Eric Pickles speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester in 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Eric Pickles's appointment as Faith Minister is bad news for secularists

The Communities Secretary is a fierce defender of religious privilege. 

Earlier today, as Westminster reacted to Boris Johnson's announcement that he will stand for parliament in 2015, David Cameron carried out the mini-reshuffle necessitated by Baroness Warsi's resignationBaroness Anelay, previously Lords Chief Whip, has replaced the Tory peer as Minister of State at the Foreign Office (attending cabinet), and Lord Taylor has taken Anelay's old post. Lord Bates has replaced Taylor as Under Secretary of State at the Home Office. 

But the most eye-catching change is the transfer of Warsi's faith brief (which she hung onto after her demotion in 2012) to Eric Pickles. The Communities Secretary has regularly used his platform to attack secularists, declaring earlier this year that Britain is a "Christian nation" and that "militant atheists" should "get over it". That outburst was prompted by a legal bid by the National Secular Society to prevent local councils including prayers as part of their official agenda. He said: 

I’ve stopped an attempt by militant atheists to ban councils having prayers at the start of meetings if they wish. Heaven forbid. We’re a Christian nation. We have an established church. Get over it. And don’t impose your politically correct intolerance on others.

It would have been reasonable for Pickles to describe Britain as a Christian state (owing to its established Church), but it is simply wrong to describe it as a "Christian nation". The 2013 Social Attitudes Survey found that 48 per cent do not belong to a religion (up from 32 per cent in 1983) and that just 20 per cent belong 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 (including in areas such as council prayers). Religious believers who oppose such a move should look to the US, where faith has flourished despite the country's secular constitution (Thomas Jefferson's "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. But with Pickles as Faith Minister it is one that is ever less likely to be explored. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496