This article is featured in Public Spirit’s special theme on Faith and the coalition: a new confidence to ‘do God’?
It has been three years since the good ship Coalition embarked on its course; three years since Cameron and Clegg stood in 10 Downing Street’s rose garden heralding a ‘new politics’. Three years, arguably, in which the pessimists have been vindicated. The new politics looks pretty much the same as the old: division, discord and name-calling within parties (never mind between the parties of the coalition) and promises that should never have been made being inevitably broken.
If the grand narrative has been one of disappointment, what can be said of the relationship between the government and faith groups? Surely here something has changed? Alistair Campbell’s phrase ‘we don’t do God’, admittedly taken out of context, nevertheless served as a pithy description of the genuine antagonism that often characterised the relationship between Labour governments and various churches, most notably with the Roman Catholic Church. New Labour’s 13 years were punctuated by clashes on a variety of policy areas, as much in education and foreign affairs as on traditional ‘moral issues’. Compare and contrast this with Baroness Warsi’s interventions against ‘militant secularism’, Eric Pickle’s defence of Bideford Town Council’s prayers or David Cameron’s comment at a Downing Street reception that Jesus was the founder of the Big Society.
This requires some unpacking. What changed? What is it that we detect when we sense that the coalition is more faith-friendly? Eric Pickles explicitly claimed in an article for the Daily Telegraph that the coalition does ‘do God’ – but what could that mean practically? Some of this is actually a continuation of trends which predated 2010, but there is clearly a growth in the confidence of the voice of religious traditions in the public square. But this doesn’t add up to a conscious difference in the coalition’s approach: as much as the antagonism between Labour and faith was often accidental, or indeed incidental, so the apparent warmth between the coalition and faith groups is inadvertent, and the relationships brittle. Predictably, the picture can seem confusing. Rhetoric is favourable, agreement and cooperation rare (though not so rare as it has been in the past).
In the following, I want to briefly explore two reasons why the general tone of the conversation has improved, but observe why in both cases real tensions remain. By way of conclusion, I will offer a broad assessment of the ‘state of play’.
The search for a bigger society
In the run up to the 2010 General Election, prospects of warm relationships between an incoming Conservative administration and faith groups were good. A more compassionate brand of Conservatism had emerged in the early 2000s, under the influence of ginger groups like Renewing One Nation, themselves often led by Christians. The language of the Big Society captured this and seemed to cast a small state disposition in socially positive terms.
It was not simply the case that the politicians were thinking what the churches were thinking: the mainline churches have traditionally been supportive of a strong welfare state. But the idea of the Big Society tapped into the natural ‘associationalism’ of religious organisations. By definition, the religious are inclined to gather, participate, join and work on common objectives without the assistance of the state; hence Rowan Williams’ ‘two-and-a-half cheers’ for the concept. Having struggled to identify their public role in a more religiously diverse, individualistic, and better-provided-for post-war Britain, the Christian churches were the Big Society’s most natural supporters.
Of course, on the level of political communication, the Big Society was an abject failure. It became de rigueur to argue that the notion simply acted as ‘ideological cover’ for cuts, though the agenda might have had a different feel in a different part of the electoral cycle. Yet while Cameron has struggled to get the Big Society to resonate with voters or his party, there are more significant things to be said both for it and against it. If it were purely presentational, then the rhetoric of the Big Society would surely have been quietly dropped before the general election. In other words, Cameron and those close to him felt a genuine commitment to the cause.
The problem has been finding forms of politics that will live up to the rhetoric. Asking ordinary people to take responsibility for the delivery of complex services feels a little bit like asking them to run before they can walk. Working families, after all, often struggle to find the time for the school run, never mind the running of a school. So what could it look like in practice?
Alongside the attempt to resurrect a different kind of conservatism – a conservatism of Burke and Oakeshott, rather than Hayek and Freidman – ran a more practical public service agenda, in which Cameron was pretty much an heir to Blair. Contestability, competition, and choice between a diversity of providers, including charities, was the name of the game. Whether in the NHS, rehabilitative services for offenders or in the Welfare to Work programme, improvements would in theory be driven by the appropriate application of market principles.
The place of the third sector, as against major corporate contractors, was quickly in doubt. Out of forty contracts for the £5 billion Welfare to Work programme, only two went to voluntary or not-for-profit providers. Whatever efficiencies and improvements a greater diversity of service providers might create, it is not much to do with the space between market and state.
Faith-based agencies have been doing more of what they have always done, that being largely focused on ground-level responses to tangible and immediate needs. Occasionally, these might flower into more formal partnerships with the state, but often they might exist because the state is withdrawing (consider the rise in the number of food banks). The Big Society’s most natural supporters have potentially become some of the Government’s fiercest critics.
Our ‘feel’ for the political picture emerges from the interaction of personal, long term, commitments and leadership of individuals, and the ‘events, my dear boy, events’, which drive the agenda. It is tempting, but therefore wrong, to suggest that personal expressions of faith on the part of politicians are basically irrelevant. No-one should think that Clegg’s agnosticism, Miliband’s atheism, or Cameron’s Magic-FM-in-the-Chilterns Anglicanism tell you everything that you need to know, but they are some of the things that help us ‘interpret’ them.
In the coalition – particularly on its Conservative wing – we see a fair amount of confidence in talking explicitly about and having faith. In Cameron’s own words, ‘Britain is a Christian country and we should not be afraid of saying so’. Even where personal commitments are harder to discern, ministers like Erik Pickles have been bold in their defence.
Critics would claim, of course, that this is just red meat for members in the shires. Even so, it implies a cultural familiarity with faith in the broader party. The funding of the Near Neighbours programme is one practical outworking of this. A DCLG funded stream of grants supporting community cohesion initiatives and administered through the parish system of the Church of England, the project has been criticised by many an academic and commentator as a throwback to the 1950s. More charitably, though, it could be argued it shows a commitment to an evolving Establishment, where the Church of England acts as a stable presence and source of bridging social capital in areas of high deprivation, even if it doesn’t enjoy the active participation of the majority.
For all the talk of Methodism and Marx, the Labour Party does not sit so easily with faith. Religious politicians in the Labour Party have had to work harder to justify their very presence. For instance, Roman Catholic Ruth Kelly’s suitability as Secretary of State for Health was openly questioned. Loose affiliation to theologically liberal non-conformism or kultur-Presbyterianism has posed no problem, but protagonists were always keen to distinguish between religiously tinged humanism and anything that looked like ‘theological zeal’.
Of course, as any average worshipper could tell you, personal commitment doesn’t always result in contentment with the public positions of institutions. One shouldn’t overload cases by looking for ‘political theology’, but Roman Catholic Ian Duncan Smith has clearly been engaged in a discourse around compassionate Conservatism which is not wholly divorced from his faith, or in fact the faith of his advisers and friends. Clearly, he has seen himself as genuinely engaged in work to improve the position of those suffering from welfare dependency – welfare reform, for him, is a profoundly moral task. One result, however, is that he has been particularly stung by critiques of welfare reform from the Anglican hierarchy.
So while individual faith perspectives have a real influence in setting the tone of the conversation around faith in public life, they evidently do not lead to the policy positions of individual religious institutions achieving a special influence. As warm as the coalition have been toward faith, they could barely have chosen a mix of policies (from austerity to gay marriage) which would have antagonised faith communities more. Similarly, the Church of England has continued to prove a collection of turbulent priests.
Faith groups could often be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that rhetoric is moving in one direction and policy in another. Equally, no government could really be blamed for struggling to develop a coherent or strategic approach to faith groups. After all, this is not a single constituency, for which any single approach would make sense.
Are we, then, in a ‘good place’ when it comes to the relationship between the coalition and faith groups? Answering such a question requires that we answer some deeper questions. What should the relationship be like? But relationships are complex and organic in nature, and different relationships serve different purposes. The questions, then, are not just empirical but theological; different faith traditions will answer them differently.
One very basic observation that could be made is that conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. Consider the case of the Church of England’s (and others’) interventions on welfare reforms. These have been a matter of much consternation in the coalition, but without their contributions the debate as a whole would be impoverished. Her Majesty’s Opposition is hoisted on the petard of electoral considerations – Labour knows full well that the electorate take a tougher line on welfare reform than they would. As in the 1980s, the churches have come to occupy a space a little to the left of Labour.
This is not to say that their interventions are wise or right, but they provide an authoritative voice on another point of the spectrum. The faith communities are at their best when they exercise their independence, at their worst when co-opted by the organs of the state. At the minute, on this issue and on others, they are on balance enriching the public conversation. Long may it continue.
Paul Bickley is the Senior Researcher at the Christian think tank Theos. With a background working in Parliament and public affairs, he holds an MLitt from the School of Divinity at the University of St Andrews. Paul is author of Coming off the Bench and Building Jerusalem? Christianity and the Labour Party.
 Riazat Butt, ‘Cameron Calls for Return to Christian Values as King James Bible Turns 400’, The Guardian, 16 December 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/dec/16/cameron-king-james-bible-anniversary.
 The Guardian, ‘Gordon Brown’s Speech’, The Guardian, 25 September 2006, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2006/sep/25/labourconference.labour2.