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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A year in my life as a Brexit bargaining chip

After Brexit, like many other EU citizens in Britain, I spent a year not knowing what my future held. Here's what that was like.

I moved back to the UK in January 2016. I like to say “move back”, because that’s how it feels – I loved living in London so much during my Erasmus year that I always intended to come work here after graduation. 

I am French, and a journalist, and live in north London. I refer to the UK as “home”. By all appearances, in January 2016 I am part of what budding Brexiteers call the “liberal elite”, even though I rent a single room and my most expensive possession after my laptop is a teapot.

But by June, I have been given a new label. I am now one of the 3 million “EU citizens in the UK”. As Britain heads toward turbulent negotiations to leave the European Union, following a referendum in which I did not have a vote, I have become a “bargaining chip”. 

This is my account of that year.

April 2016

Moving back includes chores such as getting a UK phone number, a National Insurance number and opening a bank account – three tasks that go even smoother that I thought they would. For the bank account, I have been advised to go to Lloyds Bank, which makes it “easy for Europeans”. (A thread on Twitter recently proved it also is more inclined to help refugees than other banks.)

I also eagerly register to vote – another right of mine in the UK under EU rules, for local and European elections. And I am excited: I will have a vote in the London mayoral election.

I closely follow the referendum campaign. “Vote Remain” signs and stickers are omnipresent in my  neighbourhood.  I feel reassured. So do the other EU nationals quietly passing me in the street. “I don't recall seeing any Leave Campaign. It made me think it would be an easy win,” echoes Tiago Gomes, 27, a Portuguese musician.

In the pub, I get into a testy exchange with an acquaintance who holds French and British passports and is proudly campaigning for Leave. I struggle to understand why. Maybe, just like Ukip leader Nigel Farage, he knows he has a way out, if it all goes to shit.

Worried that people could wrongly see me as a Brexiteer because of my Union Jack Converses, I put a “I’m IN” sticker on each roundel.

May 2016

I vote in the London mayoral election. I have voted many times in France, but this is different – I am almost a Brit! I even take a happy selfie with my polling card, like a proud 18 year-old.

This turns out to be the only UK election I will ever have a vote in, as a friend will note a few months later.

June 2016

Jo Cox MP is murdered on the streets of her constituency. I report on the murder all afternoon and when I get the tube home, I feel shaken. A Leave supporter enters the tube carriage with an England flag. I want to ask him: "Do you even know what happened?" But I say nothing.

The violent turn taken by the campaign is felt in London, too. Samir Dwesar, a 27-year-old parliamentary assistant, remembers the abuse he suffered while campaigning for Remain: “I was called a p**i, and told to go back to ‘your f’ing country'.” Samir is British and has lived all his life in Croydon, South London.

Yet I am hopeful on 23 June 2016. I blow up “I’m IN” balloons, taste EU referendum cupcakes from my local bakery. I’m living history.

And it is history. I doubt anyone in Britain, and especially the country’s EU citizens, will forget the nightmarish morning of 24 June 2016. My heart sinks as I read the BBC news alert informing me I am no longer home – not really. On my wall, a poster of the Private Eye cover “What Britain will look like after Brexit”, which I found hilarious in April, looks like a doomed omen.

The mood is low among all Europeans. For Nassia Matsa, 27, a Greek woman from Athens who has lived in London for 9 years, it is even worse: 24 June marks her birthday. “Nigel and Boris ruined my birthday,” she says.

At least in London we are not alone. I discover many Brits identify as European. When I finally leave my house, my neighbourhood is still plastered IN signs and EU flags. “I found myself offering support to my British friends,” says Matsa. “Were talking about Brexit with an Italian, Swiss, Croatian, French and me, and all of us Europeans were comforting a Londoner who was ready to cry.”

July-August 2016

I go to France for a summer holiday. Everyone keeps asking what my situation will be in the UK after Brexit. My answer is always the same, and still hasn’t changed: I have no idea. My dad spends months repeating that Brexit will not happen: “They’ll realise it’s a mistake.” (They don’t.)

Bad adverts with Brexit puns bloom on the Tube. "We're Out," proclaims one for a city lifestyle app. I don’t laugh. But at least I don't have any Facebook friend boasting about Brexit. Mikael David Levin, a 24-year-old Italian who has lived in London for 16 years, does. "Their statuses frustrate and irritate me," he says. "They do not know how 'lucky' they are to be born in the UK."

After David Cameron’s resignation, the Tory leadership election and Theresa May’s premiership, the discussion focuses on when to pull the trigger, and what to do with people like us in the meantime. We are now, officially, bargaining chips.

September 2016

I start flying with my passport when I visit my family in France, even though I know my French ID is still valid until Britain officially leaves. At Stansted airport, the limited life expectancy of the “EU only” line makes me gloomy. Alex Roszkowski, a 27-year-old Polish-American who has lived in London for a year and a half, tells me he may now carry both his passports on every trip, as well as “copies of [his] lease, numerous old envelopes with [his] name and address, [his] business card".

Those EU citizens arriving in the UK have surreal experiences too. Joseph Sotinel, 28, who moved to London from Paris in September, encounters a bank official, who tells him: “Thanks for coming to the UK, you are still welcome no matter what.”

“It was as if I had done something heroic,” he says. “It was absurd.”

October 2016

Registering all EU citizens in the UK could take 140 years, according to a cheery statistic.

We are seeking an early deal to secure the rights of EU citizens, says the British government. Companies employing EU workers must provide a list of their employees, says the British government. Companies employing EU workers won’t have to provide a list of their employees, says the British government. EU citizens will need a “form of ID” in post-Brexit UK, says the British government.  EU citizens must be prepared to leave, says the British government.

Literally no one knows what will happen to EU citizens.

November- December 2016

EU nationals who have decided to apply to permanent residency or British citizenship start receiving letters urging them to leave the country. I fear mine could follow and think about it every time I get post. I read an article advising EU citizens to collect proof of living in the UK. As I am a lodger currently working freelance, I start keeping every single one of my shopping receipts in a box, and consider asking British friends for reference letters.

Matt Bock [unrelated to this journalist], a German freelance renewable energy project manager, worries about how to provide documentation showing he was living in the UK before Brexit too: “I don’t have an employer, I am outside the UK for a large amount of time for work, I am a freelancer largely paid by my own German company, I don’t have private health insurance, I am not married and I haven’t even been here for the prerequisite 5 years.”" He has chosen not to apply to right to remain because his chances of success are "remote", and says he is "ready to leave if need be."

As I, like Matt and many EU citizens, start thinking about moving back home, others rush to move to the UK. Alexandra Ibrová, 26, a Czech PhD student, moves to London on 28 December, worried she could not get a National Insurance number after 15 March. “I was trying to get the appointment before that date because it is actually the only official document that proves that you have been living here before the cut off date,” she says.

January- February 2017

Gina Miller’s legal challenge forces the government’s Brexit bill to go to a vote in Parliament. I am hopeful, for about five minutes, that the Labour MP Harriet Harman’s amendment to secure my rights has got a chance. It doesn’t. I complain about Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s three-line whip to my local Labour councillors during their Sunday canvassing. “As a traditionally left-wing voter, I'm more angry with Corbyn's Labour than with the Tories,” echoes Marta Maria Casetti, 39, from Italy, in London since 2006.

March 2017

The day before the triggering or Article 50, the Haringey LibDems send me a letter in “support” of EU nationals. I am now a bargaining chip and a stat on a micro-targeting list.

On 29 March, Theresa May officially begins the Brexit negotiations, even though 2017 is the worst possible time to leave the EU. It has almost been a year that 3 million people living in the UK have been left in limbo.

I don’t own a house or have children at school in the UK. Many EU citizens do – they have built their family life in this country, and now fear they may lose it all overnight.

Adriana Bruni, 44, an Italian who married an Englishman and has lived in Chelmsford for six years, says her family would not exist without the European Union: “From today [29 March], a family like mine will never be formed in the same way again.” Bianca Ford Epskamp, a Dutch national and school governor who has lived Dorset since 2001, adds: “Both my children are born here, go to school here, have made friends. I've always been employed, contributed, paid taxes, do voluntary things. Morally, it’s draining.”

Elena Paolini, 51, an Italian translator married to Brit who has lived in London for 27 years, says she doesn’t believe EU nationals will be deported, but she is concerned about her access to the NHS, pensions or bank accounts. She asks out loud the question that has been floating in all our minds for months: “Will I be considered a second rate citizen?”

As for me, I used to say I wanted to be British. I don't say that any more.

Update on 23 June 2017

Last night, Theresa May told EU leaders in Brussels the UK government would offer the same rights as Britons to EU citizens who arrived "lawfully" before Brexit. I can't help but think that it took a year to guarantee rights me, and the other 3 million, already had and took for granted up until 23 June last year.

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