Robin Harris says that the Conservative Party and the Catholic Church in Britain have never enjoyed anything more than fleeting alliances

There are certain similarities between the Conservative Party and the Catholic Church. One is that Conservatives and Catholics are both traditionally respectful of authority. Another is that both continue to suffer – though Catholics are now recovering – from ill-devised and insensitively imposed programmes of modernisation. Yet the differences are, fairly obviously, more important. The Conservative Party has, after all, no guarantee that it will endure, while the Church does. Also, the Conservative Party’s goal is to gain and exercise political power, in which it has over the years been extraordinarily effective – more so than any other political party (except the Communist Party, which really isn’t a party at all). By contrast, whenever the Catholic Church gets too close to power, let alone seeks to wield or manipulate it, its effectiveness rapidly diminishes.

Conservatism, as an outlook, by some definitions even a philosophy, is usually and rightly traced back in England to the Irishman Edmund Burke. Burke believed strongly in the social and moral role of Christianity, even though his own personal religious convictions are obscure. He saw religion as the antidote to revolution, and in this he was certainly correct. He also believed in toleration for Catholics. But the attitude of later Conservative political leaders towards Christianity, let alone Catholicism, is quite another matter.

Whichever anonymous 18th-century wag described the Anglican Church as the “Tory Party at prayer” referred only to a passing phase in the relationship between the two. By and large, and in marked contrast to the situation in most of Europe, those on the Right of British politics have not been notably religious, even in a sectarian manner. It is true that a group of Evangelicals at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries was prominent in the cause of social reform. Of these, William Wilberforce is just the most prominent. Yet they were not representative of the party as a whole. They did not control it. The myths of Tory social reform make comforting reading and when burnished by Disraeli and embalmed by later generations of propagandists they still appear from time to time. But they are inspirational diversions which should not be taken too seriously by anyone determined to explore the long-term relationship between the Conservative Party and Christianity.

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The Conservatives – the term should properly be used from the time of the 1832 Great Reform Act – have, like their Tory predecessors, generally taken an ultra-realistic, not to say cynical, attitude towards religious matters. Catholic emancipation, for example, pushed through by the Duke of Wellington’s government in 1829, was a move to make Ireland governable, and the Ministry more stable, not designed to alleviate a shocking injustice. Thenceforth, the Conservatives were usually justas keen as the Liberals to exploit No-Popery, if it looked like offering votes.

In the 1868 election Disraeli might have sought credit for the previous year’s Second Reform Act, which extended the franchise to householders in the borough constituencies. But he did not.

He chose instead to rake up prejudice about Anglo-Catholicism (or “Ritualism”) in the Church of England, suggesting it served as a Fifth Column for the Pope. He told the electors of Buckingham: “Among the discordant activity of many factions there moves the supreme power of one Power… The ultimate triumph were our Church to fall would be to that Power which would substitute for the authority of our Sovereign the supremacy of a foreign Prince.” Disraeli lost the election, but he retained his enthusiasm for the theme and returned to it. His successor as Conservative leader – the longest serving Conservative Prime Minister – was the Third Marquess of Salisbury.

To Salisbury, such primitive nonsense was anathema. He was a devout and thoughtful Anglo-Catholic and helped found Pusey House in Oxford. He felt no temptation to “pope”, displaying a characteristically English distrust of dogma, as well being heartily hostile to the (Catholic) Irish cause. Salisbury’s great concern in domestic politics was maintaining and expanding Church education as a means of resisting the rising tide of secularism, liberalism and atheism.

On this basis, developed further under his nephew and successor Arthur Balfour, a slow but continuing rapprochement with the Catholic Church would develop.

Balfour was a subtle philosopher – too subtle for his own good. His most famous book was entitled A Defence of Philosophic Doubt, Being an Essay on the Foundations of Belief – but only the first half was ever mentioned (and mocked). Yet from about this time one can anyway say that the religious opinions of Conservative Party leaders did not greatly matter. This is because in the national climate of opinion to which the Conservative Party (like other parties) sought to adjust, religious issues carried
less weight.

Balfour’s successor, Bonar Law, was a disillusioned Presbyterian. Stanley Baldwin was personally devout – indeed, messianic in his belief that he was an instrument of the Almighty. (What the Almighty used him for was not so evident to others.) Reading through the list we come to Churchill, whose atheism eventually softened to acceptance of some kind of afterlife – an embrace of “black velvet”, he suggested. Harold Macmillan was an Anglo-Catholic who avoided Rome in deference to his mother; he was not inhibited by his beliefs from ruthless self-advancement. Edward Heath was an orthodox Anglican and Margaret Thatcher a rather less orthodox one, with her Wesleyan roots. In both cases, their policies were roundly denounced by leading Christian figures, though Mrs Thatcher stuck to her theological guns.

As for recent leaders, John Major and William Hague do not seem to have been Christians. Iain Duncan Smith was a Catholic, though hardly anyone knew it – not even his own spokesman, who solemnly claimed that IDS was an Anglo-Catholic and had to be corrected. Michael Howard is a liberal Jew. And David Cameron’s brand of politically correct Christianity reminds those old enough to recall Michael Wharton’s Peter Simple column (in the Daily Telegraph) of the immortal Bishop Spacely-Trellis, the “keenly progressive Bishop of Bevindon”. Yet in the end, none of it matters – or at least it needn’t matter.

The Conservative Party is not nowadays led by politicians who are, in a recognisable sense, conservative; so it is not surprising that they are uninterested in Britain’s traditional Christian identity. When the Conservative leader comes up with some new idea, like that of the Big Society, it is natural, but naïve, for Christian leaders – including the Catholic hierarchy – to think it provides a framework within which to do business. Then Mr Cameron declares that he backs same-sex marriage “because he is a Conservative”, and the Church leadership is left floundering. Individual politicians offer an example by their fidelity. But political parties as a whole do not relish martyrdom, and nor does the Conservative Party. Orthodox Christians of all denominations need to understand that in today’s conditions they have a single common interest. This is to resist the growth of state power.

Culture wars have to be fought. They might even in time be won, within society. But unless the coercive power of government in every sphere – obviously the professions, schools and charitable organisations, but also business and the wider economy – is checked and reversed, in today’s conditions it will be misused, and at the Church’s expense.

The Conservative Party has traditionally stood against encroachments by the state. Indeed, the younger Tory MPs are keener on liberty than were their predecessors. An insistent, unflinching demand for space within which to live and practise the Faith is the simplest but wisest Christian (and Catholic) response to them.

The Conservatives: A History by Robin Harris is published by Bantam Press on November 10 at £30

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