By Tim Montgomerie
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In a speech on Friday – to borrow Alastair Campbell’s famous phrase – David Cameron ‘did God’. In very welcome remarks to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible the Prime Minister claimed Britain was a Christian country. He also said that the values of the Bible weren’t only foundational to the British state, they needed to be part of this country’s future too.
But what are biblical values? For Cameron they are the gentle values of English Anglicanism rather than the Old Testament values of much of America’s Bible belt. He listed them as responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love and working for the common good. Few people of other faiths or no faith would quarrel with such an inoffensive list, reminiscent as it is of C S Lewis’s summary of ‘the Tao’. Throughout his time as Tory leader Cameron has sometimes resembled the do-gooding Church of England vicar that Tony Blair was always compared to. His political speeches have often been encouragements to look after our neighbours, tend the environment and steer our children away from corrupting influences in the high street and in the media. They are as homely as Radio 4’s Thought for the Day and critics would say, as forgettable.
Whenever Mr Cameron has entered the moral maze he has done so on his own terms. He has recommended tax breaks for marriage but only if they are extended to same sex couples. He has backed the importance of parenting but his government has also increased investment in state childcare. He has supported a stricter time limit for abortion but, to the consternation of some equality campaigners, has said that there should be no time constraints on aborting an unborn baby with a handicap.
Cameron wants to sprinkle his politics with moral stardust but realises that the Britain of 2011 is very different from the Britain when a large proportion of people went to church. He seems to regret that and his speech was rightly seen as a challenge to Rowan Williams to renew the Church of England’s moral leadership. Downing Street is privately very worried that the House of Bishops has come to resemble the Labour Party at prayer. One Conservative insider says that Lambeth Palace cannot see a social problem without recommending that government rather than, we ourselves, should love our neighbour.
It is the view of the state that most separates the Prime Minister from the current leadership of the Church. Tories see the government deficit as of fundamental moral importance. Borrowing a phrase from Mitt Romney, they think there are few government programmes that justify borrowing from China today, knowing that our children will have to repay that debt tomorrow. While the Church has welcomed the idea of the Big Society, Cameron is disappointed that it has not matched the impressive activity of Christian people at a local level with a compelling vision of what citizenship should look like in this age of austerity, when the money has run out.
People should not see Cameron’s intervention as the beginning of a great moral crusade. Cameron is a conservative in every respect but always in moderation. He’s a little bit Eurosceptic. A little bit of a tax cutter. A little bit of a hawk but only on the Libyan model, not the Iraq model. David Cameron once walked up to me at a drinks reception and enquired as to the health of the Conservative Party’s ‘theocon wing’. It was a friendly jest but it also revealed something about the Tory leader’s view of himself. He welcomes the significant role that Christian Tories have played in helping him develop a greener, gentler and more globally concerned conservatism. His affection for Christianity is sincere but he doesn’t seem to see himself as a fully-signed up member of the club.