We're a long way from a US-style religious right

Christianity and politics are separate, thank God.

Despite reports to the contrary, there is little evidence of the emergence of a US-style Religious Right in Britain. Yes, there's opposition to same sex marriage from some Christian groups, but to label this as a US-style Religious Right is either disingenuous or mistaken. That's the finding of the research published this week by the think tank Theos. We suggest that while observant Christians are indeed more likely to be right of the national average on social issues like abortion and gay rights, they are also more likely to left of the national average economically. Under these circumstances, "Religious Right" is a misnomer.

The New Statesman has reported this alleged phenomenon, as has The Guardian. But it's not only liberal-left publications sounding the alarm. The Times, The Telegraph and The Spectator have all spoken of a Religious Right as if it was a fact of political life in this country. There has certainly been increased activity, funding and profile of some socially conservative Christian groups. Meanwhile, a series of legal cases have been brought in a bid to defend Christians against alleged "persecution."

This has meant the growth of a symbiotic relationship between the Daily Mail and Christian pressure groups has rapidly developed. The Mail's argument that Christianity is being "pushed out" is given support by these cases, while the media exposure helps Christian Concern, The Christian Institute and others to grow their profile. In the light of this, it's easy to see why the stories mentioned (and many others) have been written. They suggest that, once again, our political culture has followed the USA and we now have our own Religious Right in the mould of that much-reviled American movement.

The American Religious Right coalesces around eight policy areas, namely: pro-life, anti-gay rights, religious freedom, pro-Israel, pro-military intervention, creationism, anti-Islam and anti-big government. It is defined by its support for these areas and its desire to see legislative success on them through the vehicle of the Republican Party. Despite some cross-over in terms of policy (gay marriage, abortion) the British groups we studied showed little interest in many of the others - Israel and big government just aren't on their agendas, for example. We also looked at the vehicle through which a British Religious Right would have to operate to achieve that success - namely the Conservative Party.

There are social conservatives within the party, of course, and many will rebel on gay marriage. But the Party leadership is united in its socially liberal agenda - there is no sign that socially conservative pressure groups will find a home in the Tory fold. At this point, the accusation immediately comes back "You've set up a straw man… of course there's no US-style Religious Right but we do have one of our own." See The Guardian's response and indeed Nelson Jones' blog yesterday which said, "In denying that the UK has a religious right in a narrow party-political sense, Theos is attacking claims that no one really makes."

Well, as we've already seen, there are plenty of people making precisely that accusation. So why am I more sanguine than Nelson Jones about the undoubted rise of a socially conservative streak within UK Christianity? According to British Social Attitudes data from 2009, 43 per cent of frequent religious observers either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “government should redistribute income from the better-off to those who are less well off.”

This was in contrast with 38 per cent of those who said they had no religion and 36 per cent of the general population. Similarly, when asked whether they thought it was “the responsibility of the government to reduce the differences in income between people with high incomes and those with low incomes”, 67 per cent the “religious and frequent attendance” group agreed, compared with 62 per cent of the no religion group. Other examples could be chosen, such as the 58 per cent of frequent religious observers who agreed that “the creation of the welfare state is one of Britain’s proudest achievements,” compared with 33 per cent of the non-religious. And what about that all-important access to the corridors of power, which is intrinsic to the American Religious Right? Jones says "the conservative Christian lobby has powerful friends in government, including Eric Pickles, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove."

Well, hang on a minute, there's no evidence that this access (which arguably doesn't even exist) has resulted in any change in policy from the Tory-led government. Gay rights, abortion and other areas of concern aren't being legislated on as conservative Christian pressure groups would like. In fact, it's the right-wing party which is legislating for increased gay rights - a vast difference to the USA. Much has been made of the link between Christian Concern and Tory MP Nadine Dorries. This relationship was featured in a Channel Four Dispatches documentary. But we can easily see how insignificant this relationship really is. Dorries is an MP who isn’t part of the Government and has no prospect of promotion. Her attempts to influence abortion law have failed to gain significant support.

The central "scoop" in Dispatches was a clip of Christian Concern's Andrea Minichiello Williams asking Lord Tebbit to put down an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill to lower the time limit at which abortion is legal. Footage shows him agreeing and the audience is left with the impression that Tebbit will do this. Modell wrote in The Independent that, “Lord Tebbit seems persuaded and agrees to the request. Andrea (our lobbyist) wastes no time in whipping out her pre-drafted amendment and hands it to Tebbit, who dutifully takes it away with him. Job done.”

This sounds as if Williams successfully managed to get Tebbit to table an amendment written by her. However, we found no evidence of Tebbit ever tabling an amendment to that Bill. It may be surprising to see the ease with which he appears to acquiesce to the demands of Christian Concern, but the fact that he didn’t follow up with concrete action undermines Modell’s contention that he’d seen concrete evidence of his claim that, “radical Christian groups are not in America – they are here and are aiming to change the laws of our land.”

Surely it is nonsensical to suggest the emergence of a British Religious Right without the access to power, the same range of policy concerns and the mono-party affiliation of the US Religious Right? Any attempt to do so would be to stretch that terminology far beyond its existing meaning. It is certainly possible that a US-style Religious Right could emerge at some point in 21st century Britain. However, the evidence to date suggests that one does not currently exist. Mislabelling risks provoking the very thing that critics claim to want to avoid.

Calling socially-conservative religious groups a nascent Religious Right may turn them into one, and this (we believe) would be deleterious. British politics would not benefit from the kind of religiously-tinged partisan nature of US politics and, perhaps more importantly, British Christianity would suffer greatly from being hitched to any particular party or narrow political agenda.

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How English identity politics will shape the 2017 general election

"English" voters are more likely to vote Conservative and Ukip. But the Tories are playing identity politics in Scotland and Wales too. 

Recent polls have challenged some widely shared assumptions about the direction of UK elections. For some time each part of the UK has seemed to be evolving quite distinctly. Different political cultures in each nation were contested by different political parties and with different parties emerging victorious in each.

This view is now being challenged. Early general election surveys that show the Tories leading in Wales and taking up to a third of the vote in Scotland. At first sight, this looks a lot more like 1997 (though less enjoyable for Labour): an increasingly hegemonic mainland party only challenged sporadically and in certain places.

Is this, then, a return to "politics as normal"? Perhaps the Tories are becoming, once again, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Maybe identity politics is getting back into its box post Brexit, the decline of Ukip, and weak support for a second independence referendum. We won’t really know until the election is over. However, I doubt that we’ve seen the back of identity politics. It may actually bite more sharply than ever before.

Although there’s talk about "identity politics" as a new phenomenon, most votes have always been cast on a sense of "who do I identify with?" or "who will stand up for someone like us?" Many voters take little notice of the ideology and policy beloved of activists, often voting against their "objective interests" to support a party they trust. The new "identity politics" simply reflects the breakdown of long-established political identities, which were in turn based on social class and collective experiences. In their place, come new identities based around people, nations and place. Brexit was never really about the technocratic calculation of profit and loss, but about what sort of country we are becoming, and what we want to be. 

Most social democratic parties in Europe are struggling with this change. Labour is no different. At the start of the general election, it faces a perfect storm of changing identities. Its relationship with working-class voters continues to decline. This is not because the working class has disappeared, but because old industries, with their large workplaces, shared communities and strong unions are no longer there to generate a labour identity. 

Labour is badly adrift in England. The English electorate has become increasingly assertive (and increasingly English). The Brexit vote was most strongly endorsed by the voters who felt most intensely English. In the previous year’s general election, it was fear of Scottish National Party influence on a Labour minority government that almost certainly gave the Tories the English seats needed for an overall majority. In that same election, Labour’s support amongst "English only" voters was half its support amongst "British only" voters. The more "English" the voters, the more likely they were to vote Ukip or Conservative. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Ukip voters now go Tory. Those who think that Ukip somehow groomed Labour voters to become Tories are missing the crucial role that identity may be playing.

So strong are these issues that, until recently, it looked as though the next election - whenever it was called - would be an English election - fought almost entirely in English battlegrounds, on English issues, and by a Tory party that was, increasingly, an English National Conservative Party in all but name. Two powerful identity issues are confounding that assumption.

Brexit has brought a distinctly British issue into play. It is enabling the Tories to consolidate support as the Brexit party in England, and at the same time reach many Leave voters in Wales, and maybe Scotland too. This serendipitous consequence of David Cameron’s referendum doesn’t mean the Tories are yet fully transformed. The Conservative Party in England is indeed increasingly focused on England. Its members believe devolution has harmed England and are remarkably sanguine about a break up of the union. But the new ability to appeal to Leave voters outside England is a further problem for Labour. The Brexit issue also cuts both ways. Without a clear appeal cutting through to Leave and Remain voters, Labour will be under pressure from both sides.

North of the border, the Tories seemed to have found - by accident or design - the way to articulate a familial relationship between the party in Scotland and the party in England. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears to combine conservatism, unionism and distance from English politics more successfully than Scottish Labour, which must ride the two horses of "near home rule" and committed unionism. Scottish Labour has a perfectly good call for a reformed union, but it is undermined by the failure of Labour in England to mobilise enough popular support to make the prospect credible.

Identity politics is not, of course, the be all and end all of politics. Plenty of voters do cast their ballots on the traditional tests of leadership, economic competence, and policy. Labour’s campaign will have to make big inroads here too. But, paradoxically, Labour’s best chance of a strong result lies in taking identity politics head on, and not trying to shift the conversation onto bread and butter policy, as the leaked "talking points" seem to suggest. Plenty of voters will worry what Theresa May would do with the untrammelled power she seeks. Challenging her right or ability to speak for the nation, as Keir Starmer has done, is Labour’s best bet.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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