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.