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

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.