Banishing the bishops

The church’s strategy is now clear – that if it is to have a hope of maintaining its privileges, it

Predicting the future is always a precarious business. But when it comes to the relationship between Christianity and public life there are some pretty clear trends which provide enough evidence to make at least a few credible assertions about what the next few years may hold.

With Gordon Brown signalling he wants to end the involvement of Number 10 in the appointment of bishops, the UK will soon be in the situation where 26 places in Parliament are reserved exclusively for men (and they can still only be men) appointed unchecked, by a separate, undemocratic institution. The system will look not just absurd, but entirely unaccountable, and it is surely just a matter of time now before the bishops are banished forever from the Second Chamber.

The public also seems less and less willing to tolerate the special exemptions and privileges afforded Christianity in the context of the state funding it receives for its community projects and institutions. Religious charities will soon have to show that they produce some public benefit beyond simply being ‘religious’ in character - currently the requirement to gain charitable status. The right of church schools to legally discriminate in both employment and admissions in favour of church goers, must also soon end. As yet another survey reported just this weekend, church schools routinely treat less favourably the 95% of the population who pay the taxes to fund them but who do not attend church. Catholic adoption agencies have already lost their battle to continue their particular brand of discrimination. Church schools must inevitably follow. Slowly but surely the religious slant in the playing field of public funding will be levelled off.

But as the adoption saga demonstrated, these things will not disappear without a fuss. The established church in particular will continue in its attempts to hold onto its privileges by appealing to the ‘Christian’ history and identity of the nation. It will do this whilst simultaneously claiming to speak for all faiths to give it greater authority. This was the approach employed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in his recent address to the Church’s Synod following the Sharia controversy. We should expect to hear a lot more of that sort of argument.

Williams has acknowledged that the blasphemy law - which protects only the Christian religion - must go. But in its place he has urged additional measures to protect the sensibilities of all religions. The church’s strategy is now clear – that if it is to have a hope of maintaining its privileges, it must try to get them extended to other religions too.

This of course, is something that other religions are very happy to support. But whoever holds them, the few remaining vestiges of Christendom look at best anachronistic and at worse to perpetuate grave, and unacceptable injustices. Even if successful, the strategy of creating a multi-faith settlement won’t provide a long-term solution. The church is running out of justifications for the various anomalies it clings onto, and it is just a matter of time before they go completely. And neither will their disappearance be lamented by all Christians.

Jonathan Bartley is co-leader of the Green party. He was formerly the co-director of the thinktank Ekklesia. 

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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