more God to compensate.

I wonder if there is a similar motivation behind the Conservatives’ emphasis on Christian values.  The self-proclaimed New Right (which dismisses the Old Right as a busted flush) is much more interested in market economics than in Tory traditionalism. Global pressures, international treaties and the government’s own economic agenda mean that it either can’t or doesn’t want to deliver much of what the Tory traditionalists want. Why not, then, do a bit of God to keep them happy?

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16 Responses to Why are the Conservatives doing God?

  1. Pingback: Why are the Conservatives doing God? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. christof_ff says:

    The Liam Fox links to the conservative right in America worry me. There seems to be a much more dogmatic, libertarian strain of Tory these days, beyond the traditional and financial types you’ve mentioned.

  3. Somehow I feel the increasing outward signs of belief in God and subscription to religion by MPs is a move towards trying to maintain (or indeed regain) some sort of badge of morality and authority of voice. Wearing a cross and saying “we do God” is quite a quick and easy way in today’s media age to suddenly appear to have some substance. Religion has always been there in MP lives but decently in the background; perhaps the recent need to suddenly display their religious credentials is more about appearance than depth of faith.

  4. What’s interesting about the chosen battle ground of the Tories in their new-found enthusiasm for religion, such as wearing crosses at work, is that it is the antithesis of Anglicanism, being distinctly evangelical and confrontational in style – i.e. defending religious freedom against perceived persecution. The CoE has never been the party of proselytism, but rather of establishment and obedience. Getting worked up and demanding rights was for Methodism and Liberals (later Labour).

    The influence of the modern US right is probably crucial here, particularly the noxious association of personal enrichment with virtue. I suspect the aim of cynical types like Pickles is to smooth the friction within the Tories between the more traditional “crown and altar” culture and the neoliberal/evangelical alliance. Supporting crucifixes in the workplace is as much an ideological sop to the bread-heads (who flit between trading floor, gym and Alpha course meetings) as it is to the Country-Lifers (most of whom regard such ostentation as infra-dig, unless the crucifix is a family heirloom).

  5. John H says:

    I think it’s partly a matter of “market segmentation” – Labour being perceived to have become more “anti-Christian”, thus there may be some votes to hoover up in appearing “pro-Christian”. But I’m not convinced it’s working, because it’s so transparently a matter of appearing “pro-Christian”. I suspect many Christians are looking (rightly or wrongly) at issues such as same-sex marriage and (*sigh*) the “wearing a cross at work” thing, and drawing their own conclusions. It would be nice to think that Christians are also drawing their own conclusions based on the whole “caring for the poor and marginalised” thing, too…

    Actually, now I think about it, that might be another factor: it rather suits the Conservatives to have “Christian issues” defined in terms of “personal morality” and so on, rather than all that pesky “social justice” stuff.

  6. asquith says:

    This is rather baffling, especially in light of the fact that the recent “Religious and Social Attitudes of UK Christians in 2011″ showed the basically un-serious nature of the faith most self-styled Christians hold in devastating detail.

    Of particular interest is the question of whether being “Christian” is defined as “not a paki”, which seems to be the choice of the EDL and their friends (a number of whom will vote Tory), or whether it’s expressed as part of a broad socially conservative front that Muslims and other religious minorities should get behind, which I think is the Pickles view of things (he ran Bradford in the 80s and by all accounts got on well enough with the Asian community).

    If he refrains from directly saying as much in this article, that’s probably because he doesn’t want to annoy the typical Hellograph reader, and it can be inferred from a close reading of the first paragraph and his other utterances.

    I don’t know why this battleground was chosen (it could be that he actually believes what he said, albeit that’s none too likely), but perhaps this post by a right-wing cleric will interest.

    http://heresycorner.blogspot.com/2012/09/in-defending-christian-england-eric.html

  7. Needs2Cash says:

    Many politicians have found their inner-Viking to loudly express their unbelief in God or nonbelief in any power that may be more important than themselves. Most authority figures who publicly declare their to decision not to accept the love of God seem to be on the Left. Their pridefest of not needing faith in God is almost bound to stimulate some leaders of the Right to reassert their faiths as they encourage the rest of us keep our faiths as we work to benefit others and earn money that also will benefit others.

    Most of us: Left, Right and Center, modestly keep our faith or lack of faith to ourselves except, perhaps, to express our continued faithfulness by wearing wedding rings and other safe jewelry to work.

  8. guthrie says:

    It’s a useful tool to bash health and safety at work with, or to bash Europe or anyone else really.
    Or more importantly, they think it will be a useful tool. Never mind if it actually is or not.

  9. rogerh says:

    A politician is a person who would kiss the Devil’s backside if such would get them elected. Add to this the idea that religion is the age-old root from which politics grew, the old Church/State axis. Now cast your minds forward 20 years to a time of greater division in society and a much stronger message – work = rich = virtue (I agree with AtoE here).

    The Established Church has always been flexible seeing which way the political wind goes, slavery was OK once and the poor were poor for good reason – God made them that way. Depressing but possible.

  10. John D says:

    It is not just Pickles; Warsi is now a cabinet minister and Minister of Faith. I do not ever recall there being a Minister of Faith before. What is bizarre is to see these religious cranks being elevated to the ranks of cabinet ministers while we all know that the PM, Deputy PM and Chancellor do not share their views. The only conclusion I can come to is that the Tories are trying to electorally pitch to the remnant religious community to attract sufficient votes at the next general election so that they will be freed from having to rule through coalition government.
    Another aspect to this situation is their dislike for human rights laws, whether originating in this country or – perhaps more importantly – from Europe. There is a considerable anti-Europe bloc within the right of the Conservative Party which manifests barely contained contempt for the EU and ECHR, as well as the UK Human Rights Act. I think they believe that if the UK withdraws from membership of the EU then they will no longer be bound by the ECHR, and they will be able to scrap the UK Human Rights Act, thus freeing us from the tyranny of Europe.

    • Needs2Cash says:

      I am not sure why you said her brand new role is Minister of Faith when it is Minister for Faith (and Communities).

      Again, her new role is probably a reaction; perhaps to the apparent intolerance of the faithless:

      http://www.cinews.ie/article.php?artid=10780

      It should not be necessary for a goverment minister to encourage mutual respect. Will she will have a word with those who try to demean others as toffs and plebs?

  11. John D says:

    Needs2Cash: thank you for the link to the article on Warsi. It seems that this current government has not only created the first-ever Minister for Faith but they have also invented a new position of Senior Minister of State so she may continue sitting in on Cabinet meetings. Why?

    In the article you provided a link to, Warsi is reported as saying the following:-

    “My fear today is that a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies. We see it in any number of things: when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere.

    “For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes, denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities.”

    I know many secularists and the very last word I would use to describe them is militant. You don’t see us demanding the death penalty for young girls alleged to have burned pages of the Koran and you won’t see us involved in murderous rioting because of some cheap and shoddy film about the life of Mohammed. You will not find secularists highjacking commercial air liners and flying them – and all the innocent crew and passengers – into buildings. There is only one group on this planet which is sufficiently militant enough to carry out such crazy actions. In a single word: religionists. Are these examples of the kind of “tolerance” Warsi craves from our present-day society?

    People like her and Pickles represent real threats to all our freedoms and seem intent on turning back the clock of progress by hundreds of years. In case people think I only target Muslims, let us remember the huge numbers who died in religious wars across Europe and that people with the “wrong” Christian-sect religious beliefs were routinely burned alive. The French have not forgotten what the English did to Joan of Arc. No secularists were involved in any of those murderous activities.

    The Jews – who started all this religio-nonsense – carried out mass exterminations, enslavement and wholesale ethnic cleansing, if their Torah/Old Testament is to be believed. Looking at their claimed descendants’ behaviour in present-day Israel and Palestine shows they have not given up following their bad old ways.

    Seeing all this “tolerant” religious behaviour over time may just help to explain why secularists prefer to live in a sane and rationalist world. There is wonder to be seen in all living forms of life as well as across the vast cosmos we are learning more about on an almost daily basis. Who needs superstitious arcane and archaic religious rituals when the real thing is so much better?

  12. Needs2Cash says:

    Here is a more balanced report on the causes or types of violence in our “sane and rational” world:

    http://tinyurl.com/9qzf8tx

  13. John D says:

    Of course, humanists and other rationalists want to see people living good lives and creating good societies. The only way we can see this being achieved is by increasing the educational standards of people world-wide. It is by acquiring knowledge, skills and understanding that people can realise that their own best interests and the interests of all others in society are best served by creating a much gentler world to live in; one in which social-welfare provision of a high standard is available so that personal security and societal welfare become enhanced.
    Professor Stephen Pinker recently released a publication, in which he outlined the declining level of violence on a global level across time. I do not embrace utopian progressivism but I do believe that now is the best time in Earth’s history to be alive – for the majority of the world’s population – and that life can also gradually get better for all over time. This is not a matter of “faith” but a matter of analysis of things like trends in technology, which continue to offer benefits, such as an ability to feed ever greater numbers of humans resident on the planet Earth.
    To return to the original topic, I think I may have found the reason behind the recent elevation of religionists in the current government. I was watching Newsnight earlier and I half-caught an item on government departmental levels of spending. The Communities Department (in which both Pickles and Warsi are located) appears to be in line for some of the most significant levels of cuts by comparison with other government departments. I think all the religious “chat” emanating from Pickles and Warsi is designed to take attention away from their declining expenditure powers. This form of distraction – or “spin” – serves to take people’s minds off the extent to which central government support for local government is being slashed. Locally, I know many local community and voluntary groups which relied upon the local authority for funding are losing some – or, in some cases,all – of their funding. So much for us “all being in it together”!!!! Perhaps the former values of charity and taking responsibility for our neighbours no longer apply to religionists like Pickles and Warsi?

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