Why Eric Pickles is in a pickle over religion

The narrative of Christian marginalisation is implausible while the religion's representatives sit by right in the nation's legislature.

We have a government that likes to "do God". To be more accurate, we have a government including some members who like to talk publicly about the importance of religion in general, and of Christianity in particular. Few are keener to talk about it than Eric Pickles. Writing in the Telegraph last week the larger-than-life Communities Secretary was characteristically effusive about the contribution that Christianity made to British public life.

It "has shaped the heritage, morality and public life of Britain; and... continues to influence our society for the better," he wrote. He further contrasted the positive story of the country's "Christian ethos" (including the Reformation, which was "entwined with British political liberty and freedoms" - a message unlikely to go down well with Roman Catholics) with the danger posed by secularism, as represented by "the intolerant National Secular Society".

This intervention is just the latest in a long line of ministerial (and prime ministerial) pronouncements since this government came to power. To take a few examples, David Cameron said in a speech last year celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible that "we are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so." Baroness Sayeeda Warsi - whose new title, since the reshuffle, is "senior minister of state and minister for faith and communities" - wrote in the Telegraph earlier this year warning that "a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies", a "deeply intolerant" creed that "demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes."  Michael Gove arranged for copies of the King James Bible to be distributed to schools.

Such statements and gestures may reflect an actual policy agenda, such as the government's continued encouragement of faith schools. Making pro-faith noises is also a way of appealing to a group of core supporters (Britain's small but politically active "religious right") and of differentiating the Conservatives from the Liberal Democrats, who are led by a self-proclaimed atheist. It may just be empty rhetoric. Pickles was especially keen to reassure Christian activists that the government is on their side despite such things as same-sex marriage or the spectacle last week of British government lawyers at the European Court of Human Rights arguing that a Christian woman had no right to wear a cross at work.

That one poses a particular problem for Pickles, given that both he and David Cameron have previously denounced such restrictions and even promised to enshrine the right to wear crosses in new legislation. In his latest article, Pickles proclaimed that "banning discreet religious symbols for reasons of political correctness is not acceptable" before going on to justify the government's legal position, bizarrely, as "resisting Brussels interference and gold-plating of what should be a matter for common sense."  

It's interesting that cross-wearing has recently become a touchstone issue. Whatever the legal arguments, the cases reflect a sense among some that Christianity is ceasing to be taken for granted in British society but has become a particular identity that needs to be asserted. Many Christians certainly feel themselves to have been "marginalised". A survey carried out for Premier Christian Radio a few years ago found that almost three quarters believed this to be the case. The marginalisation "narrative", in which the high-profile court cases play an important part, has been pushed by campaign groups such as Christian Concern (with support from parts of the media, especially the Mail and the Telegraph). Prominent Christian leaders reinforce it, too: most notably Scotland's Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the Archbishop of York John Sentamu and two retired Anglican prelates, Michael Nazir-Ali and George Carey.

According to this narrative, a small cadre of secularists, acting in the name of multiculturalism and/or equality, are aggressively relegating Christianity from the centre of public life, where it has been for centuries, to the periphery. Conversely, secularists and some liberal Christians argue that what the campaigners are actually lamenting is the loss of the power and privilege that the churches used to enjoy. I find both claims implausible. There is clearly nothing marginal about a religion whose representatives sit by right in the nation's legislature, which runs a third of the country's state schools and to which half the population, on the most recent figures, still claims to belong. But at the same time Christianity is clearly not as strong as it was. By any standards, decline in religious observance has been one of the most striking features of the past fifty years.

While the decline in actual attendance at church services now seems to be slowing, the proportion of the population that claims a religious affiliation has fallen dramatically in the past two decades, especially among younger people. The result is a sharpening of the boundary between believers and the rest of society - especially since a higher proportion of church members now identify themselves as evangelical or otherwise theologically conservative.

In the past, the fact that the majority of the population paid lip-service to the idea of a Christian nation meant that the true believers, always a fairly small proportion of the whole, felt themeselves to represent the moral core of society. Traditional "Christian" attitudes were widely shared even by people who rarely if ever went to church. Today, they are far from universally adhered to even by Christians.

It's no coincidence that the one issue above all that excites many believers in the marginalisation narrative is the government's stated intention to open marriage to same sex couples. It's not simply a question of prejudice or bigotry, as some (including apparently Nick Clegg's speechwriters) appear to believe. It's more that the issue reveals the gulf that separates some traditionalists from what has become the moral centre of gravity in wider society. The battle today is within the churches, not between Christians and secularists. Opponents of the change thus feel in danger of being doubly marginalised, fighting liberals in their own ranks. "Aggressive secularists" make a convenient scapegoat.

In his latest contribution, Eric Pickles promised to take note of opponents' "legitimate fears" that churches might be forced by the European Court of Human Rights to marry gay couples. Whether or not such fears are actually legitimate (it seems unlikely) his reassurance is unlikely to cut much ice. The real issue is the government's proposal to allow any same sex couple, religious or otherwise, to get married. Ironically, special exemptions and opt-outs written into law would only underline the new status of Christians as a "marginalised" minority interest group instead of one that has, in Pickles' words, "a unique position in British society and a particularly strong claim to be heard."

 

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The stench of decay and failure coming from the Labour Party is now overwhelming

Speak to any Conservative MP and they will say that there is no opposition. Period.

 

Who will speak for liberal Britain? Not the SNP, for a start, which understandably wishes only to speak for Scotland, even as it provides more coherent and determined opposition to the Tories than Jeremy Corbyn’s demoralised party.

Explaining in a speech at Bute House, Edinburgh, on 13 March why the SNP wanted to hold a second independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon stated as a self-evident fact that the Labour Party had “collapsed” and that the Conservatives would be in power until at least 2030. Such sentiments have hardened into received wisdom and pass unchallenged by Labour MPs.

Delivering his first Budget as Chancellor, Philip Hammond taunted his opponents by referring to the last Labour government as being the last Labour government. Speak to any Conservative MP and he or she will say the same thing: they feel no pressure from the Labour opposition. More, they will say that there is no opposition. Period.

The Labour leader’s left-wing media cheerleaders have, one by one, given up on him. Charlotte Church, Caitlin ­Moran, Owen Jones, George Monbiot, Zoe Williams: all invested considerable hope in Corbyn, who has not turned out to be the inspirational leader for whom they yearned. Even Simon Fletcher, who masterminded Corbyn’s leadership campaign in the heady summer of 2015, has quietly walked away.

From the beginning we were opposed to the Corbyn leadership but, in the spirit of plural debate, happy to open our pages to him and his confidants. Our view was that Corbyn was ill-equipped to be leader of the opposition and, indeed, an aspirant prime minister. Irrespective of his ideological obsessions, there was nothing in his record as a parliamentarian to suggest that this serial rebel would have the organisational ­capacity to unite his party and evolve a far-reaching, transformational policy programme. There was nothing in his record to suggest that he could remake social democracy or under­stand, let alone take advantage of, the post-liberal turn in our politics. The decline of Labour pre-dated Corbyn’s leadership, of course, but he and his closest allies have accelerated its collapse into irrelevance.

We accept that, after the traumatic defeat of Ed Miliband and Labour in 2015, activists were despondent. Corbyn was an unapologetic socialist, unembarrassed by his long career of rebellion from the back benches. He was a passionate anti-capitalist. His determination and consistency appealed to those who value stubborn principle over pragmatism and who loathed Tony Blair, or at least what he became. Students who knew nothing of the Bennite wars had never before heard a front-line British politician speaking as Corbyn did at “anti-austerity” rallies during that late-summer reawakening of radical socialism in 2015. And as the rebel insurgent he was untainted by the inevitable compromises of power.

Corbyn evidently unlocked something long repressed on the left. David Cameron’s England was characterised by public penury and private ostentation. Labour activists were sickened. They wanted an alternative and believed Corbyn would provide it.

Why, even his dishevelled appearance and clipped beard gave him a certain boho, hipster chic. Unlike the tortured Ed Miliband, Corbyn knew his own mind. He knew what he wanted to say and how to say it – because he’d been saying it ever since he entered the Commons in 1983. Corbynism was meant to be a counter-hegemonic project. It was meant to herald a “new kind of politics”: gentler, kinder, dynamic, more progressive. But what is most striking about Corbynism – apart from the dysfunctionality and incompetence of the leader’s office – is its intellectual mediocrity, its absence of ideas.

In the 1970s, as those who would later be called Thatcherites set about dismantling the postwar consensus and creating a new economic settlement, the sense of intellectual ferment was thrilling. There is no comparable sense of intellectual excitement on the Corbynite left. It’s as if Corbyn has nothing of substance to say.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” said Abraham Lincoln. Labour is fatally divided inside parliament and outside it. On its present foundations this Labour house cannot stand. The MPs do not want the leadership. The leadership does not want the MPs; it wants to unhouse them. Corbyn, with his self-deprecating humour and Orwellian eccentricities, is a considerate man – as I discovered when I spent a day with him in Prague just before Christmas – but he is not a leader, even more pressingly so at a time of national emergency. Corbyn has failed even on his own terms, and his failure has created a crisis of the left but also, more optimistically, an opportunity for some kind of realignment.

In the film adaptation of James Ellroy’s LA Confidential, Officer White (Russell Crowe) makes a home visit to an elderly woman whose daughter is missing. There’s an unpleasant smell coming from the basement. “A rat died behind a wall,” the woman, who is called Mrs Lefferts, says. Crowe investigates and discovers a decomposed body hidden under some sacks. “Was it a rat?” Mrs Lefferts asks. “A big one,” Crowe says. It’s as if the woman had grown used to the smell and could tolerate it as one tolerates changes in the weather.

It is something like this now with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. The electorate can smell that something is seriously wrong and is recoiling, but those closest to the triumvirate of the leader, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott seem oblivious to or unconcerned by the stench of failure. Meanwhile, as a consequence of Brexit, the fractures in the Union widen and deepen, yet Labour abandons all pretence at competent and unified opposition. And so the question remains: who will speak for liberal Britain?

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition