David Cameron reads during the service of thanksgiving to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee at St Paul's cathedral on June 5, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron does God, but does Britain want him to?

Nearly half of Britons do not belong to a religion and just a third believe faith has a positive role to play in their lives. 

David Cameron used to be hesistant when discussing his Christian faith, once describing it (in a wonderful line borrowed from Boris Johnson)  as being "a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes". He added in the 2008 interview with the Guardian: "That sums up a lot of people in the Church of England. We are racked with doubts, but sort of fundamentally believe, but don't sort of wear it on our sleeves or make too much of it. I think that is sort of where I am."

In this regard, he was the "heir to Blair" who, despite his passionate religiosity, adhered to Alastair Campbell's dictum that "we don't do God". 

But in the last week, Cameron has cast aside his previous scepticism of public expressions of faith. At an Easter reception at Downing Street, he declared: "Jesus invented the Big Society 2,000 years ago" and spoke of him as "our saviour". He followed this up with a video message in which he said: "Easter is not just a time for Christians across our country to reflect, but a time for our whole country to reflect on what Christianity brings to Britain."

Now, in an article for the Church Times, he has gone even further, declaring that "we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people's lives." The man who once said of Christianity, "[we] don't sort of wear it on our sleeves or make too much of it", is now demanding evangelism. It has been quite a journey. 

But while Cameron is now unequivocally "doing God" (almost certainly with an eye to those Conservatives alienated by his support for equal marriage), does Britain want him to? With apt timing, a new global study has found that little more than a third of people in Britain believe that religion has a positive role to play in our lives, compared to a global average of 59 per cent, while a quarter believe it has a negative impact. 

As the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey showed, this is, increasingly, a secular country, not a Christian one. Forty eight per cent of respondents stated that they did not belong to a religion, up from 32 per cent in 1983, and just 20 per cent described themselves as belonging to the Church of England, down from 40 per cent in 1983. 

This ambiguity points to the need for a clear separation between church and state. Religious believers who oppose such a move should look to the US, where faith has flourished despite the country's secular constitution (spoken of by Jefferson as "a wall of separation) .

Indeed, in an interview with the New Statesman in 2008, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, (who went on to famously guest-edit the magazine) suggested that the church might benefit from such a move:

I can see that it's by no means the end of the world if the establishment disappears. The strength of it is that the last vestiges of state sanction disappeared, so when you took a vote at the Welsh synod, it didn't have to be nodded through by parliament afterwards. There is a certain integrity to that.

In an increasingly atheistic and multi-faith society, a secular state, which protects all religions and privileges none, is a model to embrace. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.