Martin Sewell: The Conservatives must engage with faith communities so they are prepared for helping to deliver the responsibility agenda
Despite much talk of the secular society, faith in Britain still matters. Not only do followers of faith heavily populate the voluntary, charitable, educational and caring spheres, but Churches, Synagogues, Mosques, and Gurdwawas probably represent some of the few places left in Britain where people of different ages, economic status, politics, education etc mix freely and with common purpose. Whilst each faith may have a very different in outlook than others, on many levels there are genuine inter-faith groups in dialogue across the country.
When pubs, post ofﬁces and corner shops have left deprived communities, places of faith with dedicated ministers remain as a last link to the wider community. A survey of David Cameronʼs speeches over the past few years show that he has grasped this point ﬁrmly.
When speaking on “Islam and the world today” at Cambridge University he reached out to Muslims, saying:
“... the onus also lies with Muslim community and faith leaders, many of which are here today and whose work is an inspiration, to actively lead the communities they represent in the direction of involvement with the wider local community. By that I mean extending their sense of civic responsibility and social work beyond places of worship or local community centres to people from other faith groups and backgrounds.”
In 2007 he articulated his social vision to the Jewish Community with the words:
“It also means trusting charities and voluntary bodies more, giving them longer-term funding, respecting that often they've got the answers rather than government, trusting them to run larger programmes. It's a big cultural change in terms of the way the government interacts with the social and voluntary sectors.”
Last month his vision of a modern responsible Britain was a similarly inclusive one:
“We are going to solve our problems with a stronger society, stronger families, stronger communities, a stronger country. All by rebuilding responsibility.”
He pledged to "tear down Labour's big government bureaucracy, ripping up its time-wasting, money-draining, responsibility-sapping nonsense."
When supporting “Autistic Sunday" he remarked:
“Faith communities in the United Kingdom have a role to play in addressing the needs of the marginalised, the socially excluded and the vulnerable.”
In a rather quiet and unobtrusive way, he appears to have consistently scored the mood music for a very large cultural change from what we have seen during the Blair/Brown years. It might not quite been the “dog whistle” approach of Lynton Crosby but anyone within this sector who has heard remarks such as these, is entitled to have certain expectations.
You do not have to be a person of faith to find crass stupidity in the consequences of New Labour’s "equality/rights” agenda.
Many atheists would have felt no greater difficulty in rejecting an offer of prayer from a nurse than they would have in rejecting the offer of a cup of tea. There are prospective gay adopters who would have happily referred themselves to the vast majority of adoption agencies that could assist them, rather than destroying the good work of the Catholic agencies.
There are charities that have been obliged to divert resources away form core objectives to try to protect their faith ethos in the face of employment law interventions that are more about political correctness than supporting the deprived and the needy. Faith schools are undermined by imposed intake policies that make the underlying values of their community difficult to maintain.
If David Cameron’s word are to be taken at face value - and I am inclined to accept that they should be - then faith communities are entitled to see that the harms and injustices that have been done to them are put right. The Conservatives cannot have spent their opposition time criticising such politics for the nasty distractions that they are, without showing an early commitment to putting things right. Yet surely that is only a beginning?
There is already in place, countrywide, a network of voluntary agencies through which the new “responsibility agenda” can be delivered. The talk has already been talked and in small ways, such as the innovative street pastor schemes, a response has begun. In many communities, of different faiths, a response is waiting to be called forth. What is not yet clear is what David Cameron has in mind for advancing this agenda in a practical or structured way.
In the months between now and the election, it would be helpful and refreshing if some specific policies were in place so that, in the event of electoral success, the new devolved partnerships could be up and running quickly. If Voluntary Groups know what may be on offer or requested of them, then they will use the time well and be ready. Some will want to follow the advice of the Bishop of Reading Stephen Cottrell and “Hit the ground Kneeling” but with fair warning there is no reason to believe that they will not have a capacity for innovative response, given the time to prepare.
The Bishop of Bristol, Mike Hill, tells of crime falling by over 40% following the establishment of a Church community on a troubled housing estate in his Diocese, which prompted the Police Authority to volunteer £60,000 from their budget to keep up the good work. Such initiatives are about faith in action but whatever one’s beliefs, it is hard for Conservatives to lack interest in initiatives that are cost effective, pragmatic and supportive of the poor and marginalised.
If David Cameron has specific ideas and offers of co-operation for working in partnership, and I am sure he has, then the sooner he alerts would-be partners the better. In the last Census, something of the order of 85% of respondents chose to identify themselves as having a religious faith. Many will be quietly English about this, yet the response to the excesses of the PC agenda in this field surely tells us that this may be an idea whose time has come.
A combination of Good Work, Good Economy. and Good Faith is a very Conservative message. If that is where we might be heading, then let us add to it “Good Communication”.