Is religion the new parliamentary belief divide?

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
5 May 2007

Given the huge range of tussles involved in its working, people in the Westminster parliament seem to socialise pretty well across the party divides these days. At least, judging from the overall mix within the bars and tea rooms.

We all know that the plotting and back-knifing still goes on, of course. But MPs and peers don’t seem to hunt in quite such obvious packs. And the very worst vituperations appear to be within rather than between the ranks - except when an election is in the offing.

Perhaps it has always been so. But in the 1970s, I recall (showing my age), more than a few self-styled class warriors and crusty toffs who would barely exchange the time of day with ‘the other lot’ if they could help it.

Back then, it would also have been hard to envisage the love-fest that is BBC1’s political discussion programme This Week, where ex-'Tory boy' Michael Portillo cuddles up on the sofa with one-time left firebrand Diane Abbott MP. They disagree, but in a heart-warming kind of way.

If you were cynical you might say that this politeness was an excess of clubability over principle in a post-ideological environment. After all, we have recently witnessed a spat about climate change in which the Conservative leader wanted taxes and the Labour chancellor preferred market incentives. The hunt for a new idea is so desperate these days that you can’t afford not to look everywhere for something to nick. Even the Lib Dem manifesto.

The greater social mix might also have something to do with the fact that modes of dress are less distinguishable than they used to be. And on the environmental front, Portcullis House, resplendent on the back of its taxpayer millions, has certainly added to the aesthetic smoothness of the place.

So if politics can become a bit of a technocratic blur in parliament, what about religion? The role of faith in public life certainly lends itself to some of the biggest brouhahas – the sexual orientation regulations, education, religious hatred, gay adoption. But even here it is the hordes outside the gates, waving their placards, who seem to generate most venom.

That there has been a growth of activity around particular beliefs within Westminster is undeniable, however. In addition to the recognised Christian organisations in the three largest parties, and their umbrella group which tries to get more people involved, the longstanding All-Party Parliamentary Christian Fellowship has segued into the rather more up-front Christians in Parliament (CIP).

With backing and a website from the Bible Society, which also funds the new think-tank Theos, CIP has attracted more members and cooperates with other workplace groups alongside national and overseas bodies. Lobbyists from Christian agencies are also seen in the corridors and tea rooms of Westminster with much greater regularity.

Then every year there is a National Prayer Breakfast, organised “with the permission and active support” of the Speaker, says Christians in Parliament. The next one takes place from 18-19 June 2007.

Perhaps partly as a reaction to the flexing of organised Christian muscle, both inside and outside Westminster, the latest interest group to register officially has been the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG). Their chair is Lord Macdonald of Tradeston.

The APPHG have already met to discuss bishops and Lords reform, faith schools and RE, and non-religious weddings. Their members have spoken and tabled amendments on the Equality Bill, the Education and Inspections Bill, and the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill.

The biggest achievement so far has been a well-publicised Lords debate on the status and concerns of the non-religious at a time when government is throwing service provision at (declining) religious institutions.

Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association (BHA) points out that the group has operated at a lower level for a number of years, only doubling its membership recently. He says: “The rise in interest may be because of the increased demands for exceptional treatment from religious groups and the consequent growing disadvantages to which humanists [and others of a non-religious persuasion] feel subject.”

So it’s not just Christians and Muslims who fear marginalisation and prejudice, then.

However the parliamentary humanists don’t intend to take a look-over-your-shoulders approach. They want to examine the issue of faith communities and the state in conversation with religious people, too. I have been invited to their next meeting (11 July), along with a Muslim speaker.

For some Christians, the emergence of a stronger non-religious presence may be a necessary reminder that we live in an increasingly diverse society. And just as socialising and political argument has crossed party lines, it is surely to be hoped that the conversation about religion and politics can mature beyond lobbying – both inside and outside Westminster.

This is an edited version of an article which appears in the Third Way Westminster Column.

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Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His background is in journalism, adult education, politics and theology, and his offsite weblog is: http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com. His other columns can be found here and (until the earlier ones are transferred) here.

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