A little reported study was published this week by Gavin Barwell MP, investigating why the Conservative Party has such little support among ethnic minority communities. It found that minority groups perceived the Conservative Party to be, among other things, anti-religious.
Two years ago the Bow Group and Elevation Networks looked into the same issue, and concluded that the Conservative leadership’s shift away from social conservatism was eroding potential support from ethnic minority communities, who largely identified with social conservatism, but tended to also identify with Labour’s economic policy.
Sam Gyimah MP’s 2012 car-crash Newsnight investigation into black and minority ethnic (BME) Conservative voters crystallised the perception perfectly. Gyimah was told by Bishop Joe Aldred, a Birmingham Church leader, that the community had been raised to vote Labour; but on social issues, where members of the community may have once considered voting Conservative, the party have moved away.
He was met with the response that all ethnic minorities have got to understand that if they want equality, they have to support every other minority parties’ vision of equality. This was heard, and met with blunt disdain by much of the BME community that witnessed the interview, their commitment to faith is doubtless more important than political expedience or allegiance.
The feeling that the leadership of the Conservative Party has become anti-religious is echoed by a spate of announcements by the Church and affiliated groups like the Trussel Trust in recent months, indicating a progressive distancing from the Conservatives. Moreover, as opposed to those in the Catholic Church and Church of England, the national debate around the bellwether Same Sex Marriage Bill was greeted with deafening and foreboding silence by the British Muslim Community. There is evidence that many Muslim leaders now consider the discourse on conservatism by political leaders in the UK to have fallen so far from their understanding, it is no longer worth even their acknowledgement.
Many argue that Britain is now a secular nation in all but name, and religious voters are therefore of little significance. Not only is this untrue for the Conservative Party, who have in the past relied disproportionately on the votes of people of faith, as the UK moves toward a 20 percent ethnic minority population, the societal shift we will continue to see in the UK has not, and will not, lead to the inevitable embracing of the progressive vision by the British public. It will lead to its inevitable rejection, or more specifically a nation far more deeply divided, with a strongly discordant societal values.
It is therefore hard to overestimate the damage Same Sex Marriage has done to David Cameron’s relationship to the Church and faith, and to his authenticity as a Christian leader: it is simply not possible to pass same sex marriage with one hand on the Bible.
It would be a fair assessment that, in social policy terms, until now no Prime Minister, or certainly leader of the Conservative Party, has done more to create this division and distance between the government, Conservative Party and religion than David Cameron. Until this week he has been seemingly relaxed about this legacy, speaking of his faith previously as something that is “distant” and “comes and goes”. He was understood to say in 2010, if we force socially liberal policies through the Conservative Party we need not fear losing religious voters because “where else will they go?”.
With the UK Independence Party (UKIP) achieving record poll results, and the established church and religious groups increasingly identifying with Labour’s economic policy, the theory that the Church, once described as “the Conservative Party at prayer“, has nowhere else to go has been soundly disproven.
What most people dislike about Cameron and modern politics is the feeling that a lack of genuine ideas and authentic long-standing beliefs are thinly masked by cynical attempts to manipulate the public with PR stunts and soundbites.
That Cameron has conveniently found God in the same week that UKIP hit 20 percent in the polls and he received a report warning the Conservative Party is seen as “anti-religious”, all in the run up to Easter, seems highly suspect. Even those absent any suspicion as to his motives may conclude that Cameron’s recent statements on faith have been strong on rhetoric and weak on action.
There fortunately remains plenty of opportunity for Cameron to underline his commitment to faith in policy terms.
Christian faith requires adherence to Church doctrine, as Tim Stanley argued following Cameron’s assertion that Jesus Christ invented the “Big Society”, faith isn’t social work with a dog collar, but a lifelong commitment to a set of values and rules.
David Cameron is right to recall that Britain is a Christian nation. One that tolerates other faiths and viewpoints, but not a secular nation that accepts all faiths and viewpoints as equal into the heart of our society and nation. Christianity, and broadly faith in general, does not present itself as a philosophy or perspective open to compromise, but as an absolute. So equally, a leader cannot be one day in defence of the progressive agenda, and the next at the pulpit of the Church of England in defence of traditional Christian values.
John Mcternan wrote this weekend that Cameron’s pledge to increase funding for faith groups is an apology for Same Sex Marriage, but you can’t pay off people of faith. At best any money given in grants will be used to campaign to one day undo the vexatious policies previously laid upon them by this government.
Yet with Civil Partnership (and so Same Sex Marriage) rearing it’s head on the statute book in the coming month, there is an opportunity for Cameron to genuinely prove his reverence for faith and Christianity in more than just words or bribes, and to borrow from the Christian lexicon, repent upon his past transgressions.
Marriage has always been a religious institution, whereas love and union of two people is of an entirely human foundation. Many atheists, and also those who wish to unionise in a purely platonic relationship, believe that they should have the same rights as same-sex couples to join before the state alone, and enjoy the resultant legal and tax privileges without having to enter into the formal traditional institution of marriage.
Opening Civil Partnership to all citizens would present a clear choice and demarcation between religious marriage and civil union, with equal legal rights bestowed by the state for each. It is a compromise that if brought in line with the system in France, in light of the alternative extended vitriolic social and political battle, would be unlikely to face significant opposition in or out of Parliament.
It is unsurprising that many have already lost their jobs and livelihoods as a result of their opposition to Same Sex Marriage. Any such amendment to the original Bill must therefore be accompanied by legal protection for those, with or without faith, who wish to conscientiously object and refuse service to individuals or ceremonies which run contrary to their beliefs.
The removal of Maria Miller as Culture Secretary, and her replacement with the infinity more sensible and able Sajid Javid, suggests there may be a genuine opportunity within the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to consider amendments where there wasn’t in the past.
I suspect, sadly, that David Cameron won’t countenance, and will indeed block such amendments, the gay rights lobby still stronger in Westminster than its faith-based counterparts. But that same calculation, and an objective observance of his strength of words and lack of action, should at least tell anyone all they need to know about Cameron’s new-found faith.
In an era when many suffer for theirs, his appears to remain only relevant to it’s fair weather political benefit.
It is an irony that most religious people would prefer an atheist to be genuine about their beliefs, than to pretend to share a faith. Beyond short term political calculation, Cameron may wish to consider in his attempted Easter re-birth as a man of faith, that with a Tory majority now almost impossible in 2015 and his career therefore drawing to an end; in trying to be a man for all seasons, your season never comes.