David Cameron speaks at the British curry awards at Battersea Evolution on November 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Liberals are well served by the Conservative Party

With each week, the party is giving more power and responsibility to individuals to shape their own destiny - the essence of liberalism.

Which political party in Britain should you vote for if you are a liberal? Especially after the last week, it seems the Conservative Party is your best choice. The Conservative Chancellor announced a radical policy in the Budget that retirees will now have greater freedom on how they take their pension, liberated from being shackled to a pitiful annuity. Labour, bewildered, is still working out whether it supports this policy, whether it can trust people to manage their money properly.

The Conservatives also press ahead with the progressive raising of the personal tax allowance, which Lord Saatchi has campaigned for for over a decade, to lift millions of low-paid workers out of tax. And this Saturday, thousands of same-sex couples will be celebrating, as they now have the right to marry thanks to legislation introduced by this Conservative-led government.

These are just a handful of examples of the granting of greater power and responsibility to individuals and institutions to shape their own destiny, the essence of liberalism. In recent years, the Conservatives have advocated several liberal policies: a referendum on membership of the EU, giving headteachers more say on who they recruit and how much they pay, allowing nurseries the flexibility to prioritise quality over quantity of staff, and enabling a wider range of organisations – including private and voluntary ones - to tender for the delivery of services including in the NHS. But both the Liberal Democrats and Labour have opposed all of these.

This is not mere cross-dressing or some tectonic political shift. The Conservative Party has in fact had a long-term relationship with liberalism: economic, social and political. Lord Liverpool’s administration in the 1820s pursued ambitious economic liberal reforms: custom duties were relaxed, monopolies limited and restrictions on exports abandoned, an agenda that cumulated in the repeal of the Corn Laws under Sir Robert Peel in 1846. Slavery was abolished by the Tory William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury introduced the Factory Acts, granting basic rights to workers in tough conditions. Under the premiership of Benjamin Disraeli, the vote was extended to millions of skilled working class men. In 1928, the Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin passed legislation that gave all women the vote.

For most of the 20th century, Conservatives became the champions of freedom as socialism advanced and the old Liberal Party declined. In fact, some factions from the latter gradually merged with the Conservatives. Until 1968, the National Liberal Party allied with Tories at a constituency level, with joint candidates such as Michael Heseltine. The Liberal Unionist Party, a break-away group that opposed Irish Home Rule, was first in a coalition with the Tories, then their leader Joseph Chamberlain finally agreed to join the Conservatives formally in 1912. Nick Clegg talks very rarely, and only briefly, about Chamberlain; touchy subject, seemingly.

Now, it is of course true that all three main political parties have liberals in their ranks and leadership team. British policymaking has been greatly enriched as a result of this sprawl. But political parties are coalitions themselves: liberals have to negotiate with others in their party who have different philosophical affiliations, and they may find themselves on the losing side in the internal battles over policy and vision. This seems to be happening too often in the Liberal Democrats and Labour at the moment.

Big challenges confront us: an ageing population, climate change and a race with emerging economies to produce highly skilled workforces. The pressures on the state will be unsustainably high, particularly when Britain has to remain a low-tax, competitive economy. We will need a strong dosage of economically liberal ideas to meet these challenges: for example, alternative ways of financing crucial public services such as education and healthcare, including greater contestability in commissioning, loans-based financing and social investment. The Tories to date have been most engaged and enthusiastic about these sort of ideas. Only they, at the moment, seem to have the appetite to pursue the economic liberal agenda we desperately need in the decades ahead.

Yes, liberals in the Conservative Party have to fight their own battles. And their liberalism must be tempered too by conservatism, a philosophy that rightly roots individuals in relationships and social custom. On some policy areas, liberal conservatives have lost: on immigration, for instance, where the party pursues a UKIP-lite message, all caps and clampdowns, endangering national and cultural enrichment.

Liberals are well served by the Conservative Party. For the moment. The liberal parliamentarians, policymakers and activists within it must keep fighting. For a brighter future for the Conservatives lies not in being a refuge for those angry and disappointed with change, but as a home for hopeful younger generations who increasingly identify as liberals.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

Getty
Show Hide image

What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496