God's Peculiar People

British identity is much less linked to religion than it used to be - where does this leave the established church?

What does it mean to be British?  For most of the 18th and 19th centuries - even to some extent into the 20th - there was a clear answer.  To be British was to be Protestant.  It was to read the King James Bible and Pilgrim's Progress, to share in a national myth of a heroic people, almost a new Israel, set apart and protected by God, and it was to not be Catholic.  Protestantism linked grand English cathedrals, plain Calvinist kirks and ecstatic Welsh chapels.  For most British people, Protestantism provided shared language, hymns and cultural references, while Catholicism provided a shared enemy, otherwise known as The French.

As Linda Colley argued in her classic study Britons, protestantism was "the foundation that made the invention of Great Britain possible."

There never was a single Church of Britain.  Attempts by 17th century monarchs to impose a uniform type of Protestant Christianity in England and Scotland failed.  The two established churches remained distinct in organisation, in culture and to some extent in doctrine.  Even within England, the Anglican church always had to compete with a multitude of dissenting sects: Puritans, Quakers and Baptists in the 17th century, Methodists (who went on to dominate religion in Wales and much of Northern England) in the 18th.  And, of course, there were always competing strands of practice and belief within the Church of England itself.  

Yet this diversity was itself distinctively Protestant.  Even Anglo-Catholics, who convinced themselves that the Church of England was not, in fact, protestant at all, preferred to stay and argue for their position as a minority within the established church rather than follow their own logic and submit themselves to the "foreign" jurisdiction of the Pope.  For the British, Protestantism was always as much an expression of national identity as it was one of religious belief.

These days relatively few people in the UK, whatever their religious affiliations, feel much attachment to this style of Protestant identity, or if they do it is one of nostalgia rather than of belief.  It's no accident that some of the strongest supporters of the King James Bible are atheists like Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens.  As for anti-Catholicism, that is going out of fashion even in Northern Ireland.  Indeed, the fierce attachment of Ulster unionists to traditional expressions of Protestant British identity have long been a source of bemusement and embarrassment on the mainland. That version of Britishness now seems frankly un-British to most Brits, whose remaining anti-Catholic instincts are sated by laughing at some papal pronouncement on birth control or observing the (let's face, it, deserved) predicament of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Modern Britain is, of course, secular (indeed irreligious) in tone and institutionally committed to embracing many different faiths.  Indeed, Catholic Emancipation in 1829, when most of the laws discriminating against Catholics were done away with, can be seen as the first of many steps away from a Protestant society and towards a multi-faith one.  Only a bare majority of the population now describe themselves as Christian; increasingly "None" has begun to replace "C of E" as the default option of the unsure when asked about their religious affiliation.  Millions of us no longer know the words to once-familiar hymns or have more than the basic knowledge of Christian doctrines.  It's unlikely that Michael Gove's generous gift of a King James Bible to every school in the land will do much to stem the tide of apathy.

How has all this affected the established churches, and in particular the Church of England?  In some ways, the Church has managed the transition with remarkable success.  Its churches are still popular venues for weddings and its clergy continue to officiate at the majority of funerals.  A third of England's state schools are faith schools, the vast majority of them either Anglican or Roman Catholic.  There are still bishops in the House of Lords.  Anglican services still form the heart of many national events, as shown recently during the Diamond Jubilee.  The Church has shown itself to be adaptable and at times ruthless in defence of its considerable social and constitutional privileges.  And there's no doubt that its image of woolly, good-natured, slightly shambolic harmlessness has been central to its success in retaining the affection of a large proportion of the religiously uninterested population.  The modern Church of Scotland, too, is these days much less dourly Protestant than it reputation south of the border would suggest, or than John Knox would have approved of.

In particular, the Church of England has cannily positioned itself as the linchpin of a multi-faith society, presenting for example its bishops in the House of Lords as spokesmen for religion in general rather than for Christianity in particular.  This has, of course, involved a considerable rewriting of history.  The Queen, for example, suggested in a speech made at Lambeth Palace in February that "gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely." It's true that Anglicanism has always been something of a fudge, of course, but Her Maj rather overlooked the fact that in previous centuries, the Church fought hard to preserve its monopolies against Catholics and even against Protestant dissenters.  Times have changed, however, and the Church of England, as usual, has changed with them.

Has it, though, changed enough?  There are dangers for the Church in embracing an enhanced multi-faith role in a society in which strong religious commitment is waning.  By speaking out on behalf of faith, forming alliances with other churches and religious groups, it risks losing that comforting and liberal image that has, until now, made it a source of national unity rather than division.  It risks losing that vague connection with the people without which it ceases to be in any proper sense a national church and becoming once more a bastion of religious conservatism and even prejudice.  

By coming out so strongly against same-sex marriage, for example, the Church leadership has made itself look to many people out of touch and divisive, including to many of its natural supporters, including to many of its practising members and even clergy.  It's hard to believe that the C of E has much of a future as the Daily Mail at prayer.  

The United Reformed Church built by Sit Titus Salt in Bradford. Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide