Christian Tories who missed their moment

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The Independent Online
FOR anyone with the slightest sense of history, it was a jolting moment: the first sung Mass with incense in the Commons crypt chapel since the Reformation. Ann Widdecombe, the social security minister, was going over to Rome, and doing so in a place that was once at the heart of the English Protestant movement. But at least we could all agree it had no wider significance. Religion and Tory politics only meet by chance.

This is mostly true, but there have been close encounters in the past, and perhaps, one day, there will be again. When Baroness Thatcher was toppled by the Tory peasantry there was, however briefly, the chance that the party would go Christian Democrat, becoming consciously European in the way it mingled the old imperatives of free market and Christian morality.

Chris Patten was rare in coming out, making explicit the links with German and other continental politicians that are widespread in Tory politics. He did so in an interview with Marxism Today (RIP) after the Thatcherite Fall, arguing that there was 'a feeling that we need to be more explicit about the social responsibilities that should go with successful individualism . . . the importance of the collective and the community . . .'

Most of the leading Tory Christian Democrats, such as Mr Patten, his chum John Patten, Tristan Garel- Jones and William Waldegrave, supported Douglas Hurd's failed leadership bid. So did other currently prominent Christians, such as Miss Widdecombe and Julian Brazier, the Canterbury MP.

Though they all adopted Mr Garel- Jones's 'sometimes when you lose, you win' formula to welcome John Major as their new leader, Tory Christian Democracy did lose. Mr Major adopts a secularist tone and has, if anything, emphasised Thatcherite social values as he keeps his party together. Last night, he made his most overtly pro-European speech so far - a welcome and sensible one - but his Euro-enthusiasm has also been subordinated to the cause of Tory unity.

The two connect because Christian Democracy is a European movement strongly influenced by Christian social teaching. Indeed, specifically by Roman Catholic teaching. As it happens, of the leading Hurd supporters in 1990, both the Pattens are Catholics. Mr Garel-Jones, with a Catholic wife, is so in style, if not belief. Now Miss Widdecombe is a Catholic, with Mr Brazier by her side as she was received, standing in for John Patten. Of the other leading lights, Mr Waldegrave is an Anglican. But he comes from the sort of High Church, Royalist West Country family that probably has priests' holes in the wainscoting the way other people have cracks under the Anaglypta.

So, time for a good Ulster-accented bellow? 'Romish plot unmasked] Tory plotters under the Commons] Candles and theological gunpowder found nearby]' I think not. The match between Hurd supporters and Catholics, or even Christians, was a little-heard minor chord in the leadership campaign, interesting rather than essential. Secular politics has little to do with those new Catholics who revolted at the idea of female priests ('incensed Anglicans', I suppose we should call them).

Even so, the links between Catholic teaching and Tory social philosophy are interesting, joining Chris Patten's Catholic emphasis on the importance of voluntary work and social solidarity to Mr Hurd's attempt at the Home Office to develop a Tory social creed based on 'active citizenship'.

They are interesting because this is, after all, a Government that seems generally incoherent on social duties and relationships. It is not quite neo- liberal, yet not convincingly moralistic, either. Should it be? Not if that means illiberal or hypocritical sermons on sexual behaviour, abortion or whatever: that would bad politics in contemporary Britain. But the Tories may be missing a trick, even so. There is evidence that church attendence is on the rise, particularly in middle-class areas. And moral issues, above all crime, have slid up the political agenda. In an age of uncertainty, perhaps religion and traditional moral attitudes are making a comeback. The Labour Party leaders who speak about the link between their politics and their Christianity certainly seem to think so.

So, would a Tory strain of Christian Democracy have given the Government some coherence and sense of direction over the past couple of years? Here's Chris Patten again, from that 1991 interview: 'We have to establish a rhythm for our radicalism which matches the prevailing mood. I don't think people just want a quiet life and no change, but they want to feel that the government is setting about change in a deliberate and considered way.'

That message in a bottle still seems worth recalling. If the Tories, he mused, were able to find an 'English rhetoric for what seems to come so naturally to the German Christian Democrats, namely the social market economy, then we're on to a very substantial winner'. Despite Germany's deep problems after unification, that may still be true.

Whether it be or not, though, the chance to try out Christian Democracy in Britain may have passed. Mr Hurd is the lost leader. One Patten is arm-wrestling with the heathen Chinese Communists and the other is doing so with heathen English children. Mr Garel-Jones is quitting frontline politics. Mr Waldegrave has converted to Majorism, and made his pilgrimage to Huntingdon, not Rome. Perhaps this week's Mass at Westminster should have been a Requiem one, for the Christian Democratic experiment that Britain never had.