David Cameron needs to tread very carefully when ‘doing God’, especially when it looks like a way of countering Ukip

The PM comes across as a thoroughly typical Anglican - a bit of this, a bit of that


There are many arguments you can advance in favour of separating Church and State in Britain. One concerns the diplomatic and theological minefields to be negotiated when the head of state meets the Pope, the heir to the throne re-marries, or the Prime Minister of the day feels the call to Catholicism. A second would relate to the growing diversity of the population. A third would cite the periodic spats that erupt between cash-strapped governments and Archbishops of Canterbury who preach compassion. 

But at least as compelling an argument for disestablishing the Church of England would be the embarrassment that radiates from a Prime Minister who from time to time feels the urge to wear his religious heart on his sleeve. Or perhaps that should be his “sort of religious” heart – which is not to question anyone’s sincerity, just the lukewarm essence of established Anglicanism. Alastair Campbell was so right to steer Tony Blair away from “doing God”; here was one scrape at least that he avoided.

Not so, his successor but one at No 10. In his Easter article for the Church Times, David Cameron comes across as a thoroughly typical Anglican – a bit of this, a bit of that, not too demonstrative, not too certain; someone who appreciatively sends his children to CofE schools while apparently wishing that he, and his Church, were more assertive about the whole thing.

And he does his best. “Some people,” he writes, “feel that in this ever more secular age we shouldn't talk about these things. I completely disagree. I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people's lives.”

After which he hastily goes on to say that greater confidence about Britain as a Christian country does not entail “doing down” those of others faiths, or none at all. “Many people tell me it is easier to be Jewish or Muslim in Britain than in a secular country, precisely because the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths, too.”

You can see the difficulty. As Prime Minister of a country with an established church of which he is a member, an increasingly secular outlook and growing non-Christian minorities, Cameron is in tricky territory if he wants to recommend that Britain should be more confident about its Christian identity. I rather wish that he did not feel the need to try, and left it to the Queen to distribute the Maundy money, as she did yesterday in Blackburn (a city with the third-highest proportion of Muslims in the country).

It is possible to respect Cameron for putting his religious faith out there, not least in the quite modest and very British way in which he did in the Church Times, while suspecting that purposes other than personal witness and observance of Eastertide might be at work. That is the trouble about being Prime Minister and talking not about faith in the abstract, but about your own.

Because even if he did not mean to score any political points, this is how his contribution can be construed. With European elections a little more than a month away and a general election in a year’s time, the spectre of Ukip looms large. While denying that his party is anti-immigration as such, Nigel Farage would not dispute that it is about national identity, and that identity for many of its potential voters and wavering Conservatives would encompass a brand of Anglicanism a la Cameron. So it is useful, to put it no more strongly, for the Conservative leader to have this on the record in nice time for Easter.

Similarly with compassion. As benefits reform advances, steered unapologetically by Iain Duncan Smith, so those who see its practical – or political – downsides mobilise to get their view across. The Christian churches, galvanised by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, have made much of the running, including in an open letter published earlier this week, signed by 42 Anglican bishops and more than 600 others, calling for action to stop people going hungry in the UK.

No matter that international figures show both food poverty, and child poverty, in Britain declining, or that the Coalition has an electoral mandate for reducing welfare spending. The perception is that benefit changes are driving thousands to food banks, and it is no good Cameron spouting George Bush-style “compassionate conservatism”.

Even as the economic recovery threatens to make its life awkward, Labour can take comfort from the return of the “nasty party”.  Taken at face value or as politics, Cameron’s profession of faith and benevolence to all this Easter will not be enough to turn the tide. In this, he might done better to emulate Blair, in keeping God and Caesar – at least for public purposes - apart.

Read more: David Cameron acclaims his and Britain’s Christian faith

Throw down your NHS crutch and walk

GPs in south Warwickshire have floated the introduction of charges for medical aids, such as crutches, to cut an annual bill approaching half a million pounds. NHS England and the TUC General Secretary at once rejected the idea, insisting that charging for such items could be illegal and counter to everything the NHS stands for. Everyone here is wrong. 

The GPs should ask how far patients are encouraged to return equipment that is issued at present. My past efforts to return crutches, an orthopaedic “boot” and unused medicines have been met variously with indifference, irritation and outright rejection. Those attitudes need to change.

As for medical aids being free on the NHS – come off it! Many people receive nothing; many others find the procedures so ponderous and what is available so grudgingly offered or so unsuitable that they resort to the market. People are spending enormous amounts of money on everything from walking sticks to wheelchairs to mobility scooters, in a market where, as the Office of Fair Trading recently established, price-fixing and pressure-selling are rife.

This is a discussion that needs to be opened up, not closed down by the fiction that at present all medical help is free. 

Sorry, Baroness Lawrence, but campaigner is not the same as mayor

I felt a bit sorry for Tessa Jowell, when a BBC interviewer surprised her by asking whether the recently ennobled Doreen Lawrence should be Labour’s candidate for mayor of London. Dame Tessa – who is believed to have mayoral ambitions herself – had to ask for clarification. As well she might. It is a foolhardy politician, or commentator, for that  matter, who would question Baroness Lawrence’s suitability for anything – up to and including canonisation. But mayor of London? I think not.

She may be a single-minded and effective campaigner; she may have suffered great injustice; she may embody the still-unfinished struggle for equality. But none of this, by itself, comes close to qualifying her to be mayor. At best, the idea smacks of tokenism; at worst, it invites a backlash. This is a proposal that needs to be scotched before it becomes so mainstream that it is seen as racist to demur.

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