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
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Fears over Notting Hill Carnival reveal more about racism than reality

Statistically, the event is about as safe as Glastonbury.

Notting Hill carnival is terrifying. As soon as the sun sets, gangs emerge ready to prey on unsuspecting attendees with Red Stripe cans fashioned into knives. Children barter for drugs. Dancing is punctuated by ceremonial burials for those killed in between every dancehall tune. And that's just on the kids’ day.

Except, it's not true. Statistically, the event is about as safe as Glastonbury - if not safer, judging by the number of arrests. In 2015, Glasto was praised for its low arrest rate (75 arrests for a crowd of 135,000), but in the same year carnival had ten times the capacity and fewer than ten times the offences.

Despite these statistics, the police, MPs and newspapers seem desperate to paint carnival as a gang-run danger zone. The Met Police recently tweeted about a kilo of heroin seized in the run up to carnival, despite not even knowing whether the perpetrators were going to the event. MPs, such as former Kensington MP Victoria Borwick, are happy to fuel this fire, claiming to be concerned about the supposed “year on year increase in violence and physical harm to our police officers and members of the public”. Newspapers revel in publishing large spreads about the raids in the run up to the two days, despite lacking evidence they’re even connected. Break this down and it’s clear: this dislike towards carnival roots itself in racism - the presumption that a festival celebrating black, West Indian culture, frequented by a higher proportion of black British punters, must inevitably, be violent.

I have been attending carnival since the age of six, when my parents moved to the area (90s gentrification alert). I used to sell Ribena for a markup on my street, took part in the float my primary school ran and every year witnessed the incredible recontextualisation of the area. Gone is the whitewashing for a moment: the streets and houses become splattered in neon paint, jerk chicken boxes and Red Stripe cans. It is one of the best things to happen to the area, and its vast cultural value exceeds the bougie cafes and boutique clothing stalls that span the area.

And yet, every year, I have to dodge questions from relatives and friends about how dangerous it supposedly is. “Ooh, Notting Hill carnival. Bit scary, isn't it? Lots of angry youth who can get quite violent I hear. Didn't someone get stabbed last year?” Perhaps a viable question to ask anyone going to a crowded event. Except, why weren’t they asking me this when I flew to Amsterdam this year to go to a music festival?

There's another side of critiquing carnival that is equally infuriating, and that's that the fact that the event in some ways stands as a consolation prize to the original tenants of the area. In the middle of the 20th Century, Notting Hill was far from the Russian oligarch haven it is today. It was the Windrush Era, when black immigrants began arriving from the Caribbean. They came not out of some overwhelming desire to be freezing for 11 months, but because Britain was struggling after the Second World War, and desperately needed a labour force. Despite the demand, the West Indians were met with hostility and racism, forced to live in the worst areas of London. One of those places was Notting Hill.

Imagine, then, the audacity of shaming carnival. Imagine being forced by racism into a rundown neighbourhood, turning it into something fashionable, and then being priced out by middle-class white people. Imagine on top of that, having your legacy celebration degraded under the guise of safety concerns.

This year will feel different. It will be the first year ever under a Labour MP. It will also come two months and a half months after the Grenfell fire, where many of its residents and victims will have taken part in the event. Whilst there’s something defiant in these parades, it will be hard for the collective joy not to be marred by a knowledge that somewhere in this borough, bodies are being buried because of our council.

We need to see carnival for what it is: a celebration of a culture struggling to stay afloat in the area. Kensington continues to edge out those who may not be living in £2.5m homes - whether it’s with rising house prices, creating anxiety around an event or even putting lives at risk due to sheer disregard and greed. If you’re worried about going, I would avoid all large, crowded events in general, because there’s no use believing the vacuous and racist hype. Beyond getting splattered with paint and dancing too enthusiastically to Bashment, there’s nothing to fear.