It’s now coming up to three-and-a-half years since I put fingers to keyboard and began blogging on the relationship between Christianity and politics. Along the way it’s brought me into contact with plenty of people immersed in the political world. Judging by the coverage from the media, I could have expected to find that those who have gone down this route had sold their souls to their parties and had their consciences squeezed dry.
Don’t get me wrong – I’ve heard reliable stories of tribalistic, power-hungry individuals who wouldn’t be averse to the odd bit of backstabbing when it suits their ambitions. But the vast majority of political types that I have met have been genuine, friendly and sincere. And of those, some of the nicest of these have been members of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum (LDCF). This is a bunch of LibDems who are incredibly welcoming, spiritually alive and not afraid to do whatever they can to make sure Christianity gets the attention it deserves within their party. Last year they published Liberal Democrats Do God, which gave Christian LibDem MPs and peers an opportunity to confidently stand tall and express their faith through its pages. The raising of the income tax threshold by this government, which has benefited millions of earners on low incomes, is a direct result of the work of Lizzie Jewkes, an LDCF member, who was inspired by the Bible’s teaching on treating the poor and vulnerable fairly. Her dream of those living on the minimum wage paying no income tax is now in both the 2015 Conservative and LibDem manifestos.
Along with Labour, the LibDems have pledged in their manifesto to appoint an Ambassador for Freedom of Religion or Belief: “We will appoint an Ambassador-level Champion for Freedom of Belief to drive British diplomatic efforts in this field, and we will campaign for the abolition of blasphemy, sedition, apostasy and criminal libel laws worldwide,” they write. This new commitment is, again, down to the campaigning of the LDCF on this specific issue. It is an achievement they should be proud of.
The LibDems, along with most of the other parties, are increasingly using favourable language regarding religious belief and the role of churches and Christian organisations. In a recent interview with Premier Christianity, Nick Clegg explained that he is not as much of an atheist as people might have been led to believe; that the Bishops’ recent criticisms of the government’s approach to social equality were “fantastic”; and he paid tribute to all of the church groups who seek to serve the most vulnerable through their “hugely important” provision of food banks and other support. Cynics might argue that such warm words are due to politicians having woken up to the fact that the Christian vote is of a significant size and worth chasing. Let’s not forget that not so long ago, the LibDem leader was going to deliver a speech which described those opposed to same-sex marriage as ‘bigots’. But even allowing for attempted pre-election charm offensives, there does appear to be some substance here, and, either way, it certainly beats being ignored.
But sadly, these godly overtures from Nick Clegg don’t appear to extend to faith schools, of which 99 per cent are church schools. In a hangover from their 2010 manifesto, the LibDems have not had a change of heart and still want to ensure that all faith schools develop an inclusive admissions policy and end discrimination on grounds of faith when recruiting staff, except for those principally responsible for religious instruction.
At last year’s autumn conference, National Secular Society honorary associates Julian Huppert MP and Dr Evan Harris attempted to bring in a LibDem policy that would ban all faith-based pupil selection, but the motion was defeated after Business Secretary Vince Cable and Justice Minister Simon Hughes urged delegates to reject the amendment saying it risked “really serious harm”. This would appear to imply that there is now no opposition to selection by faith, and yet what is an ‘inclusive admissions policy’ if it does not restrict selection by faith? In 2009 the party approved a policy of no new selective faith schools being established. There is nothing coherent about this. Either faith schools have an important part to play in the make-up of our education system or they don’t. If you believe that they do, as Nick Clegg has demonstrated both through his words and also by sending his children to one, then the implication is that you agree it is critically important that a religious ethos is allowed to flourish. In doing so, these schools are able to maintain their distinctive identity by which all pupils, and especially those with a faith, benefit.
Faith schools, in theory, have the potential to become “silos of segregation“, as Mr Clegg has put it, but in practice the vast majority are broad and inclusive. There has, though, always been a tradition of these schools serving those families who want their children to be educated in an environment which encourages their faith to grow and develop. Nick Clegg and his wife chose the London Oratory for their children because she is Roman Catholic and they wanted their children to be brought up in that faith at school, as well as nurtured at home. If these LibDem policies had been implemented, there is a good chance that their children would not have been offered a place. But even if they had been living within the catchment area and had gained entry, with a school that could have only a couple of teachers who identify as Roman Catholic, there could potentially be a whole host of teachers with no great interest in religion reluctantly propping up the school’s founding values. Would the Cleggs be happy with such a watered-down level of faith being demonstrated to their children week after week?
LibDem policy would effectively neuter faith schools and leave them barely discernible from the local “bog standard” comprehensive school. It would be the de facto end of faith schools as we know them. It needs to be repeated again that apart from secular humanists, there is no appetite among the public for faith schools losing their identity or having their admissions arrangements altered. If schools are forced to change their intakes, it does not improve the quality of the school one bit. All it does is to please a different group of people who can afford to live in an area while upsetting others who cannot.
The LibDems have got some things very right in their manifesto, but this assault on faith schools is not one of them. We already have the Green Party who are keen to see church schools consigned to the dustbin of history. After five years in government (and, it must be observed, supporting Michael Gove’s extension of academisation and Free Schools programme), the LibDems ought to know better by now. They really shouldn’t leave us in a position where, on the one hand, they express full support for these schools, but, on the other, threaten to wreak widespread damage. For a party that has education at the heart of its manifesto, such a policy is neither liberal nor democratic. Nor, in the final analysis, is it necessary.