Independent on Sunday, 20 April 2014
Maybe that sting in the warm waters off Lanzarote was God’s way of telling Cameron that religion and politics don’t mix
As far as I can remember, jellyfish did not figure among the plagues visited on Egypt in the Old Testament. So perhaps God was improvising when he sent a member of this tentacled marine species to give David Cameron a message in the balmy waters off Lanzarote. Local people warned the Prime Minister that there were jellyfish just off the beach but, according to witnesses, he ignored their advice. What happened next was predictable: Cameron suddenly emerged from the sea, shouting in agony and rubbing his arm after being stung.
Has he got the message? There are plenty of reasons why God, if he were to exist, should be more than a little annoyed by the Prime Minister’s recent behaviour. Promoting religion is a risky business in British politics, so much so that Tony Blair wisely kept his views to himself while he was in office. The UK is a Christian country in name only, despite bullish pronouncements to the contrary by the Prime Minister and his pantomimic Secretary of State for Communities, Eric Pickles. (Let’s not even mention the “Minister for Faith”, the ineffable Baroness Warsi.) They seem to think that saying something often enough makes it true, yet more people belong to the RSPB than attend a church service each Sunday. By that logic, we’re more a bird-watching nation than a God-fearing one, a development for which I am profoundly grateful.
Census responses on religious belief tend to be skewed by asking people what their religion is, rather than whether they have one at all. The British Social Attitudes Survey, which tackles the question in a less loaded manner, suggests that the proportion of people who describe themselves as non-religious has risen from just under a third three decades ago to half in 2009; in the 18 to 24 age group, only 36 per cent claim to have a religious affiliation. And there’s more data to unsettle the Prime Minister, if he were not so caught up in his fantasy of presiding over a settled, God-fearing nation: according to an ICM poll in 2006, only 17 per cent of respondents believed that the UK could best be described as a Christian country. Four-fifths regarded religion as a cause of division and tension.
I doubt whether many of these people will have welcomed the Prime Minister’s recent article in the Church Times. Even though he was addressing a rapidly diminishing audience, he declared that “we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country”.
Who is this “we”? Not the UK’s Muslim, Sikh, Jewish and Hindu populations, and certainly not atheists, agnostics, humanists or anyone who believes that the state should be secular. While members of non-Christian religions get invitations to Downing Street to mark religious festivals, millions of people who do not have any religious belief are frozen out of Whitehall by a man who couldn’t even muster an overall majority at the last election.
Because he’s been Prime Minister for almost four years, it’s easy to forget how precarious Cameron’s position is; this is the Tory leader who couldn’t achieve a clear victory over Gordon Brown, Labour’s weakest leader for decades. Yet he talks smugly about “Christian” values, never acknowledging the immorality of imposing them on a population which is expressing an ever-greater preference for secular ethics. A little religious cabal around the Prime Minister keeps trying to demonise secularism, wrongly characterising it as an enemy of religion, yet it is the only practical way we can live together in a society that displays such diverse beliefs.
At an Easter reception earlier this month for Christians – mostly white men in suits, with the odd woman and a handful of people from ethnic minorities – the Prime Minister even made the remarkable claim that “Jesus invented the Big Society 2,000 years ago”. I’m not making this up: you can read his speech on the Downing Street website where he actually describes himself as “a sort of giant Dyno-Rod”, clearing blockages in Whitehall on behalf of Christian organisations.
In a lifetime of observing British politics, I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite such desperate tactics; with the polls stubbornly showing Labour in the lead and Ukip snapping at his heels, a British prime minister has been reduced to selling himself as an evangelical drain cleaner. Vote Camo-Rod and flush those nasty non-believers out of the system! (Generous discounts for regular churchgoers.)
Pitching for the religious vote carries huge risks for the Conservatives, suggesting they’re more out of touch than anyone could have imagined or have substantially overestimated the size of their core support. At the next general election, the Prime Minister will find himself scrapping with Ukip for a dwindling Christian vote, while Labour rallies behind a secular modern leader. No wonder God sent that jellyfish. He must be tearing his hair out as he watches the contortions of a Desperate Christian in Downing Street.