David Burrowes is Co-Founder and Chairman of the Conservative Christian Fellowship and MP for Enfield Southgate.
As we approach the end of another year it is a good time to reflect, and last week the Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF) was helped to think about the past and future with an excellent Wilberforce Address given by an old friend of CCF and ConservativeHome – Tim Montgomerie. He reminded the audience of the history of CCF, which started 23 years ago as students togather at Exeter University. amidst a backdrop of criticism from the Church about the Conservative Government.
Church criticism has returned, sparked by the gay marriage legislation and financially challenging times. However, it is more temperate this time round, which may owe something to CCF’s central task of buiding a bridge between the Christian community and the Conservative Party. Over those 23 years, CCF has played a key role in reminding both the Party and Church of our heritage supporting the common good – whether it was Wilberforce abolishing the transatlantic slave trade, Shaftesbury reforning factory working conditions, Peel establishing a modern police force and free trade, Disraeli clearing slums and extending the franchise, through to Thatcher giving the right to own a council house.
The CCF also helped the Party to rediscover its social reforming instincts by paving the way for the establishment of the Centre for Social Justice. The CCF continues to be active throughout the country with its “Listening to Britain’s Churches” programme, and is one of the largest and most diverse Conservative-affiliated organisations with Christians engaged throughout the Party. It means the common refrain in the 1990s, which still pops up now and again, that you can’t be a Christian and a Conservative does not hold water.
Before we move into a reflection on the future, a word about the current criticism which is centred on welfare and cost of living issues. One of the frustrating aspects of Labour’s politicisation of food banks is an attempt to parody who is and is not on the side of the poor and vulnerable. The reality is that many of the volunteers at food banks are Christians and Conservatives. If they weren’t helping out at their local food bank, they would be supporting a local night shelter, providing lunch for the elderly, or be out and about as a street pastor. It is Conservatives who recognise that the strength of society is not judged by the size of the state, but by the size of love for Burke’s “little platoon”-supporting local clubs and associations.
Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms to make work pay are crucial, but the other side of the coin, which is about help for the most vulnerable, should not be forgotten. Tim told us in his lecture that a “generous safety-net for the genuinely deserving should be a primary goal of compassionate conservatives”. He again reminded us of our heritage by quoting Winston Churchill, who said that his ambition was to have the “finest social ambulance service in the world”.
There is a common wrist band for Christians WWJD? – What Would Jesus Do? At the Wilberforce Address, Tim Montgomerie sought to rewrite the question for Christian Conservatives: WWWD? – What Would Wilberforce Do? Interestingly, Tim focused on housebuilding as the best way in which we can help families stay together. Given the impact of poor and expensive housing resulting in debt, insecurity and family breakdown, he called on us to follow the example of Macmillan and build more family sized houses.
More obvious was the reminder to be a Party and Nation of the second chance. David Cameron spoke a lot about this in Opposition. It is not just a tactic to make the Tory brand more palatable, but at the heart of being a Conservative. As Tim said, “compassionate conservatives must be the agents of rescue – not just for indebted or sick economies, but for broken people too”. Christians naturally get it, because central to our faith is forgiveness and love. Government gets it as well, but we are not good at shouting about it. For example, due to Conservative- led policies an addict is now less likely to have a bureaucrat tick a box saying they are treated, and then be left parked on methadone. Now the private and voluntary sector are being paid to get addicts off drugs and into sustained recovery. Another example is the Offender Rehabilitation Bill currently going through Parliament. It could have been called the Second Chance Bill, because a central premise is to provide rehab opportunites for prisoners – for them to not be released into the hands of a drug dealer and back into re-offending, but to be released into the hands of a mentor who will help break the cycle of crime.
The final answer to WWWD? is the most significant particularly as we approach Christmas. Tim said: “our great job as Christians in the Conservative Party (is) to call the country back to recognising the importance of love and family at the heart of national life”.
Whether we have read Adam Smith or listened to Boris Johnson, we all know as Conservatives the power of self-interest and greed but we talk less about the power of love. At this Christmas time some cyncial ConservativeHome readers may think Tim dusted off Cliff Richard’s much maligned (and in the case of Costa Coffee, banned!) “Mistletoe and Wine” ballad to make his point. Many of us do yearn for that “logs on the fire gifts on the tree” moment with our family but, to adapt the Dogs Trust advert, a family is for life not just for Christmas. There is nothing shmaltzy about the practical and effective love of strong families. As Tim said: “Strong families are better carers of the young, the sick, the old and the disabled than the State. Strong families are essential to education, neighbourliness and civic participation. They produce the kind of nurses who don’t have to be trained to give basic human care to the elderly and the kind of bankers who don’t have to be watched 24/7 by compliance officers”.
William Wilberforce said that he felt God had set before him two great objectives. The first was to abolish the slave trade and the second was the reformation of manners (or in modern language, to make goodness fashionable). If alive today he would no doubt have had New Year resolutions to ensure the Modern Slavery Bill is as effective as possible and develop policies to strenghten families. Above all he would point us at this Christmas time to the motivating power of love shown through the birth of Jesus Christ, who came to serve and save us. Happy Christmas!