A few months ago I began writing about ‘social conservatism’ and the Labour tradition, and the ruckus currently taking place with those social liberals who like to call themselves ‘progressive’, and those who aren’t quite signed up to the whole project and are therefore labelled, by the ‘progressives’, as ‘social conservatives’ (you’ll gather that I treat such labels with scepticism). And it is a theme that has taken off – for my own part, by far the most popular search term used by people stumbling across my blog are variations on the theme of ‘Labour social conservatives’.
One can hardly be surprised at this. As New Labour has been forced to scrabble around for votes in a way that it has not had to do for previous elections, it has been forced to address those ‘core votes’ that, one suspects, it would very much prefer to keep at arm’s length. And, for the new radicals in the metropolis this brings home an awkward truth: that the simplistic ‘liberal v conservative’ narrative it has tried to construct breaks down not only within the political sphere (the Conservative Party is now signed up to the ‘progressive’ agenda along with everyone else), but also within the realms of its own voting bloc. Enchanted by metropolitan pressure groups, the metro-left has dominated the Party but alienated the country – tribalism and a lingering distaste for the Tories is all that keeps it afloat. In essence, Labour’s ‘progressive’ march has had the consequence of alienating large chunks of its own vote, and only now, post-BNP, are Labour beginning to come to terms with the consequences of this neglect.
For which reason, it is not really surprising to find occasional outbursts of ‘socially conservative’ sentiment emanating from the left, although always to a howling chorus of criticism from the ‘progressive’ wing. The latest example is the speech from (Roman Catholic) Jim Murphy today, building on recent research conducted by Theos, on the importance of ‘faith voters’ in determining election outcomes, and the correlative importance of not alienating such people. In short, Mr Murphy recognises the fact that faith and politics will mix, because for the believer the two cannot be neatly separated – to use the words of C S Lewis: ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.’ Some will welcome this interjection; others will denounce it; others already think it has come far too late.
Yet, though a Catholic myself, I’m not sure I see this as a positive development, certainly not if what’s happening in America is anything to go by. And when the secular liberal atheists turn up the volume of their hate-filled denunciations I will, though finding them completely batty, have some sympathy (though from a different perspective) for the view that they are expressing – for when religion and politics ‘mix’ then a polarisation has already occurred, and the most likely consequence is unthinking dogmatism from both sides.
Perhaps the frustrating part of all this is that, whilst the anti-religion lobby can wring their hands about such a development, and the ‘progressive’ lobby can cite it as evidence of the regressive nature of religion that ought to be crushed under the ideological foot of the ‘progressive’ agenda (Catholic adoption agencies, anyone?), it seems to me that they resolutely fail to recognise the most important feature here – that it is their own sectarian approach that has helped create the fissure, and that continues to drive a festering thorn into an already weeping wound. In short, we always held our political settlement as superior to others for the reason that, though we are a Christian state, we managed to keep religion and politics separate – but that only remains true up until the moment that politics begins to attack the moral, ethical and social foundations of the religion that has had such influence in forming this country.
If, historically speaking, politics and religion did not mix, then it was because there was essentially no need for them to, because there was a settled moral consensus that allowed politics to concentrate on matters political, and the question of how best to relieve poverty, or conduct foreign policy, or manage the economy etc. Or, expressed differently, religion and politics did not mix because they were never really separate: they complimented each other, and could therefore respect one another’s territory. However, once the political agenda altered course and began to attack those very foundations, then can anyone really be surprised if some rise and fight back, with the defence of those norms being their chief concern?
I happen to think that in this country there is now a ‘Catholic vote’, maybe even a broader ‘Christian’ vote, and each of them can only bear with so much patience what appears to be the direct and unrelenting attacks on their freedom, identity and beliefs. However, these voting blocs are, for my money, to be mourned rather than welcomed – they represent social fragmentation, the legacy of which we shall bequeath to our young as the charred remains of a once harmonious society.
UPDATE: It’s probably worth adding this shot across the bows of Keir Starmer by Gordon Brown, over the legalisation (or otherwise) of assisted suicide.