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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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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