Disestablishment of the Church of England may be closer than we think

The idea that there should be a special place within our constitution for one particular religious outlook is increasingly anachronistic.

The British constitution is a curious beast. It can lie slumbering for many years and then suddenly change quite radically. We have seen this happen for example with reforms such as votes for women and the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and London. What had seemed fixed and permanent turned out not to be so after all.

We may be slowly moving towards such a turning point with the current situation in the Church of England (CofE). Last week the church voted not to allow women bishops. There has been lots of sound and fury from members of the church themselves (64 per cent of the electoral college actually wanted change but they needed a two-thirds majority) and inevitably politicians of all sides even from those MPs who you would ordinarily expect to defend it.

The CofE is currently exempt from equality legislation and there is discussion that this should be addressed. There is also talk of not allowing the bishops to remain in the House of Lords whilst the gender anomaly remains (there is a petition asking for this here). On the other hand there are some who argue that parliament should keep its nose out of the affairs of other institutions.

The primary reason for all of this consternation from those outside of the church is because of the fact that it is established. It is intertwined within our constitution in a way that other institutions are not. So politicians feel a duty to make comments on its composition and potentially even legislate in order to address concerns.

At this point I think it is worth considering the wider problem of the fact of its establishment in the first place. Britain has changed quite dramatically in the last century. Our population is made up of people who practise a plethora of religions and increasingly no religion at all. A survey at the turn of the current century showed that almost half of our population claimed no religious affiliation at all with only around a quarter considering themselves members of the established church. Roughly five per cent are Catholics, and five per cent of the population are now Muslim for example.

With such a religiously diverse and increasingly non-religious demographic mix the establishment of the church is an huge anomaly in itself. At the moment politicians are restricting themselves to discussions about trying to make sure Anglicanism keeps itself up to date and relevant in terms of its internal processes. But I think this latest episode could be the first step along a process of eventual disestablishment.

The demographic trends are not in favour of the church. Across the world there is strong evidence that religion is in severe, perhaps terminal decline. The idea that there should be a special place within our constitution for one particular religious outlook is increasingly anachronistic.

Another factor that is worth considering here too is the view of the current heir to the throne. The Prince of Wales has made it clear that when he eventually becomes King he will not consider himself "Defender of the Faith" as his predecessors have but instead wants to be declared "Defender of Faith". This dropping of the definite article is highly significant and is a sign that our next monarch himself perhaps understands how the current settlement is unsustainable in the longer term.

I appreciate we are probably a fair way away from full disestablishment at the moment. But like with other large constitutional changes that we have seen in the past I would not be surprised if within my lifetime we see it happen.

The wafer-thin loss of the vote on women bishops has just made it that little bit more likely.

A sticker supporting Women Bishops is displayed on a car. Photograph: Getty Images
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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.