Monday, 26 May 2014

Cameron's Conservatism: Why God is Back, a Bit

Stuart McAnulla from the University of Leeds considers the return of God in David Cameron's rhetoric.

Is ‘God’ back in UK politics? Or is Christianity a fading influence in British public life? Over the last few weeks senior politicians have made some notable comments on possible futures for religion in the UK. Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of the need to be ‘more evangelical’ in promoting Christianity and affirmed that he believed Britain to be a ‘Christian country’(1). His ministers, Eric Pickles and Baroness Warsi spoke out against what they view as the intolerant influences of ‘militant atheism’ and ‘secular fundamentalism’(2).


In contrast Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, called for the disestablishment of the Church of England (3). Meantime secularist activists have challenged the claim that Britain should now be considered as a Christian country, arguing that Cameron’s stance risks fostering division and sectarianism in a society where there are now numerous different faiths, as well as large number of people declaring that they are non-religious (4). How can we account for this renewed focus on the role of religion in the public sphere?

Cameron’s recent statements appear to affirm a stronger sense of Christian identity than he had embraced whilst in opposition, when he said his Anglican faith ‘sort of comes and goes’. Yet as prime minster in 2011, Cameron spoke of the need for a ‘Christian fight-back’, emphasising the virtues of Christian values against the perceived ‘moral collapse’ in society that he believed had caused the London riots. The Coalition has encouraged both the creation of more faith schools in the UK and provision of greater opportunities for faith-based organisations to run public services.

In policy terms this is broadly continuous with the approach of New Labour. However, under Tony Blair the prevailing view was that political leaders themselves should not particularly ‘do God’, and hence Blair spoke very little about his deep personal Christian faith whilst in office. Arguably Cameron has now broken with this trend, particularly when he argued that ‘Jesus invented the Big Society’. It is of course possible that the shift in Cameron’s rhetoric reflects developments in his personal faith that have occurred following several highly pressured years in both his public and private life. However, such blurring of religious and political agendas has infuriated campaigning secularists who argue such a move is especially unwarranted after a period in which the number of British people identifying themselves as Christian has declined sharply (from 72% in 2001 to 59% in 2011, according to census figures (5)).

More generally, questions have been raised regarding the extent to which Cameron’s recent religious emphasis may actually be motivated by crudely political concerns. The pro-Christian message may partly signal an attempt to win back trust from many traditional Conservatives (and indeed some Christian groups) who had strongly opposed Cameron’s legalisation of gay marriage. Whilst many Tories had tolerated Cameron’s ‘modernisation’ of the party, they remained under-whelmed by his social liberal emphases.  The fact that Cameron actively promoted the Same Sex Couples Act angered Conservatives who believed it could damage the traditional institution of marriage. Thus Cameron’s recent Christian themes may partly concern attempting to reassure traditionalists that he shares some conventional conservative commitments with them.

His interventions may also be designed to help smooth relations with the Church of England following public spats over the effects of austerity on poverty levels and the use of food banks. These differences have been troublesome for Cameron at a time when he has hoped to harness the power of religious and other voluntary groups in the promotion of the ‘Big Society’ agenda. In electoral terms, the rise of UKIP is currently a significant challenge for Cameron, and his pro-Christian rhetoric may partly be a response to UKIP’s embrace of Christianity as a marker of British identity.

In this regard Cameron will be aware that he is taking calculated risks. Excessive references to religious faith may alienate the significant sections of the electorate who are largely indifferent to religious practice. Conversely, efforts to associate Christianity with his political agenda may worry religious groups who may regard such a link as a hindrance to positively conveying their religious message. However, thus far there is little evidence of any particularly positive or negative impacts from Cameron’s pro-Christian language. Whilst there appears to be little public appetite for political leaders to strongly engage in religious matters, there is also little sign that the outrage of campaigning secularists and atheists towards Cameron’s comments is widely shared. For as long as Cameron treads lightly on the issue any political gains or losses are likely to be marginal. Yet it should be remembered that at the 2015 General Election, the marginal may matter.
 
University of Leeds

Stuart McAnulla is a Lecturer of British Politics at the University of Leeds with a research focus upon the Blair, Brown and Cameron governments.

 


(1) Cameron, D. (2014) ‘My Faith in the Church of England’, Church Times, 16 April. http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2014/17-april/comment/opinion/my-faith-in-the-church-of-england, accessed 4 May 2014 

(2)  McAnulla, S. (2013) 'Secular Fundamentalists? Characterising the new atheist approach to secularism, religion and politics', British Politics, advanced online publication 

(3)  Wintour, P. (2014) ‘Nick Clegg restates view on separation of church and state’, Guardian, 24 April. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/apr/24/nick-clegg-separation-church-state, accessed 4 May 2014

(4)  Al-kalil, J et al (2014) ‘David Cameron fosters division by calling Britain a ‘Christian Country’: Most Britons are not Christian’ Telegraph 20 April, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/letters/10777417/David-Cameron-fosters-division-by-calling-Britain-a-Christian-country.html, accessed 5 May 2014

(5)  Religion in England and Wales. (2011) Office for National Statistics, part of Census 2011. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_290510.pdf, accessed 10 December 2012.

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