Britain's Religious Right: myth or reality?

It might not look the same as in the US, but the UK still has a strong historic link between religious and moral conservatism and Conservative politics, Nelson Jones argues.

Perhaps it's the convenient alliteration, but it's easy to assume that the Religious Right is a thing. It is in the United States, of course: the agenda espoused by conservative Evangelicals and Catholic traditionalists has long enjoyed an ascendency over (if not a total domination of) the Republican Party. From the televangelist-led Moral Majority in the 1980s, associated with the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, to the more recent phenomenon of the Tea Party, religion and fiscal conservatism, family values and a minimalist state, have come to be part of the same package, wrapped in Republican red.

But in the UK? There are obvious differences between Britain and the USA both politically and socially: for one thing, this is a much less religious society. Nevertheless, in the past few years many observers have detected the emergence of a British version of the religious right and with it the first stirrings of a cisatlantic culture war. You can see hints of it in the increasingly virulent debate over abortion, now encompassing US-style picketing of clinics, and in high-profile court cases funded by Christian pressure groups, such as those decided the other week in Strasbourg. There's the ongoing campaign against same-sex marriage, of course, which may be doomed but which has galavanised a lot of religious support. An online petition organised by the "Coalition For Marriage" has attracted more than 600,000 signatures, of which some at least must represent real people.

Even creationism, which most people in Britain had forgotten about, has drifted across the Atlantic.  True, you still won't find many mainstream politicians (except in Northern Ireland) proclaiming a belief that the world is less than 10,000 years old. But creationists are starting to make their presence felt here, for example putting in bids to run free schools. It remains a fairly marginal phenomenon, but it's growing.

But what does this really amount to? A report published by the Christian think-tank Theos this morning, written by Andy Walton, finds little evidence of a US-style religious right in Britain. Instead it finds a number of groups, ranging from the fairly mainstream to the lunatic fringe, which may take inspiration and even some funding from their American counterparts but which are nowhere near to gaining the same kind of political influence. Crucially, Evangelical activists have so far failed to take over the Conservative party, despite the existence of groups like the Conservative Christian Fellowship. Nor is this even their ambition. Rather they try to influence politicians of all parties. This is important, Walton argues, because what characterises the US Religious Right isn't just the existence of a critical mass of people with socially conservative views motivated by religion, but their symbiotic relationship with the Republican Party. Britain's religious and political demographics make such a scenario highly implausible.

Traditionally, of course, the Church of England was seen as being the Tory party at prayer, and it's still the case that practising Anglicans are more likely to vote Conservative than members of the public as a whole. But the C of E is no-one's idea of the religious right (for Walton, indeed, the official role of the Anglican church is one of the factors that prevents the emergence of US-style religious politics here). Roman Catholics, meanwhile, tend to vote Labour. Evidence from the British Social Attitudes survey suggests that the most religiously observant voters (Catholic and Evangelical alike) tend to be considerably to the left of the general population on economic issues, even while holding extremely conservative views on such issues on gay rights and premarital sex. The same is true of the leadership of the Catholic Church, at least going by many of their public pronouncements.

So does this mean that "religious right" is a misnomer in the British context? I'm not convinced. The British version is certainly much smaller and much less party-political. But it shares many of the same concerns, prominent among them opposition to abortion, assisted dying and same-sex marriage (homophobia's last chance saloon?) along with worries about sex education in schools and the decline in the traditional two-parent family. Differences are mainly cultural: in the US support for Israel, small government and gun rights, over here Daily Mail-type concerns about multiculturalism and the apparent marginalisation of Christianity in public life. It's clearly true that in Britain there's no automatic read-through from religious to economic conservatism. But it's also true that the conservative Christian lobby has powerful friends in government, including Eric Pickles, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove.

Political Christians are currently prominent in calls to impose controls on internet porn and further criminalise sex work and in the current debate about the "sexualisation" of children, especially girls. In such cases, conservative Evangelicals and Catholics often form tactical alliances with like-minded feminists, something also seen on the American scene. The main difference is that our Evangelical politicians, such as the Conservative MP Claire Perry, are likely to make the case for things like mandatory internet filtering using the language of feminism rather than that of Christianity. To British ears, it sounds better.

A particularly interesting case is that of CARE (Christian Action Research and Education), an organisation that originated in Mary Whitehouse's Festival of Light. These days it puts a great emphasis on political work, lobbying MPs on issues like abortion and sponsoring Parliamentary researchers. It also provides the secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution, which is currently pushing for the adoption in this country of Swedish-style anti-prostitution laws.

For Walton, the fact that, like other groups, CARE aims to win over MPs from all parties, rather than just Conservatives, is evidence that it doesn't constitute part of a burgeoning religious right. I see things differently. In denying that the UK has a religious right in a narrow party-political sense, Theos is attacking claims that no one really makes. At the same time, it's almost perverse to deny the strong historic link between religious and moral conservatism and Conservative politics. It's not a coincidence that most Parliamentary opponents of same-sex marriage are Tories. At the very least, right-of-centre parties are more prone to making moralistic, pro-religious noises than left-of-centre ones. “Back to Basics” was a Conservative slogan. It might not have done John Major or his government much good, but it got a big cheer in the conference hall.

Campaigners for equal marriage at the Conservative party conference last year. Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Show Hide image

How a dark night for Paris was made easier by British messages of support

The French Ambassador to the UK reflects on the Paris attacks, and how Britain's response helped make the aftermath more bearable.

I was at a dinner with members of London’s French community when news of the 13 November attacks in Paris first reached me. Our initial reaction – one that I think was shared the world over – was of shock. Young people, out on a Friday night, doing normal things that young people do: chatting, laughing, drinking, dancing. Enjoying the pleasures that are their right, in a city that lives and breathes music, conversation and, above all, liberty.

I felt a tragic sense of déjà vu as I followed the events unfolding on television. Less than a year ago, our country was attacked by murderers and fanatics who wanted to destroy the values that we hold dear. And again on 13 November, I watched as France fell victim to another cowardly and barbaric attack on its way of life.


Fraternité, solidarité

The grief that was shared by the French community here in London was made easier to bear by the messages of support that flooded in from around the country – if anything, even more than after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. I received countless phone calls, emails and letters from British friends, dignitaries, members of the public and faith groups, all conveying sympathy and friendship. I was particularly touched by a statement presented to me by representatives of 140 leaders of the Muslim community.

None was more powerful than the football match between England and France at Wembley, just four days after three suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the Stade de France in Paris. Never has the word “friendly” taken on such a literal meaning. It wasn’t about the football that night; it was about coming together and showing that we won’t live in terror. There have been so many stirring renditions of the French national anthem these past weeks – not least that of the French bass Nicolas Courjal following my appearance on The Andrew Marr Show – but the singing of La Marseillaise by the whole stadium, including the Prime Minister and Prince William, really did move me. I think the front cover of the Metro the next morning summed it up best: “England. France. United.”


Fitting tributes

The embassy in London was a focal point for many who wanted to show their support in the wake of the attacks. A sea of flowers and candles quickly formed outside, with a constant stream of people coming to sign the book of condolence that has now been sent to Paris. Once again, the British people showed that we can count on them in difficult times. I led a minute’s silence alongside the Home Secretary, Theresa May, which was observed all around the country in memory of the victims of the attacks.

Her presence was fitting, given the close relationship that our respective home secretaries have built. There are constant exchanges between the French and British security services, for the threat of terrorism is not faced by France alone. The whole of Europe must ensure that stronger security measures are put in place. We wish to preserve Schengen and the border checks are only temporary measures. But the external border needs to be much more secure and European border guards need to be present.


Beyond Calais

I’m glad that, after a tough summer, our message that Calais is only one part of a Europe-wide migrant crisis seems to have got through. The kind of criticism I heard in July, when I was asked time and again by the press why France wasn’t doing more to prevent migrants crossing the tunnel, is now much rarer. Indeed, Franco-British co-operation has been effective in Calais. But the “Jungle” is still there, inhabited partly by people who would qualify for refugee status and who will need to be taken care of. France is already doing a lot in that regard.


Current climate

Migration was on the agenda last week at the London School of Economics, where I opened a conference on its link with climate change, the last in a series of Franco-British events that the embassy has held in the run-up to the UN climate summit in Paris, which starts on 30 November. Life has to go on as normally as possible after the atrocities. Any­thing else would be a victory for the terrorists. The sense of momentum ahead of the summit is strong and hasn’t been diminished by the attacks. If anything, the sense of urgency is greater than ever. This summit is about securing the future of humanity – what could be more important than that?

Nuclear energy is one of the ways we can reduce CO2 emissions. President Xi Jinping of China’s recent visit to the UK resulted in decisive steps being taken towards the building of a new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point by the French company EDF. This project will provide secure, low-carbon energy to UK homes and reinforce the alliance between France and Britain for decades to come.


Old alliances

On Monday I attended a breakfast in Paris between David Cameron and François Hollande. Witnessing this new testimony to the strength of the century-old Entente Cordiale, I could not help but think, bemused, of those commentators who claim that to ensure the success of the British renegotiation, there will have to be a highly visible Franco-
British spat at a forthcoming European council . . . Speaking of friendship in times of crisis, two days before the Paris attacks, I presented 19 British veterans with the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest honour, in recognition of their role in securing France’s liberation during the Second World War. Over 1,000 have received their medals so far and many more will get them in the months to come. I’ve received a number of poignant letters from them as a result. In the midst of the grief and despair, it will be all the more moving to honour these veterans. They are a reminder that courage, determination and, above all, solidarity will triumph.

Sylvie Bermann is the French ambassador to the UK 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State