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.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.