If you, like me, think of yourself as a leftist and progressive, then politics in the UK is a rather depressing affair. The current Conservative government seems capable of getting away with essentially anything, whether it is scrapping large amounts of welfare benefits, trying to impose a frankly ludicrous contract on Junior Doctors, or deciding to turn all schools into academies, it seems like any sense of a progressive political project seems to be going down the drain. Even the fact that our Prime Minister, David Cameron, has admitted to tax evasion, and may (read, probably did) face-bang a dead pig at University doesn’t seem enough to slow the Conservative agenda. I’m often told, however, that as a UK citizen I have it easy, because it’s worse in the States, the reason being that the American Right has become indistinguishable from the Evangelical Right. There’s even a decent amount of humour, on this side of the Atlantic, at least, about the religious lunatics who end up becoming highly respected members of the Republican Party.
But is the UK really that much different?
Before I try to make the case that religious bigotry has a firm place in the UK Right, a disclaimer: in doing so, I do not, for one second, want to take away from the reality of US Politics. Anyone who has any sort of political sense of secularism will applaud the bravery of those who stand up against a religious political agenda. For example, despite it now being 40 years since Roe vs Wade, 87% of counties in the US don’t have an abortion provider, and the majority of states impose some sort of prohibition on a women’s right to chose. Furthermore, 18 states offer no protection to LGBT+ employees at a state level, and North Carolina has recently brought in a so called “bathroom law” which prevents transgender Americans from using the bathroom relating to their chosen gender. The list goes on, and these measures would (outside of Northern Ireland, perhaps) be unthinkable in the UK, and for that I am grateful. However, this does not mean that UK secularists should be complacent.
Increasingly, figures on the UK Right have started to use alarmingly similar language to Christian Republicans. David Cameron in his 2015 Christmas message declared that Britain is a “Christian Country.” This may seem like a throwaway remark, and on some level is true. The UK does have a state religion, the Anglican Church of England. However, 25.7% of UK Citizens have “no religion” according to the 2011 census, and 18.3% of people practised a faith other than Christianity. While a majority in that census considered themselves Christian, there was considerable doubt as to how many practise or were merely baptised. A separate poll suggests only 18% of UK citizens were practising churchgoers. Hardly, then, a Christian country. More worryingly, Cameron tried to claim that Christian values were British values. Not only does this simply erase the existence of other faiths and their values, but, as the National Secular Society put it, also ignores Britain’s rich traditions of enlightenment thinking and secularism. The leader of the far right UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, – a party which has espoused homophobic, racist and sexist views – has also declared the UK a “Christian country,” though, in Farage’s world view, Christian appears to equal white, and much of UKIPs rhetoric blends xenophobia with a horrendously archaic idea of traditional Christian values.
But it is more than just slogans. Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, and a deeply conservative Christian, recently announced that sex education would no longer be compulsory in UK schools (faith schools, previously, had been able to opt out). I attended a Catholic school as a child, where no sex education was given, and I’m sure I do not need to say much to the readers of this blog to emphasise how to lack of sex education impacted upon me as a teenager and a young man. The government has also proposed laws that would restrict free speech around religion. While I can certainly see how some can use the criticism of religion to mask a racist agenda, it is deeply concerning that the state would seek to limit the right of an individual to freely criticise and comment on religious belief.
The UK, thankfully, has no Rick Santorums. We do not have a Rick Perry imposing anti-sodomy laws; we are thankfully free of Ted Cruz-like men who try to shut down our government because it is “God’s will.” But UK secularists and progressives cannot afford to ignore the creeping intrusion of intolerant religious ideas in our political right.