The Church is No Longer The Conservative Party at Prayer
In May 2012, major Conservative donor and LGBT activist Ivan Massow wrote an article making the case that the Conservative Party had nothing to fear in discarding social conservatism, because its advocates in the party had nowhere else to go. The idea was said to strike a chord with Tory leader David Cameron.
"Gay marriage had been on the list of policies, but then the “nasty older Tories and Catholics b******d things up”. They assured me it’ll happen, it’s still in consultation, on the agenda. Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard this bluster before.
Come on, Dave, take a leaf out of the book of Barack. We don’t need consultation, we need action. One of Tony Blair’s cleverest achievements was to make an early stand against militant unions. He pushed them so far left they had nowhere else to turn.
David Cameron could do the same with the fanatical wings of his party. Where are they going to go — UKIP? The BNP? Nowhere where they’ll be taken seriously."
Two years later the answer to Massow's question is of course yes, but to Labour too, anywhere really that they aren't taken for granted, patronised and ignored.
The problem for Massow and his fellow travellers, is that from their vantage point of the Westminster village it may have appeared that religion had become irrelevant in Britain, replaced by a progressive cabal or the simple disinterest of the masses – where regards the country at large they had catastrophically jumped the gun.
Religion and the Church of England, even if in relative decline nationwide, still remains the most significant non-governmental force in the country. Indeed the same liberal pro-immigration policies enacted by Massow's political role-model Tony Blair has seen Roman Catholicism become the fastest growing religion in the UK in recent years.
There is still nothing that compares to religion as a nationwide force in community organisation, outreach or even lobbying. The Church of England is the original “big society” par excellence. Even for those like David Cameron with a psephological rather than ideological approach to politics, it is a dangerous group to alienate.
The Church of England, doctrinally, has always been a church of the poor, but on social issues, which form the focus of religious teaching, the Church is not just conservative, it is the foundation of modern conservative thinking.
For decades the Conservative Party thus won the political backing of the Church of England by default, and duly dubbed the 'Church the Conservative Party at prayer' – its support taken for granted. Society in the Conservative heartland of the home counties and rural south revolved around the Church, and to the extent that society remains, it still does.
In policy terms it was a mis-assessment of Iain Duncan-Smith’s welfare reforms for 26 Church leaders to refer to them as draconian in their recent open letter. Politically, however, it makes considerable sense.
The Church understands, as the government does, that there is no salvation in trapping people in a culture of welfare and state reliance, but they also understand that the strata of society most likely to claim benefits has the smallest voice and the greatest need of outreach.
In speaking up for those people the Church is re-opening a door where Westminster has closed one.
The manoeuvre of Massow and his ilk to the centre ground of Westminster power has in a sense liberated the Church from the Conservative Party, and in their eyes there is now little to gain in paying tribute to their former political wing, when vast constituencies of Britons are absent a voice and seeking assistance that would have once been politically uncomfortable to grant.
The (un)Holy alliance where the church provided the Conservative Party unspoken support in return for social policy has been broken, the result will be a Church that speaks its mind more often and intervenes in political life in a way that many in the Conservative Party will find increasingly unnerving.
The Church of England therefore takes the position of the most powerful of a number of groups, like the Countryside Alliance, that are now of no fixed political abode.
What is perhaps most interesting about the contemporary phenomenon of the politically unaffiliated institution, is that their membership ranks tend to outstrip any political party by 10 to one.
Ben Harris-Quinney the Chairman of the Bow Group and tweets at @B_HQ