Ignore the siren voices of these meddling clerics

The next general election campaign, according to most political commentators, is going to be nasty and bruising. So what's new?
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Last time round we had the Tories' demon eyes poster, equating Tony Blair with the devil, and in 1992 the row over Jennifer's ear. The difference this time is that William Hague's front bench has already shown its willingness to exploit subjects like race, with Ann Widdecombe challenging the Government to take ever tougher measures against asylum seekers. And Labour appears scared of what it is hearing from some of its core voters, such as the trade unionist I talked to at the Brighton conference - a man with impeccable working-class credentials, who told me it was time the Government looked after its own instead of giving handouts to foreigners.

Last time round we had the Tories' demon eyes poster, equating Tony Blair with the devil, and in 1992 the row over Jennifer's ear. The difference this time is that William Hague's front bench has already shown its willingness to exploit subjects like race, with Ann Widdecombe challenging the Government to take ever tougher measures against asylum seekers. And Labour appears scared of what it is hearing from some of its core voters, such as the trade unionist I talked to at the Brighton conference - a man with impeccable working-class credentials, who told me it was time the Government looked after its own instead of giving handouts to foreigners.

Against this background, it is clear that race, particularly immigration and asylum, could easily become an issue in the run-up to the election. It emerged last week that this prospect is worrying religious leaders, who have launched a quiet initiative, meeting the leaders of the main political parties to warn them against inciting racial tension. The meetings took place during the party conferences, when bishops told politicians to avoid intemperate language and demanded that they disown any candidate who encourages resentment on the basis of ethnic origin.

At first sight, the move is timely. There have been ugly outbursts of racism in the tabloids throughout the year, and Government ministers have failed to show the kind of leadership we might expect from decent men and women with a commitment to social justice and equality. The Tories lurch between Michael Portillo's idiosyncratic version of inclusiveness and Widdecombe's right-wing populism, with Hague appearing temperamentally drawn to the latter, especially if it seems likely to win more votes. Between them, the two main parties have opened up a moral and rhetorical gap on race; but are bishops the right people to fill it?

The fact that they happen, on this occasion, to be correct does not throw much light on that question. Religious observance has declined rapidly in recent years, and the established Church is an anomaly that embarrasses some of the more thoughtful Anglican bishops. In terms of popular support, clerics of any faith have a case to argue, but in much the same way as any other interest group, whether it happens to represent farmers, foxhunters, trade unionists or environmentalists. This point is almost always overlooked in a society whose institutions, principally the Church and the monarchy, are venerated more out of habit than anything else.

When bishops, or any other clerics, offer an opinion, they are just as likely to be wrong as the next person. Cardinal Thomas Winning, head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, is a case in point; his interventions on abortion, and in support of the pernicious Section 28, are offensive to many women and to campaigners for gay rights. Prince Charles's opposition to GM food was undoubtedly popular, but it became clear during his embarrassing Reith lectures earlier this year that it was based on an instinctive and irrational hostility to science.

Yet there is an automatic reflex in this country that when bishops or princes speak, we should listen. It is a legacy of the divine right of kings, which bestows office in a highly undemocratic manner and then rewards the lucky recipient with a degree of reverence that is usually quite unmerited. You have only to listen to Thought for the Day on Radio 4's Today programme to be reminded of the taste for whimsy and absence of intellectual rigour that characterise religious discourse in this country; day after day, people whose ideas would normally be laughed off air are settled comfortably in front of a microphone and allowed to pontificate, as though being a vicar, rabbi, Catholic priest or Muslim scholar entitles them to our respectful attention.

It does not. And at heart they know it, which is why religious leaders favour the retention of blasphemy laws that give special status to their pronouncements. All of this has been obscured, in recent years, by the reluctance of political leaders of the centre-left to take principled positions on contentious subjects like race, permitting clerics to do it instead.

But while the Church's moral order may happen to coincide with that of liberals on social questions, it will always be at odds with it on matters of personal and sexual morality. Those of us who rejoiced to see the Church ejected from our private lives should beware of allowing it to regain any of its old authority, even on occasions when we appear to have a common cause.

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