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.

James Somerville-Meikle: The SNP’s overhaul of hate crime legislation is a threat to freedom of expression in Scotland

7 Aug

James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union of Great Britain.

What do Catholic Bishops and the National Secular Society have in common?

Despite their different world views, they have found common ground in opposing the SNP’s overhaul of hate crime legislation – which both groups fear will damage freedom of expression in Scotland.

The Scottish Government’s Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill was introduced earlier this year with the aim of helping to “build community cohesion”. It has proved more effective than Scottish Ministers could ever have imagined. Most of civil society in Scotland is now united in opposition to the Bill.

A recent consultation by Holyrood’s Justice Committee revealed the full extent of this opposition – which goes well beyond the usual nationalist critics. The Society of Scottish Newspapers, the Law Society of Scotland, and the Scottish Police Federation, have all publicly called for a rethink from the Scottish Government.

A new campaign group – Free to Disagree – has started to oppose the Bill, led by former SNP Deputy Leader Jim Sillars, the National Secular Society, and the Christian Institute. To have brought together such a diverse range of opponents is a pretty impressive achievement by the SNP’s Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf.

But it’s the criticism from the Scottish Catholic Bishops which is perhaps the most striking.

In their submission to the Justice Committee, the Bishops warn that “a new offence of possessing inflammatory material could even render material such as the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church… inflammatory.”

Let’s be clear what this means – the Catholic Church, which counts around 700,000 followers in Scotland, is worried that legislation currently being considered by the Scottish Parliament could make expressing their beliefs a criminal offence.

The Bishops acknowledge their concerns are based on a “low threshold” interpretation of the proposed new offence. But the fact that such concerns exist at all is extraordinary.

Catholic Bishops in Scotland choose their battles carefully – conscious of a public sphere that does not take kindly to lectures from Bishops. The strength of their public comments shows just how much concern there is about the Bill. It’s also perhaps a sign they think this is one area where they might be able to force a change of approach from the Scottish Government.

The Bill would also introduce a new offence of “stirring up hatred” against certain groups, even if a person making the remarks had not intended any offence.

Currently in Scotland, the offence of “stirring up hatred” only applies in respect of race, but this would be expanded under the Bill to include “age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity, and variation in sex characteristics.”

This huge expansion of the law is not combined with any definition of what “stirring up hatred” means. The Bill’s Explanatory Notes say that an offence could be committed through “behaviour of any kind”, which “may consist of a single act or a course of conduct.” In other words, pretty much anything could constitute an offence.

Crucially, criminal behaviour under the new law would be based on offence caused, rather than intended – a significant difference to England and Wales where intent is required for a person to be criminalised for behaviour which someone finds insulting. As a result, it risks creating a situation in which offending becomes an offence.

It’s little wonder that police officers, lawyers, and journalists are deeply worried about the proposals. The Bill paints broad brush strokes and leaves others to work out the picture. The task of interpreting a law where offences are not wholly within your control but based on how others perceive your words and actions, is fraught with perils.

Catholic Bishops fear this could lead to a “deluge of vexatious claims”. The Scottish Police Federation warns it could mean officers “determining free speech”, leading to a breakdown in relations with the public. And the Law Society of Scotland raised concerns that “certain behaviour, views expressed or even an actor’s performance, which might well be deemed insulting or offensive, could result in a criminal conviction under the terms of the bill as currently drafted.” Not exactly the cohesive society envisaged by the Scottish Government.

At the heart of this debate is a fundamental question about what a cohesive and tolerant society looks like. Does tolerance require conformity and removing any possible source of offence? Or does it mean accepting and respecting difference of opinion within certain red lines?

To use No 10’s language – it’s a question of whether we level up or level down when it comes to freedom of expression. In the case of the SNP’s proposals, it looks like a race to the bottom.

This is not an enviable position. As Stephen Evans from the National Secular Society points out:

“Freedom to say only what others find acceptable is no freedom at all.”

There is still time for the Scottish Government to reconsider its approach. Most of the groups opposed to the Bill, including the Catholic Bishops, agree that stirring up hatred is wrong, and would welcome an update to hate crime legislation. But the current approach is not working and Scottish Ministers must realise that.

Creating a catch-all offence, and passing the buck to the police and courts, is not the way forward. It’s sloppy law-making, and risks threatening the vibrancy and diversity of life in Scotland.

The publication of the Bill has shown that people with completely different views are capable of respecting one another, and even working together for a common cause.

What unites religious and secular voices is a belief in freedom of expression. This must be upheld, or we will all suffer as a result.

Chris Whitehouse: Faith leaders have a moral duty to be better prepared for the next pandemic

27 Jun

Chris Whitehouse leads the team at his public affairs agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy and is a papal Knight Commander of Saint Gregory.

Lockdown gave an unprecedented character this year to the major celebrations of the great Abrahamic faiths.

Those in the Jewish community endured Passover unable to join with family, friends and their wider community to celebrate the escape of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

Those of Muslim beliefs found themselves daily breaking their Ramadan fast alone, not together; and approached the culmination of that celebration, Eid, at best in small household groups rather than with communal rejoicing.

]The Christian faiths marked the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday; the passion, crucifixion, and death of Jesus on Good Friday; and the resurrection of their Christ on Easter Sunday, without the usual community support in the dark hours or the joyous celebrations of the greatest day in the Christian calendar.

No amount of digital alternatives – Zoom meetings, live-streaming of services, on-line communal singing of religious songs – can really substitute for the mutual support in a time of crisis that comes from being together both physically and emotionally with those who share values and beliefs.

All those whose beliefs and cultural traditions involve them coming together to pray, to worship and to be in social communion have suffered as they endured separation from their wider communities; but for those, in particular, whose faith is nurtured through holy sacraments, their separation from what they believe to be the source of grace has been particularly painful.

Gathering in supportive worshipping communities and maintaining those horizontal relationships with other people is important.

But for those whose beliefs involve a sacramental tradition, that vertical relationship to God that comes through their access to his grace in the sacraments (for example, of holy communion and confession), to deny them that access is to starve them of the spiritual nurturing and sustenance their faith teaches them to crave.

For many of those Christians for whom the sacrament of communion, central to the mass, is the beating heart of their faith, to be able to be present in that sacrifice only remotely has not, for many, been to sense participation. On the contrary, it has exacerbated the sense of separation.

For a church founded on the blood of martyrs, persecuted, tortured, and executed for their subversive beliefs, it has been particularly uncomfortable to see the doors of our Christian churches locked when they could, and should, have remained open to allow private prayer and socially distanced participation in services.

That Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey have remained closed, doors locked to keep out their faithful, whilst the local Sainsbury’s and Tesco have remained open, delivering socially-distanced access to physical food and drink, has been to exacerbate that pain of separation. Why a Warburton’s white medium sliced loaf, but not the bread of life itself?

That church leaders surrendered to this position at the outset of lock-down was perhaps understandable given the sense of crisis and uncertainty that prevailed at that time, but the closure could and should have been only temporary whilst practical precautions were introduced. It was not for our political masters to decide on the importance to the faithful of access to spiritual sustenance compared to other goods and services.

This plague has claimed many lives, including those of ministers of religion, and for their passing we mourn; but that they may have spent their final weeks denied the opportunity to share the sacraments with and to minister to the spiritual needs of their flocks must have been a cause of frustration and anguish to many. Not to hide behind locked doors did they tread the long and difficult path to religious ministry, but to share the love of God with his people and to be with them in their times of need.

Where was the priest to baptise my new grandchild? To marry my daughter whose wedding was postponed? To hear my confession and grant me absolution? To offer the sacrifice of mass and to let me take a personal, risk-assessed decision as to whether I should receive holy communion? To give the last rites to friends of faith who have died during the pandemic? To comfort my elderly and vulnerable mother, alone and fearful in her home?

For many people, these things are not just rituals, they are the building blocks of faith, the foundation upon which their lives, their families, their values, and their political views are based. Many are understandably frustrated, indeed angry, that these needs have been ignored.

Faith leaders will have had troubled consciences about these decisions; and there is no desire to exacerbate their doubts and fears; but their redemption can come only through them learning from these tragic few months, and by them making plans for the future so that when the next plague comes they are ready, their lamps are full of oil, and their wicks trimmed.

Church doors closed for a few hours for a deep clean and some social distancing sticky tape is acceptable; those doors being locked for 15 weeks is not. It must never happen again.