This is the first of a five part series looking at the Conservative Party's relationship with churchgoers after thirteen years of Labour government. Dr Martin Parsons is a regular contributor to CentreRight.
In 1997 the Conservative Party lost its
majority in a landslide to Labour, a situation which, despite the
colossal unpopularity of the last Labour government, we have not yet
managed to reverse. A year after that defeat William Hague reflected
‘Millions of people who share our
values and our principles felt they could not support the Conservative
Party with their votes. We need to reconnect with those people, to
persuade them that we share their hopes and their concerns for the
future of our country.’
Among those ‘millions’ who felt
disillusioned with us in 1997 were many active Christians, people who
were socially conservative. They not only intuitively believed in that
thing called ‘society’, but were some of the most active participants
in it, not just in nice middle class areas, but in the difficult inner
city areas, where they continue to make a major contribution to
repairing Britain’s broken society.
In the 2-3 years before the general
election there was a significant move of practising Christians away
from Labour and renewed interest in the Conservatives. However, as we
will see later in this series of articles during the election itself
the Conservative Party failed to seal the deal with many committed
During the election the key issue for a
great many practising Christians was a widespread perception that there
was increasing intolerance towards Christian beliefs and a very real,
and not wholly unfounded fear that Christians were being increasingly
excluded from public life.
Some may feel that is perhaps
overstating the case, I would simply ask any Conservative parliamentary
candidate what questions they were asked in election hustings. I can
virtually guarantee that almost all of them faced at least one if not
several questions on this subject during their election campaign. As to
whether the perception Christians have is well grounded I would simply
ask you to reflect carefully and sensitively on the examples below,
which represent just a small sample of the sort of discrimination and
exclusion from public life that Christians have faced as a result of
legislation passed by the Labour government.
I will start with an example of someone
personally known to me. This is one that has not been publicised by the
media, and for that reason is all the more significant, as
representative of a much larger body of people who don’t make a loud
noise, hold marches and shout ‘discrimination’, but simply quietly
withdraw from public life leaving society in general and their local
community in particular so much the poorer. I knew Greg from the time I
was a teenager, he was the sort of person who would do anything for
anyone. A family man with two children, he lived on a large council
estate and was a district nurse. When he became a magistrate, people
said ‘that’s exactly the sort of person we need as a magistrate –
someone who really understands ordinary people’s lives’. A couple of
years ago I heard that Greg had quietly stepped down. The reason was
that his lifestyle values were incompatible with him being on the
adoption panel. It’s the sort of example you expect to hear from
Stonewall about discrimination against gay people, but Greg wasn’t gay,
he was a committed Christian and under legislation brought in by Labour
he was required to act against his conscience by placing children for
adoption with gay couples. He didn’t make a loud complaint about it, he
didn’t mount a legal challenge against the decision (although one Christian magistrate did and was told that the new legislation required him to act against his conscience), Greg simply stepped down quietly – as did almost certainly many hundreds like him.
The magistrates bench hasn’t been the
only area of public life that Christians have been increasingly
excluded from as a result of the last Labour government’s ‘equality’
legislation. Lillian Ladelle was a registrar, who as a result of the
particular way the Labour government not only framed equality laws but
required civil servants to carry them out – lost her job.
As a committed Christian she could not in all conscience carry out a
civil partnership ceremony, which participants regarded as gay
marriage. She tried to swap shifts to avoid carrying out civil
partnership ceremonies, but was ordered to do them. She was forced out
of the one job that she was trained for, a job that she loved and
before Labour brought in this legislation she had not the slightest
moral qualms at all about carrying out. She lost her case for unfair
dismissal on the grounds that the new legislation required her to carry
out civil partnership ceremonies. She was by no means the only Christian working as a registrar to be put in this position.
The real tragedy of the story is that when the Labour government passed
this legislation it was told that it would directly lead to people like
Lillian being either forced to act against their moral conscience or
lose their jobs. The Labour government refused to make any special
provisions and insisted that Christian civil servants like Lillian
would either have to act against their conscience or lose their jobs.
It is not simply Christian magistrates
and registrars, there have been cases involving other public sector
employees including a Christian couple providing foster care to primary
school age children who were told that they were no longer deemed ‘suitable’ as a direct result of the last Labour government’s euphemistically termed ‘equality’ legislation.
Yet it was not simply in the public
sector that Christians began to excluded from public life. One of the
most disturbing trends under New Labour that led to increasing pressure
on Christians and churches was a change in the Social Liberalism that
Tony Blair espoused from being a sort of benign enthusiasm to a
harsher, much more dictatorial and intolerant approach. This sought to
enforce socially liberal attitudes not only on those directly employed
in the public sector, but increasingly on anyone even vaguely connected
with it and ultimately even down to the level of the individual,
despite the very evident erosion of historic British values such as
freedom of religion and freedom of speech that this necessarily
entailed. Legislation enacted by the last Labour government required
independent Roman Catholic adoption agencies to act against their beliefs by placing children for adoption with gay couples.
It was not that gay couples could not adopt children from other
adoption agencies, they could, as such many commentators observed that there was no need for this legislation. Indeed, the social cost was very high as RC adoption agencies successfully placed some of the most hard to adopt children and the legislation directly led to the closure of a number of these adoption agencies.
The legislation was simply an attempt to force any organisation,
however remotely connected with the public sector, to adopt practices
based on an agenda of social liberalism.
Now just for a minute imagine yourself
to be a committed Christian. You have just seen the Labour government
pass a law that required Catholic adoption agencies to act in a way
that is completely contrary to the teaching of the Bible and the
historic teaching of the Christian faith for the last 2,000 years. If
this has now happened to a Christian organisation, what will happen
next…will this sort of legislation be enforced not only on Christian
organisations but also the church itself…?
> In part 2 we will see that Labour
actually got very close to doing that, but were rebuffed as a result of
amendments put down by Conservative peers.