The Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marxism, said Harold Wilson. That was more a rejection of ultra-leftism than an endorsement of religion’s role in politics and it has pretty well always been that way. The United Kingdom was founded as an explicitly Protestant nation but successive waves of immigration – Irish, Jewish, Italian, Asian – have made this a country of many faiths. The twist, in this century, has been that the fastest growing faith is “no faith”.
Silently, but by mutual consent, we have become a secular nation.
Now, this is all part of the great strength of Britishness – its fundamental pragmatism. It seemed that was also at play when David Cameron successfully took gay marriage through parliament against the noisy opposition of some in his party.
He has – effectively – told churches that they should allow gay and lesbian couples to be married. The churches, in response, have indicated broadly that it shouldn’t be a problem.
It is then, something of a shock to hear the Prime Minister talking passionately about Christianity. Back in 2008, the one thing that stopped the fluent Opposition leader in his tracks was a question about his beliefs, saying: “I believe, you know. I am a sort of typical member of the Church of England…religious faith is a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes.
“That sums up a lot of people in the Church of England. We are racked with doubts, but sort of fundamentally believe, but don’t sort of wear it on our sleeves or make too much of it. I think that is sort of where I am.”
That is not unattractive as a position – a man with belief, but also with doubts. All reversed over recent days by a full-on campaign about Christianity. First, his nomination of Jesus as a great social innovator. Not for the creation of one of the world’s great religions. Nor for the radical social equality he preached and practised. No, it was because – apparently – “Jesus invented the big society 2,000 years ago.” Which is a bit like saying that the miracle of the loaves and fishes is the first recorded food bank. But this wasn’t a slip – it was a remark intended for the PM’s Easter reception but not for broadcast.
It is, apparently, a strategic repositioning. Cameron has now told the Church Times that “we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country”. This is like a stray dog in a multi-storey car park – barking on so many levels. For a start, the UK is not religious. Surveys vary, but they broadly agree on religious attendance. About 18 per cent of the population are regular attenders, and around 70 per cent are non-attenders – of those, half have never been religious. Ours is an overwhelmingly secular nation.
For another thing, the Tory Party has just signalled that it is launching a campaign for the black and minority ethnic vote. Having the Prime Minister claim that the UK is a Christian country is no way to try to reconcile Labour-leaning Hindus and Muslims to the Conservative Party. More a case of same old, same old.
There must be a strategy here, so what is it? The full text of David Cameron’s article in the Church Times gives a clue. In it, he writes: “We should also be ambitious in supporting faith-based organisations to do even more. That is why we are not just investing £20 million in repairing our great cathedrals, but also giving £8m to the Near Neighbours programme, which brings faith communities together in supporting local projects.”
Think about it. Big, bold claim – echoing president George W Bush – about the merits of “faith-based organisations”.
But follow the money. Only £8m for projects, but £20m for buildings. This is just pork-barrel politics, plain and simple. The churches have had their feathers ruffled in the debate over gay marriage, so they are being paid off.
So far, so clumsy. But there is more to it than that. Whenever the Tories act now, you should always ask what Nigel Farage has been saying. And lo, Farage has spoken robustly on faith. Last year, he said: “We need a much more muscular defence of our Judaeo-Christian heritage.”
This is the politics of the extreme fringe – manufacture a grievance, create division, build support. There is no more evidence for this claim than for any of Ukip’s complaints about the modern world. But the facts aren’t important to their target audience of discontented, old white voters.
Does that group sound familiar? Yep, the same Tory-leaning voters most offended by gay marriage. Cameron’s move is a pretty unsubtle attempt to peel these voters away from Ukip. It is a core vote strategy, and with all the usual downsides of those moves.
Elections are won in the centre-ground…any move to placate your base runs the risk of losing more centrist voters. And anyway, your core is your base and the key to them is they vote for you come what may – that is why they are your base. The real, long-term desire of the core vote is to see their party in power delivering for them, so they accept almost anything – as long as it produces a victory.
But No 10 has been spooked by the rise of Ukip and is breaking with all precedent – it is moving to the right to secure its base. It won’t work in the European elections – they give a free pass to discontented voters to give you a kicking. Worse, though, it won’t work in the general election.
Being evangelical about your Christianity will not bring any new votes to the Tories. It will alienate black and minority ethnic voters and be incomprehensible to the young. It does nothing in the lost lands of Scotland, the North and urban areas. It is simply circling the wagons – trying to defend what you already hold.
But in politics, like life, if you want to win you have to play to win. Seems Cameron has conceded early.