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?