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Is God an Englishman?

Roger Scruton’s craving to belong.

Our Church: a Personal History of the Church of England
Roger Scruton
Atlantic Books, 208pp, £20

The conversion of agnostic High Tories to the Anglican church is always rather suspect. It seems too pat and predictable, too clearly a matter of politics rather than faith. It is as though Anglicanism were an essential accessory, like a set of tweeds or a fashionable handbag, without which the English reactionary is inadequately kitted out. There is as much surprise in, say, Peter Hitchens declaring himself a Christian as there is in Jeremy Paxman joining the Garrick. How on earth could they not?

It is, to be sure, a lot easier to gain entry to the Church of England than it is to the Garrick. The conditions of entry seem about as minimal as becoming a Brownie. Don’t believe in God? No problem. Doubts about the Resurrection? Join the club. Switching from agnosticism to High Anglicanism is a problem only because it can be hard these days to tell them apart. You are more likely to be ejected from liberal Anglican circles for opposing women bishops than for claiming that Christ ran a brothel in Nazareth. Most modern capitalist societies get by on as little belief as they decently can, and the same is true of some of their churches.

Even so, it is not clear why any self-respecting Tory should cherish the memory of a suspected political criminal who hung out with crooks and whores, spoke out for justice and comradeship, and was done to death by the state for his pains. (The Romans reserved crucifixion for political offences only.) The Christian gospel also has far too little to say about sexual morality, not to mention marijuana, for the likes of Peter Hitchens. Indeed, like the ancient world in general, it doesn’t have our modern conception of morality at all. Like all Jewish scripture, it holds that you shall know that the realm of justice is at hand when you see the poor being filled with good things and the rich sent empty away. It does not see spirituality as a matter of vestments, incense and other-worldliness, but as a question of feeding the hungry, welcoming immigrants and protecting the poor from the violence of the powerful. None of this is received wisdom in the shires.

So, it isn’t surprising that Roger Scruton’s history of Anglicanism has a good deal to say about pews, choir stalls, polished brass and embroidered kneelers, but very little about the New Testament. There is an account of Pugin but nothing about poverty. For Scruton, Christianity is a mixture of purity, patriotism, Romantic nostalgia and a patrician flight from the everyday. The point is not to change the world but to renounce it.

The Anglican church, according to Scruton, is “a part of England, and an immortal projection of England beyond space and time”. God himself is an Englishman, a Daily Telegraph-reading deity, “uncomfortable in the presence of enthusiasm, reluctant to make a fuss, but trapped into making public speeches”. It’s surprising he didn’t send his son to Eton, rather than dump him among a lot of Palestinian fishermen. Scruton believes that his country “is not just an ordinary place in time but one with a replica in eternity”. It would be interesting to know whether he thinks this is also true of Kazakhstan or the United Arab Emirates, or whether the Almighty has the same aversion to abroad as Philip Larkin. Religious faith offers us “a release from worldly impurities”, even though Jesus is presented in the Gospels as notably careless of the Jewish purity laws and ends up polluted (the Jews regarded crucifixion as a curse).

Scruton is homesick for the medieval England of Piers Plowman – of stout, God-fearing yeomen, simple manners and plain speaking. He seems not to know that it was also a place of filth, fanaticism and excruciating torture. His dewy-eyed history of England is more scrubbed and sanitised than a modern surgeon’s knuckles. We hear of the “adventures of the colonists and the merchant seamen”, which can be translated roughly as the plunder of India and the extermination of whole communities. The reader is invited to admire clergymen who devoted as much attention to their table as their clerical duties, and encouraged to elevate spiritual mediocrity over passionate conviction.

Like the postmodernists he detests, but unlike St John and St Paul, Scruton obtusely associates all conviction with dogmatism, which is why he feels at home in a church where you can believe more or less what you like. Truth, this former professional philosopher insists, should yield to compromise. Like the House of Lords, religion does not bear too close an interrogation, which, for Romantic reactionaries of Scruton’s kind, is a compliment rather than a criticism. What matters is not rational inquiry but what we feel intuitively in our bones. The Nazis believed much the same. Like most English Tories, Scruton is pained by displays of zeal, yet he exhibits a fair degree of it in the cause of rood screens, the monarchy and the public schools, which once produced “upright Christian gentlemen, who would administer the empire on behalf of the Queen”. And though he touts the spirit of Anglican moderation, he seems strangely reluctant to countenance such middle-of-the-road measures as, say, turning half the public schools into old people’s homes.

“I rejoice that the church to which I belong,” he remarks, “offers an antidote to every kind of utopian thinking.” Perhaps he missed those bits in the New Testament about the kingdom of God, which Christians believe will arrive at the end of history. For this high-minded study, religion is one thing and politics is another, a view from which Martin Luther King fortunately dissented. When Jesus urged those around him to give both God and Caesar their due, no Jew within earshot would have imagined that his words “the things that are God’s” meant raising your thoughts piously above a wicked world. They would have known their scripture well enough to understand that it meant protecting the weak, seeking justice for the oppressed and denouncing the fraudsters. Their God was one who had brought them out of slavery, not a spiritual ornamentation to the status quo.

Over the past few years, the works of this distinguished thinker have dwindled in intelligence. A few decades ago, he would never have perpetrated such limp banalities as “We should never underestimate the human need for membership. We are social beings, who are incomplete when we are unable to identify the community that is ours.” (One suspects that the author has his local hunt as much in mind as his parish church.)

Whatever his political views, this son of a socialist republican has produced, in his time, some extraordinarily perceptive work in philosophy, aesthetics and political theory. In the end, however, ideology tends to addle your brain. For many years, Scruton was far smarter than his own extravagant Romantic prejudices. Now he has succumbed to them wholesale. At least he has discovered some kind of community in the process, as he rides to hounds and plays the organ in his local church. It’s just that one suspects this maverick intellectual is as fervent as he is about belonging because he will never really be able to.

Terry Eagleton is distinguished professor of English Literature at Lancaster University. His latest book is “The Event of Literature” (Yale University Press, £18.99)

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.