The right hand of God

Christian fundamentalists form a noisy wing of the Conservative Party, and their influence is growin

In May 2008, a triumphant-looking Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, adorned newspaper front pages when she launched a campaign to restrict abortion rights. Aided by those who called themselves Christian "fundamentalists", the Tory backbencher was championed by the right-wing press for standing up against "the abortion industry". Dorries and her allies eventually lost the campaign to reduce the legal time limit for abortion, but they were undeterred. This was always going to be a long-drawn-out battle. And they had God on their side.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the David Cameron project has been striking in its unwillingness to say much about faith. None of the inner circle of Cameron, George Osborne, Andy Coulson and Steve Hilton is regarded as particularly religious, and avoiding the subject is part of the Tory detoxification project. Yet there are signs that a change is afoot.

“Historically, there have been splits in the Conservative Party over religion. But the vast majority of the new MPs will be social Conservatives who have similar opinions to myself," Nadine Dorries tells the New Statesman. “I can think of half a dozen Conservatives that don't agree with me, but they're leaving at the next election - people like Andrew MacKay and David Curry. The new MPs that are coming in are all social Conservatives - people like Fiona Bruce, Philippa Stroud, Louise Bagshawe."

Cameron is not oblivious to his party's uneasy coalitions, and has stealthily started to unveil policies designed to shore up its increasingly loud, ultra-conservative Christian base. Recently, he told the Catholic Herald that he was a "big supporter" of faith schools and that there should be a review of the legal time limit for abortion. Is he likely to go further?

The answer may depend on how well the Christian right organises itself. Strong links have emerged between the religious right and some Tories, with support from the media. Some groups in the UK have received funding from US groups. Their aim isn't merely to push certain policies but, in copying tactics from their American counterparts, build a more sustainable, long-term movement that would change the face of British politics.

Victim mentality

At the Conservative party conference last year, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi berated other political parties for their supposed hostility to faith: "The scepticism of senior Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris driving this secular agenda has now grown to become an ideology permeating through many parts of the public sector . . . It's no wonder that this leads to accusations in the media that our country's Christian culture is being downgraded."
Warsi cited several incidents, including the case of a nurse being suspended for offering to pray for a patient's recovery. "Christianophobia" has now become a mainstream obsession for columnists and politicians. A few years ago, Melanie Phillips wrote an article for the Daily Mail entitled "How Britain is turning Christianity into a crime", complaining that Christians were being harassed by the law for their homophobic views. In late 2007, the Conservative MP Mark Pritchard called for a debate in parliament to tackle the phenomenon. "Some people seem to want to forget the Christian tradition going back to the first century and its contribution to arts, culture and science," he told the BBC.

The rise of the Christian right is partly a backlash to increasingly liberal social attitudes and secularisation. But there is also a strategic element to the rhetoric. It may be hard to believe that Britain will turn into Jesus-land, but social attitudes are always in flux. And developing a sense of victimhood is an essential part of the religious right's strategy to fire up its base. After all, it has been used to great effect in the US.

The nurse that Warsi mentioned in her speech, Caroline Petrie, took advice from a group called the Christian Legal Centre (CLC). The CLC seeks to protect Christians and Christianity and has been involved in many other cases. These include that of the paediatrician Sheila Matthews, who refused to endorse adoption by same-sex couples; Emily Mapfuwa, who took an arts trust to court for exhibiting a "phallic" statue of Jesus; and the 15-year-old Lydia Playfoot, who was barred from school for wearing the "silver ring" of abstinence.

The organisation is headed by Andrea Minichiello Williams, an activist who was behind several protests against legislation on embryology research and outlawing homophobic discrimination in 2008. A Channel 4 investigation the same year revealed that the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship, for which Williams then served as public policy director, had received money from a US organisation called the Alliance Defense Fund that aims to "aggressively defend religious liberty" through litigation.

Among the Tory faithful, there is a growing feeling that Christian values are under attack. These concerns are being carefully cultivated for maximum effect. In March, when a judge ruled against a registrar who refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies, newspapers and religious groups fumed that judges were "biased against Christians".

When Dorries unveiled her "20 Reasons for 20 Weeks" campaign in 2008 to restrict abortion rights, Williams cropped up as an ally through another organisation she runs: Christian Concern for Our Nation (CCFON). The campaign website stated that it was not politically motivated or religious; however, I can reveal that it was registered and created by CCFON members, a fact not mentioned on the site. When asked about the organisation's involvement with her campaign, Dorries says it "helped out with the research". She adds that it had "an army of interns" who proved "very useful". And how was the slick-looking website funded? She pauses before replying: "One of their interns did the website for free."

CCFON isn't a normal Christian organisation. Williams believes that abortion should be illegal, homosexuality is sinful and the world is 4,000 years old. Dorries says she wants the legal abortion limit reduced to 20 weeks but, during the campaign, she admitted her preference was to make it illegal after nine. She said: "A woman seeking an abortion in this country is the victim of a well-organised industry."

These sentiments alarm the Labour MP Martin Salter, who tabled a debate in parliament last year to extend England's abortion law to Northern Ireland. "I wouldn't be so concerned if politicians such as Nadine Dorries, who was selected on a mainstream ticket, stood on a ticket of Christian fundamentalism. But there is a certain amount of dishonesty when they work hand-in-glove with people whose views are so extreme - certainly not the kind of views that any politician seeking votes would put on their election leaflet."

The lurch of the church

The impact of the religious right on Tory thinking is difficult to measure, but Cameron seems to recognise the need to keep the ultra-social- conservative base on side, especially since it has the support of many moderates.

One source of pressure will be Tim Montgomerie, editor of the ConservativeHome website. Twenty years ago, he co-founded the Conservative Christian Fellowship, an organisation that aims to act as a "relational bridge" between the party and Christian communities. It is now housed at the Tory campaign headquarters on Millbank. Montgomerie was complimentary of Dorries's 20 Weeks campaign and gave her ample space on ConservativeHome. He frequently calls on the party leadership to listen to and court the "Christian vote".

Cameron's biggest boon to Christian fundamentalists would be in allowing them to expand faith schools. Taxpayers already subsidise around 50 centres across the UK following the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum, which aims to "reach the world for Christ, one child at a time". Tory proposals could allow such groups to "reach" many more students.

The influence of the social conservatives is also seen as the reason Cameron stood firm on recognising marriage in the tax system, despite howls that a tax break for married couples, when public finances were perilous, was not sound policy. Abortion, too, will come back on the agenda if Cameron wins. Dorries is already relishing her role. "Cameron won't bring abortion to the forefront of the government agenda - that will take people like me - but he will support it. He could be like Tony Blair - he feels strongly about his faith, but doesn't feel he can bring it out until later."

At the Conservative party conference last year, the traditional hymn and prayer were dropped in favour of a 500-seater church service, a pipe organ, folk music and a gospel choir in the style of American mega-churches. Change is coming. But perhaps not in the way many envisage.

Additional reporting by Rowenna Davis
Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberalconspiracy.org

Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

MILES COLE
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The new Brexit economics

George Osborne’s austerity plan – now abandoned by the Tories – was the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s.

George Osborne is no longer chancellor, sacked by the post-Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has yet to announce detailed plans but he has indicated that the real economy rather than the deficit is his priority. The senior Conservatives Sajid Javid and Stephen Crabb have advocated substantial increases in public-sector infrastructure investment, noting how cheap it is for the government to borrow. The argument that Osborne and the Conservatives had been making since 2010 – that the priority for macroeconomic policy had to be to reduce the government’s budget deficit – seems to have been brushed aside.

Is there a good economic reason why Brexit in particular should require abandoning austerity economics? I would argue that the Tory obsession with the budget deficit has had very little to do with economics for the past four or five years. Instead, it has been a political ruse with two intentions: to help win elections and to reduce the size of the state. That Britain’s macroeconomic policy was dictated by politics rather than economics was a precursor for the Brexit vote. However, austerity had already begun to reach its political sell-by date, and Brexit marks its end.

To understand why austerity today is opposed by nearly all economists, and to grasp the partial nature of any Conservative rethink, it is important to know why it began and how it evolved. By 2010 the biggest recession since the Second World War had led to rapid increases in government budget deficits around the world. It is inevitable that deficits (the difference between government spending and tax receipts) increase in a recession, because taxes fall as incomes fall, but government spending rises further because benefit payments increase with rising unemployment. We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.

In 2009 governments had raised spending and cut taxes in an effort to moderate the recession. This was done because the macroeconomic stabilisation tool of choice, nominal short-term interest rates, had become impotent once these rates hit their lower bound near zero. Keynes described the same situation in the 1930s as a liquidity trap, but most economists today use a more straightforward description: the problem of the zero lower bound (ZLB). Cutting rates below this lower bound might not stimulate demand because people could avoid them by holding cash. The textbook response to the problem is to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy, which involves raising spending and cutting taxes. Most studies suggest that the recession would have been even worse without this expansionary fiscal policy in 2009.

Fiscal stimulus changed to fiscal contraction, more popularly known as austerity, in most of the major economies in 2010, but the reasons for this change varied from country to country. George Osborne used three different arguments to justify substantial spending cuts and tax increases before and after the coalition government was formed. The first was that unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing, or QE) could replace the role of lower interest rates in stimulating the economy. As QE was completely untested, this was wishful thinking: the Bank of England was bound to act cautiously, because it had no idea what impact QE would have. The second was that a fiscal policy contraction would in fact expand the economy because it would inspire consumer and business confidence. This idea, disputed by most economists at the time, has now lost all credibility.

***

The third reason for trying to cut the deficit was that the financial markets would not buy government debt without it. At first, this rationale seemed to be confirmed by events as the eurozone crisis developed, and so it became the main justification for the policy. However, by 2012 it was becoming clear to many economists that the debt crisis in Ireland, Portugal and Spain was peculiar to the eurozone, and in particular to the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, buying government debt when the market failed to.

In September 2012 the ECB changed its policy and the eurozone crisis beyond Greece came to an end. This was the main reason why renewed problems in Greece last year did not lead to any contagion in the markets. Yet it is not something that the ECB will admit, because it places responsibility for the crisis at its door.

By 2012 two other things had also become clear to economists. First, governments outside the eurozone were having no problems selling their debt, as interest rates on this reached record lows. There was an obvious reason why this should be so: with central banks buying large quantities of government debt as a result of QE, there was absolutely no chance that governments would default. Nor have I ever seen any evidence that there was any likelihood of a UK debt funding crisis in 2010, beyond the irrelevant warnings of those “close to the markets”. Second, the austerity policy had done considerable harm. In macroeconomic terms the recovery from recession had been derailed. With the help of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility, I calculated that the GDP lost as a result of austerity implied an average cost for each UK household of at least £4,000.

Following these events, the number of academic economists who supported austerity became very small (they had always been a minority). How much of the UK deficit was cyclical or structural was irrelevant: at the ZLB, fiscal policy should stimulate, and the deficit should be dealt with once the recession was over.

Yet you would not know this from the public debate. Osborne continued to insist that deficit reduction be a priority, and his belief seemed to have become hard-wired into nearly all media discussion. So perverse was this for standard macroeconomics that I christened it “mediamacro”: the reduction of macroeconomics to the logic of household finance. Even parts of the Labour Party seemed to be succumbing to a mediamacro view, until the fiscal credibility rule introduced in March by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. (This included an explicit knockout from the deficit target if interest rates hit the ZLB, allowing fiscal policy to focus on recovering from recession.)

It is obvious why a focus on the deficit was politically attractive for Osborne. After 2010 the coalition government adopted the mantra that the deficit had been caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy, even though it was almost entirely a consequence of the recession. The Tories were “clearing up the mess Labour left”, and so austerity could be blamed on their predecessors. Labour foolishly decided not to challenge this myth, and so it became what could be termed a “politicised truth”. It allowed the media to say that Osborne was more competent at running the economy than his predecessors. Much of the public, hearing only mediamacro, agreed.

An obsession with cutting the deficit was attractive to the Tories, as it helped them to appear competent. It also enabled them to achieve their ideological goal of shrinking the state. I have described this elsewhere as “deficit deceit”: using manufactured fear about the deficit to achieve otherwise unpopular reductions in public spending.

The UK recovery from the 2008/2009 recession was the weakest on record. Although employment showed strong growth from 2013, this may have owed much to an unprecedented decline in real wages and stagnant productivity growth. By the main metrics by which economists judge the success of an economy, the period of the coalition government looked very poor. Many economists tried to point this out during the 2015 election but they were largely ignored. When a survey of macroeconomists showed that most thought austerity had been harmful, the broadcast media found letters from business leaders supporting the Conservative position more newsworthy.

***

In my view, mediamacro and its focus on the deficit played an important role in winning the Conservatives the 2015 general election. I believe Osborne thought so, too, and so he ­decided to try to repeat his success. Although the level of government debt was close to being stabilised, he decided to embark on a further period of fiscal consolidation so that he could achieve a budget surplus.

Osborne’s austerity plans after 2015 were different from what happened in 2010 for a number of reasons. First, while 2010 austerity also occurred in the US and the eurozone, 2015 austerity was largely a UK affair. Second, by 2015 the Bank of England had decided that interest rates could go lower than their current level if need be. We are therefore no longer at the ZLB and, in theory, the impact of fiscal consolidation on demand could be offset by reducing interest rates, as long as no adverse shocks hit the economy. The argument against fiscal consolidation was rather that it increased the vulnerability of the economy if a negative shock occurred. As we have seen, Brexit is just this kind of shock.

In this respect, abandoning Osborne’s surplus target makes sense. However, there were many other strong arguments against going for surplus. The strongest of these was the case for additional public-sector investment at a time when interest rates were extremely low. Osborne loved appearing in the media wearing a hard hat and talked the talk on investment, but in reality his fiscal plans involved a steadily decreasing share of public investment in GDP. Labour’s fiscal rules, like those of the coalition government, have targeted the deficit excluding public investment, precisely so that investment could increase when the circumstances were right. In 2015 the circumstances were as right as they can be. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and pretty well every economist agreed.

Brexit only reinforces this argument. Yet Brexit will also almost certainly worsen the deficit. This is why the recent acceptance by the Tories that public-sector investment should rise is significant. They may have ­decided that they have got all they could hope to achieve from deficit deceit, and that now is the time to focus on the real needs of the economy, given the short- and medium-term drag on growth caused by Brexit.

It is also worth noting that although the Conservatives have, in effect, disowned Osborne’s 2015 austerity, they still insist their 2010 policy was correct. This partial change of heart is little comfort to those of us who have been arguing against austerity for the past six years. In 2015 the Conservatives persuaded voters that electing Ed Miliband as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor was taking a big risk with the economy. What it would have meant, in fact, is that we would already be getting the public investment the Conservatives are now calling for, and we would have avoided both the uncertainty before the EU referendum and Brexit itself.

Many economists before the 2015 election said the same thing, but they made no impact on mediamacro. The number of economists who supported Osborne’s new fiscal charter was vanishingly small but it seemed to matter not one bit. This suggests that if a leading political party wants to ignore mainstream economics and academic economists in favour of simplistic ideas, it can get away with doing so.

As I wrote in March, the failure of debate made me very concerned about the outcome of the EU referendum. Economists were as united as they ever are that Brexit would involve significant economic costs, and the scale of these costs is probably greater than the average loss due to austerity, simply because they are repeated year after year. Yet our warnings were easily deflected with the slogan “Project Fear”, borrowed from the SNP’s nickname for the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It remains unclear whether economists’ warnings were ignored because they were never heard fully or because they were not trusted, but in either case economics as a profession needs to think seriously about what it can do to make itself more relevant. We do not want economics in the UK to change from being called the dismal science to becoming the “I told you so” science.

Some things will not change following the Brexit vote. Mediamacro will go on obsessing about the deficit, and the Conservatives will go on wanting to cut many parts of government expenditure so that they can cut taxes. But the signs are that deficit deceit, creating an imperative that budget deficits must be cut as a pretext for reducing the size of the state, has come to an end in the UK. It will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He blogs at: mainlymacro.blogspot.com

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt