Sarah Ingham: After the Batley protests and on this Easter Saturday, a case for tolerating religious belief

3 Apr

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

It says much about religion in this country that, during Holy Week, the Archbishop of Canterbury intervened in the ongoing row about freedom of speech and Islam.

The head of the Anglican Communion told La Repubblica: “We have to be open to hearing things we really dislike.” Justin Welby spoke as the storm over faith and free speech continued. It was sparked by a cartoon image of Mohammed which was allegedly shown to students during a religious studies lesson at Batley Grammar School.

As protestors gathered outside the school gates at the end of last week, the teacher involved was suspended and is currently in hiding. He reportedly fears that he and his family will be killed. A spokesman for the Batley Parents and Community Partnership, Yunus Linat, stated that the image was offensive and Islamophobic. Their children should be able to attend school “without having their faith – which is protected in law – or their culture, ridiculed, insulted or vilified”.

For those defending freedom of expression, there is no reason in heaven or on earth why faith should not be ridiculed, insulted or vilified. The sacred must take its chances with the profane. In a letter to Gavin Williamson, Toby Young of the Free Speech Union called for the Department of Education’s guidance on British values to be amended to ensure free speech is prioritised.

In Britain, ‘we don’t do God’ too much. Should we go to church, most are not C of E, but C and E; Christmas and Easter. This is confirmed by the Church of England’s Statistics for Mission. It reports that in 2019, on average 690,000 attended Sunday services, but 1.1 million went to church at Easter, while 2.3 million did so at Christmas, when one third of received Communion.

Perhaps swayed by Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair didn’t “do God” until after he left office. Of recent Prime Ministers, only Theresa May seemed entirely comfortable with public displays of faith. Regularly caught on camera leaving her parish church, the middle-England, Waitrose-shopping vicar’s daughter perfectly embodies the description of the Church of England being ‘the Tory party at prayer’.

Looking like a man born to read a lesson at Matins, David Cameron famously said his faith came and went, a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns. In the Church Times, he also wrote about the Church of England being rooted in the fabric of nation. Describing churches in his Witney constituency that ‘take your breath away with their beauty, simplicity and serenity’, he called for Anglicans ‘to be more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.’

Since the Batley cartoon controversy broke, many commentators have rushed to the barricades to defend freedom of speech. Notably absent from the articles and blogs is any reproduction of the offending image, which allegedly first appeared in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015. Given that it led to the 12 people being shot dead, it is unsurprising that few are in any hurry to reprint: je ne suis pas Charlie.

For the commentariat to treat this cartoon as radioactive but then demand it be shown in schools is baffling. It is almost as baffling as the clumsy decision to include it in a lesson plan, especially after the execution of French teacher Samuel Paty last October, after it was mendaciously claimed that he showed images of the Prophet to his students.

Ten years ago, the 2011 Census seemed to highlight a move away from religion – or more accurately, from Christianity. Some 14 million people in England and Wales – 25 per cent – answered ‘No Religion’, up from 7.7 million in 2001. About 2.7 million people identified as Muslim, up from 1.5 million in ten years. Although the number of those identifying as Christian had dropped since 2001, it still stood at 33.2 million, accounting for 59 per cent of those who replied.

As we await the results of the 2021 Census, its predecessor probably did little to gladden the heart of zealous atheist Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. A decade ago, its findings underlined that Britain is a Christian country, but one where, with his usual prescience, Prince Charles was correct in talking about being a future defender of faiths.

Much of the comment surrounding recent events at Batley Grammar School has vilified sincerely held religious belief, while suggesting that British values are under threat. But many consider that the foremost British value which they hold dear is tolerance – which includes tolerating the creeds of others.

As the Archbishop stated, “Exercise your freedom of speech but don’t prevent other people exercising their freedom of speech”. He reminded us that the blasphemy laws were abolished comparatively recently, with the support of the Church. Blasphemy, he suggested, is “morally a bad choice, in the sense of denigrating other people’s faith in a bad way, but it should not be a criminal matter”.

Tolerance should be extended to the couple of dozen demonstrators who made their noisy protest outside the Batley school gate: equally those protestors should reciprocate that tolerance. Perhaps this weekend, above all, they should reflect on the Christian message of forgiveness.

Happy Easter. As the late, great comedian Dave Allen used to say, may your God go with you.

David Alton: The horror of this day, Good Friday, is a horror for our times

2 Apr

Lord Alton of Liverpool is a Crossbench Peer.

Without the certainties of Easter, there would be little cause to describe this day, this Friday, as “Good.” The origins and etymology of the word have been lost in the mists of time, but scholars suggest that its meaning is rooted in the use of good as a representation of holy or pious. In old English it was called “Long Friday” and in the East is sometimes known more graphically as Black Friday.

Whether you believe, or not, the story of this Friday was the story of a bad day for justice: an unjust trial, the violent use of torture, the degrading of human dignity. Mel Gibson left no doubt about the full horror of crucifixion in “The Passion of the Christ”. The harrowing detail is disturbing but undoubtedly accurate. The Romans perfected the art of the slow death and inflicted excruciating pain – intensified by scourging designed to lacerate and expose a man’s wounds.

The crucifixion of an innocent man is an old story, yes, but one that still stirs vast numbers of people. It’s a story with contemporary resonance.

More than two billion people world-wide today identify as Christian and, even in the UK, almost two thirds of the country (33.2 million people) describe themselves as Christian. With 84 per cent of the global population identifying with a religious group – and as the demographics of belief are  weighted in favour of the young  – the world has been getting more religious, not less.

For the non-believer, the religious beliefs of their acquaintances can seem incomprehensible and  threatening. But it cuts both ways.

How we accommodate one another, how we negotiate each other’s beliefs – or lack of them – and how we learn to live alongside each other, with genuine respect for difference, is a defining question for our times. It’s also one our forebears had to address..

In 1948, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and the abject failure to counter a murderous ideology rooted in the hatred of difference, world leaders promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the Convention on the Crime of Genocide. As international institutions have fallen into disrepair, the declarations and treaties – and the duties and obligations which flow from them – need urgent renewal and recalibration.

The UDHR was the civilised world’s response to the infamies of the twentieth century—from the Armenian genocide to the depredations of Stalin’s gulags and Hitler’s concentration camps; it emerged from warped ideologies that elevated nation and race. The Declaration’s stated objective was to realise, “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”.

The four great murderers of the 20th century—Mao, Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot—were united by their hatred of religious faith. It was the bloodiest century in human history with the loss of 100 million lives. And now, in the twenty-first century, often in the name of a religion, millions more have died or been forced to flee their homelands.

Article 18 of the UDHR asserts the right to believe, not to believe,  or to change your belief. It’s a good place to start on a day like this. A defence of the article ought to unite believers and non-believers alike  – and might provide a common platform from which to call out those who violate so many of the other 30 Articles in the UDHR.

In 2019, having read The Times leader writer’s description of our muted response to such anti-Christian persecution as the actions of “spectators at the carnage”, Jeremy Hunt took the well-judged step of commissioning an independent review of the evidence.

The Truro Report concluded that “the level and the nature” of  the persecution of hundreds of millions of Christians was in some regions “arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide.”

Turn a blind eye, pretend you didn’t know, and the persecution leads to atrocity crimes; turn a blind eye, and it becomes open season on believers of all faiths; turn a blind eye, and every one of the other 30 Articles in the UDHR will be breached too.

That we still avert our gaze and have much more to do can be seen in these snapshots from the past few days.

Last weekend, on Palm Sunday, radicals acting, not for the first time, in the name of religion, laid bombs in a church – this time in Makassar in eastern Indonesia, injuring twenty people.

This week, the most important in the Christian calendar, is a favourite target of jihadists. Recall the Easter Day bombings in Sri Lanka in 2019, and the Easter murders of church goers in Lahore’s Gulsha-i-Iqbal Park, picnicking after their Service.

But for many the agonies of Good Friday are a daily occurrence.

Think of Northern Nigeria where Leah Sharibu, a young schoolgirl, remains in the hands of Boko Haram, having been abducted, raped, forcibly converted, and married. Since last Easter, more than 3,000 Christians have been killed in Nigeria – a country which last year received an average of £800,000 in UK aid every single day.

In Pakistan, another Commonwealth country, Maria Shahbaz is just one of around 1,000 Christian and Hindu girls, aged between 12 and 25, who are abducted annually – with impunity. Ten years ago, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Christian Minister for Minorities, was assassinated. No one has been brought to justice. During the same period, Pakistan has been in receipt of £3 billion of UK aid, little of which reaches beleaguered minorities.

In Burma, the illegal military junta is stoking the fires of religious nationalism, targeting ethno-religious minorities such as Christian Kachin and Karen, and Muslim Rohingyas.  The appointment of my friend, Dr Sasa, an ethnic Chin, and a Christian, as the international envoy of Burma’s elected Parliamentarians.

Think, too, of the personal Calvaries of China’s religious minorities: the genocide against Uyghur Muslims; the incarceration of Christians in Hong Kong;  Tibet’s suffering Buddhists;  murdered Falun Gong practitioners ; bulldozed churches and arrested pastors – such as Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Church, now serving nine years in prison.

In neighbouring North Korea, another atheistic regime has created  what a UN report describes as “a State without parallel” .  A North Korean escapee from one of the concentration camps was a witness at a hearing I chaired in Westminster. She told us: “They tortured the Christians the most”.

These stories can be replicated in many other jurisdictions, from Sudan to Iran, Eritrea to Iraq – where genocide was the fate of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities.

The man who coined the word “genocide” was the Jewish Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, and his work led to the Genocide Convention. He  argued that “international co-operation” was needed, “to liberate mankind from such an odious scourge”.

As a Treaty signatory we are committed to prevent, protect, and punish. But as Parliament has made clear in recent weeks these promises have been honoured mainly in their breach. William Hague was right to say there is a significant “gap between the commitments States have made and the reality of their actions.”

Both the Genocide Convention and Article 18 of the UDHR  are secular documents.  They could still offer the best hope to the religious and non religious alike. Along with better focused and prioritised practical help, through UK aid programmes, we really could turn the tables.

On a day when we remember an unjust trial, the violent use of torture, the degrading of human dignity, and judicial murder, we  might ask whether we march to such a very different tune, too often acquiescing in the shedding of innocent blood?

Good Friday was a bad day for humanity – but even the most monstrous crimes don’t have to be the final word. Beyond the Cross is an empty tomb, giving reassurance, meaning and perspective to our seemingly endless ability to inflict wounds and suffering on one another.

Profile: Danny Kruger, defender of Christian conservatism and traditional ideas of virtue

31 Mar

Who now dares to talk about the virtues? Danny Kruger, MP since December 2019 for Devizes, is one of the few parliamentarians who ventures to do so.

In his latest declaration, jointly launched with Miriam Cates, who in 2019 took Penistone and Stocksbridge from Labour, Kruger begins by denouncing the facile assumption that we are all born good:

“What is the job of society? There is a modern delusion that we are born pure, and then corrupted by an unfair world. But surely the plain truth is that we are born greedy, narcissistic and violent. That’s why laissez-faire doesn’t work any more than big government. Left entirely to ourselves, individuals will exploit, slack off, rent-seek, and cheat.”

So we need to be educated:

“The job of society is to teach us to temper these impulses and to train us in a different set of habits. What habits are these? The old times called them the virtues: the practices that human beings are uniquely good at, like courage, temperance, fortitude, creativity, compassion and shrewdness. The virtues make us happy and great, and make life better for everyone else.”

Kruger calls for “a New Social Covenant”, under which “the family, the community and the nation” become our “schools of virtue”, and goes on to enunciate 12 propositions, including:

“The state should safeguard the customs of the country.”

“We need a new ‘economics of place’ instead of the failed doctrine of economic mobility.”

“Marriage is a public institution and essential to society.”

He proceeds to defend these propositions in a reasonable and erudite tone, for he has been working on this for a long time. Kruger was the author of David Cameron’s “Hug a Hoodie” speech, delivered in July 2006 to the Centre for Social Justice.

Cameron had become Leader of the Opposition in December 2005, and needed to show that after three general election defeats, the Conservatives were at last undertaking the fundamental changes that were required.

In April 2006 Cameron signalled the modernisation of environment policy by going to Norway to hug a husky, and three months later he proclaimed, at the Centre for Social Justice, founded by Iain Duncan Smith, his commitment to understanding rather than condemning young people who wore hoodies, an item of clothing which had recently been banned, with Tony Blair’s approval, by the Bluewater Shopping Centre.

Not everyone was impressed by this exercise in compassionate conservatism. According to Kruger, reminiscing in The Spectator in June 2008:

“The day of Boris’s election [as Mayor of London on 1st May 2008] was also the day I stopped work as David Cameron’s speechwriter to go full-time at the charity my wife and I founded two years ago to work with prisoners and ex-offenders. My main claim to distinction in my old job was drafting the speech in which David said something capable of the construction (though not the words, not the words themselves) that the public should all get out there and hug hoodies.

“This speech has gone down in Tory lore as a terrible blunder, but I am still rather proud of it. The nub of it was, that while we should certainly punish people who cross the line into criminality, on this side of the line we need ‘to show a lot more love’.

“Love is a neglected crime-fighting device. But the need for it is powerfully proved in Felicity de Zulueta’s important book From Pain to Violence: The Traumatic Roots of Destructiveness. She argues that violence and hatred are not motive forces of their own: they are the terrible expression of wrecked relationships, of thwarted love.

“Men and women seem to have a yearning for agency, for the ability to affect things. As de Zulueta puts it, the sense of helplessness is ‘a state tantamount to annihilation’; we will do anything to avoid it. Hence self-harm, and what youth workers call ‘self-sabotage’ — the apparently wilful screwing-up of opportunities, the no-show, the walking-away at the moment before achievement. People who feel incapable, feel the need to prove it: failure, at least, is something they can author.”

One sees that for Kruger, all this really matters. Cameron spoke about it as if he too cared deeply about it. But somehow the Big Society, as this strand in his programme became known (Steve Hilton is credited with inventing the name), never quite achieved lift-off.

There are, after all, serious difficulties in proclaiming a manifesto derived from Christian teaching. Fewer and fewer voters regard themselves as Christians.

Nor does any politician with half an ear for public sensitivities wish to adopt a holier-than-thou tone of voice. Piety would be insufferable. The present Prime Minister makes every effort, in his daily proclamations about the pandemic, to avoid sounding preachy.

And the Big Society, with its support for voluntary work in support of civil society, seemed to lack ideological content. Surely a socialist could believe as devoutly in it as a Conservative? Kruger himself suggested as much in an essay which appeared on ConservativeHome in October 2014, lamenting the dropping by Cameron of the idea:

“The Big Society elevated the national conversation to something approaching a moral discourse: what sort of society do we want? What are our own responsibilities, what are others’? What is the condition of my community, and what can we do about it?

“If these weren’t two ridiculous words for a Conservative leader to adopt I would have advised David Cameron to call himself a ‘new socialist’. Old socialism was about using the power of the state to advance the interests and wellbeing of the working class. New socialism is about using the power of society to protect minorities, defend and promote local communities, and create opportunities.”

Essay question for aspiring Conservative candidates: “Is Boris Johnson a new socialist? Discuss.”

Kruger is not a socialist. He is a politician with the moral courage to think for himself.

This he inherits from his father, Rayne Kruger, who rather than do the conventional thing, liked to back his own judgment, as the admirable and admiring obituary of him in The Times made clear.

The elder Kruger, who was born in South Africa and moved while still a young man to London, married first an actress 16 years older than himself – in Pygmalion she had played Eliza to his Professor Higgins – and secondly a young South African woman who had arrived in London intending to make her way as a Cordon Bleu cook.

She was called Prue Leith, and their son, Danny, was born in October 1975, three days after they married. She has since achieved fame and fortune as a restaurateur, with her husband running the business side of things; and is now yet better known as a presenter of The Great British Bake Off.

A friend says of Danny:

“He’s more like his mother than he thinks he is. She just gets stuff done by energy and determination. He’s turning out like that.”

He was educated at Eton, read history at Edinburgh, at Oxford wrote a doctorate about Edmund Burke, and was more inclined to lie in the bath thinking great thoughts than to do the washing up.

He was liberated from this perhaps rather stuffy, old-fashioned mode of life by falling in love with his future wife, Emma, a teacher. She was an evangelical Christian and prayed that he would be converted, which he was. For a time they lived on a council estate. They have three children.

Kruger became the guy who would do the washing up, and in 2005 (after early stints as director of studies at the Centre for Policy Studies, Conservative policy adviser, and chief leader writer on The Daily Telegraph) he and Emma set up Only Connect, a prison charity which they ran for ten years, and which concentrates on helping offenders not to reoffend.

Also in 2005, Kruger was obliged to stand down as the Conservative candidate in Sedgefield (Tony Blair’s old seat) after The Guardian reported that he had declared: “We plan to introduce a period of creative destruction in the public services.”

He is a good friend of Dominic Cummings, and backed Vote Leave.

In the summer of 2019, Cummings brought Kruger to Downing Street as Johnson’s Political Secretary, charged with maintaining relations with Tory backbenchers during the exceptionally turbulent months when the new Prime Minister was striving to get Brexit through.

When I met Kruger in the Palace of Westminster on one night of high drama, he seemed in his imperturbable way to be enjoying himself.

In November 2019, Kruger won selection for the safe Conservative seat of Devizes, after CCHQ had intervened to cut the short list from six to only three candidates.

At the end of his maiden speech, delivered on 29 January 2020, he returned to the Christian roots of our politics:

“I finish on a more abstract issue, but it is one that we will find ourselves debating in many different forms in this Parliament. It is the issue of identity, of who we are both as individuals and in relation to each other. We traditionally had a sense of this: we are children of God, fallen but redeemed. Capable of great wrong but capable of great virtue. Even for those who did not believe in God, there was a sense that our country is rooted in Christianity and that our liberties derive from the Christian idea of absolute human dignity.

“Today those ideas are losing their purchase, so we are trying to find a new set of values to guide us, a new language of rights and wrongs, and a new idea of identity based not on our universal inner value or on our membership of a common culture but on our particular differences.

“I state this as neutrally as I can, because I know that good people are trying hard to make a better world and that Christianity and the western past are badly stained by violence and injustice, but I am not sure that we should so casually throw away the inheritance of our culture.”

On the morning of Saturday 23rd May, just after the story had broken of the visit during the first lockdown to County Durham by Cummings and his wife Mary Wakefield, Kruger leapt to their defence on Twitter:

“Dom and Mary’s journey was necessary and therefore within rules. What’s also necessary is not attacking a man and his family for decisions taken at a time of great stress and worry, the fear of death and concern for a child. This isn’t a story for the normal political shitkickery.”

In the days that followed, Kruger stuck to his guns, telling other newly elected MPs:

“No 10 won’t budge, so calling for DC to go is basically declaring no confidence in PM.”

To make this stand amid such a storm of protest showed fortitude. One of the advantages of believing in a moral tradition is that it may render one less liable to be swept hither and thither by one moral panic after another. Here is Kruger speaking a few days ago in a debate on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill:

“Our culture historically taught men that they had a duty to honour and protect women. It is a difficult thing to say, because it may appear that I want to turn back the clock to a time when men chivalrously protected the weaker sex, but of course, as I have said, that is not how it always was in the old days, and even if it had been, we do not accept the idea that women need protection by men; they just need men to behave themselves. So let me say emphatically that I do not want to turn back the clock; however, we do need to face the fact that our modern culture has not delivered all the progress it was supposed to. I wonder whether that is because our modern culture has a problem with telling people how to behave—it has a problem with society having a moral framework at all.”

Many voters, not all of them Conservative, will agree with that. Kruger’s arguments are sometimes described as communitarian, but that pallid label does not convey the force of the challenge he poses to an intellectual establishment which supposes it can dispense with traditional ideas of virtue.

Chris Whitehouse: One elderly recipient burst into tears with joy that we had made the delivery. My own story of anti-communist smuggling.

29 Mar

Chris Whitehouse leads the team at his public affairs agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy.

Reading the article by Harry Phibbs about his youthful exploits smuggling leaflets into the then communist Soviet Union, I admit it, I too was a smuggler. In my case a smuggler of books into the then communist Czechoslovakia through an informal network in which my contact was Alex Tomsky [see here and here] who was a senior figure in the charity, Aid to the Church in Need, which supports persecuted Christians around the world, particularly, back then, in the then Eastern Bloc. Tomsky was known by Margaret Thatcher and lent her a book every month for three years.

I made the run to Prague three times (1988-1989), each time accompanied by a different friend, two of whom I cannot name, but the third trip was with David Paton, now Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University.

The deal was simple. A benefactor (not the charity itself) would pay the flight and hotel cost for a budget weekend break in Prague. As book-runners, we would place our own things in the hand luggage, but the main suitcase was filled with books. Our task was to take that suitcase through customs checks and then deliver it to an address we were given.

We were assured that there was not much chance of us being caught, books not being as detectable as, say, drugs or explosives; and that if we were caught the outcome would likely be an interview with the authorities, a night in the cells, then deportation. It seemed a great prospect for an adventure, with little downside. But, for those to whom we were delivering the books the risks were much greater. Their interrogation would no doubt be much more robust and intense, and the subsequent spell in prison, indefinite.

The books were a variety. Bible tracts to political pamphlets; George Orwell classics to Ivan Klima and first editions of Czech writers whose manuscripts had been smuggled out of the country on trips by other smugglers. The recipients were yearning for this content to feed their craving for news and for new ideas, for hope that the situation might change.

One elderly recipient actually burst into tears with joy and relief that we had made the delivery – then a sobering dark cloud descended on a young Chris Whitehouse. As the books that we’d smuggled were unpacked, I realised with a shock that one of those pamphlets was one of which I had been the author, on the subject of abortion law reform. That somebody would be willing to risk a long prison sentence, in God knows what conditions, for something that I had written and published with no thought of its value, was a truly humbling moment.

We met a wide range of subversives, from Catholic priests to punk underground bands, from intellectuals to the publishers of samizdat leaflets; and we got an early liking for real Budwar and Pilsner Urquell beers long before they were widely available in the West, even meeting for drinks with the team who were working closely with Vaclav Havel who went on to be President of the country with the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia following the “velvet revolution” in 1989.

The only downside for this trip was that at that time, wheels on suitcases were not that common, and I’m sure my arms stretched a little carrying that full case of books through customs trying to make it seem so much lighter than it was.

But this was not my first experience of communism and the excitement of visiting the Eastern Bloc. My first visit was to communist Poland in 1981 as a guest of the “official” trades union movement in that country. To be fair, they treated us well, with time in both Warsaw and Lodz, followed by a trip to Gdansk where we were allowed to meet the local Solidarity leader, soon to be President, Lech Walesa. We hadn’t expected this, and had come unprepared, so we took a collection in Western currency (then worth in cash much more than the official rate) to contribute to the movement’s funds. Our guides were shocked, but there wasn’t much they could do about it.

Martial law was declared in Poland that same year, but communism fell in November 1989 after the Berlin Wall came down on 9th November. I had also visited the Wall, in 1981, whilst on a trip to East Germany with the British East German Friendship Society that offered a week-long tour to foster relations between the two peoples for just £100. I wasn’t, needless to say, a supporter of the communist government of that country, but at that price, who could decline? Every town we visited had a prominent display of opposition to the deployment of cruise missiles by the United States of America.

Crossing the East German border on a train at midnight, whilst it was being searched by guards with Alsatian dogs was an experience I’ll never forget.

On all those visits, the strongest emotions were of excitement on my part, but of fear and resentment amongst the people. We weren’t to know it at the time, but those were the dying years of the Soviet Bloc. The people we met weren’t without hope, not anywhere we went, but they were definitely without expectation.

James Somerville-Meikle: The Conservative Party and the Catholic community can find much common ground

22 Jan

James Somerville-Meikle is a committee member of Catholics in the Conservative Party.

As the dust settled on post war Britain, Winston Churchill asked Sir Hugh Fraser, then MP for Stafford, to help get more Catholics involved in the Conservative Party.

Sir Hugh was one of a tiny number of Catholic Conservative MPs in the post-war Parliament. Things have got better since then, but it’s fair to say there is room for improvement in relations between the Conservative Party and the Catholic community in this country.

It’s perhaps fitting that as our country, and our Party, begins the task of rebuilding from the pandemic – arguably the greatest challenge faced since the second world war – there is renewed energy in making the Conservative Party a home for Catholics.

Almost 70 years since Churchill identified the problem, this month sees the inaugural AGM of a new group for Catholics in the Conservative Party. It’s a grassroots group – set up by people who want to build bridges between their faith and politics.

There are many reasons why it makes sense to improve relations with the 4.5 million Catholics in Britain, but perhaps the most obvious is that there is a great deal of overlap between the teachings of our Church and the values of our Party – something that should be promoted. On top of this, the Catholic church continues to have an active role in providing services, not least running ten per cent of schools in England.

Catholic Social Teaching is a treasure trove for policy-makers with its focus on the part each person can play in building the common good. But this has too often been a treasure trove raided by the Left rather than the Right in this country.

It’s not that long ago that there were some parts of the country where the Labour parliamentary candidate almost had to be a Catholic, and the role of people like Cardinal Manning – who famously supported the London dockers strike in 1889 – was a celebrated part of Labour’s folk law.

And yet the appeals to individual responsibility, compassion, and the dignity of people, contained in Catholic Social Teaching are themes that also fit within Conservative thinking. It’s this centre-right interpretation of the common good that has inspired groups like the Centre for Social Justice, founded by Iain Duncan Smith – one of our most prominent Catholic MPs.

Of course, even amongst Conservatives, there will be disagreement about how the teachings of the Church can best be put into practice. Part of the thinking behind this new group is to provide a place to have these discussions. There are no right or wrong answers. You will find committed Catholics on every wing of the Party and every level of government. We want to bring together Conservatives who are committed to bringing about the common good, whoever they are and whatever their background.

Sometimes just having the conversation can be helpful. Labour, with its tradition of Christian socialism, perhaps has a head start on us in this regard. Countless words have been written about how Christianity can be put into practice on the Left of politics, which has helped to raise the profile for a particular brand of left-wing thinking in the Catholic church.

We have some catching up to do, but the foundations are there. Whether it’s the role of figures like the Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel in bringing about Catholic emancipation in this country or the work of David Burrowes and Tim Montgomerie in founding the Conservative Christian Fellowship – we have our own story to tell, but sometimes we’re not very good at telling it.

Our new group not only aims to strengthen links between Catholics already in the Party, but also make it more appealing to Catholics who don’t see the Conservative Party as their natural home.

For some people, getting involved in the local church can be the first step into politics, but Conservatives have been slow to recognise the potential of Catholic churches to produce leaders of the future. How many church readers or parish council members are there in this country who would make fantastic Conservative candidates for local council, devolved bodies, or Parliament? But we don’t ask them and perhaps our Party has not always looked that welcoming.

There has perhaps never been a better time to improve relations with the Catholic community in this country. A quick look at the electoral map shows the areas where the Conservatives gained seats in 2019 – the North West and North East of England – are also places where the Catholic church in this country has traditionally been strongest. It’s encouraging that two of the parliamentary patrons for Catholics in the Conservative Party – Alexander Stafford and Marco Longhi – are from the 2019 intake who won their seats from Labour.

If we want to maintain the trust of voters in these areas, it will mean getting under the bonnet of what makes people in these communities tick. In places like Blaydon in Gateshead, where my Grandma lives, the local church is an important part of the local community. These are often the places where the values of “faith, flag and family” remain strong as David Goodhart described in his book The Road to Somewhere.

At a time when the importance of culture and identity in politics only seems to be getting stronger, we ignore people’s values at our peril. At the next election we will face a smarter challenge from Labour. I’ve lost track of the number of times Sir Keir Starmer has mentioned “family” recently – framing his latest free school meals intervention as an attack on the Conservative’s record on support for families. We need to get smarter too.

That is not to say our Party needs to become Catholic to maintain the ground we have gained. I don’t expect to see the Vatican flag flying from CCHQ anytime soon! But it should make us more prepared to listen and engage with the Catholic community in this country. We might be surprised by the amount of common ground we find.

The Conservative Party has made great strides in recent years engaging with groups that are under-represented in politics – particularly women and people from black and ethnic minorities. If this new group can harness some of that energy and enthusiasm for outreach work with the Catholic community, which itself is extremely diverse, then there could be benefits for everyone. Our Party has always been at its best when it is a broad church, in every sense.

Perhaps, as Churchill would say, the relationship between Catholics and the Conservative Party is only at the end of the beginning.