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
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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.