THE INTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY FOUNDED IN 1840
PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON
A SHORT PERIOD OF GRACE FOR
Boris Johnson, the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has begun well and deserves a fair wind as he constructs his team and his policy platform. He has said he is a One Nation Conservative. He described his philosophy, in his acceptance speech on Tuesday, as striving to reconcile looking after oneself and one’s family with “the equally noble intention to share, and look after the poorest and neediest, and to build a great society”. His immediate aim as Prime Minister, he reminded us, was to “deliver Brexit, unite the nation and defeat Jeremy Corbyn”.
He has made rash promises about delivering Brexit by the end of October “come what may” including, if necessary, leaving the EU without any agreement in place. There is no majority in Parliament for that, so he has to find some way to outmanoeuvre it. Instead he is inclined to rely on stimulating an optimistic, “can-do” spirit by confident rhetoric and exciting imagery. Yet Mr Johnson has already window-dressed his pro-Brexit credentials by saying that every minister in his Government will have to sign up to leaving on 31 October, with or without a deal. That means an exclusively pro-Brexit government, and most leading Brexiteers are wedded to tax cutting, shrinking the state and the liberation of market forces from regulation. Such a resurgence of Thatcherite neo-liberalism will be difficult to reconcile with One Nation Conservatism. Mr Johnson’s rise to power on the back of English nationalism and his “do or die” approach to Brexit is more a threat to the unity of the nation than an opportunity to heal divisions. A no-deal Brexit is precisely what the Scottish National Party has been quietly praying for, as it is likely to so alienate Scottish voters that they may well vote for independence next time they are asked. Some polls suggest a majority of UK voters now oppose Britain leaving the EU, and that has emerged as Labour’s position. How long can Mr Johnson defy current public opinion in defence of a referendum result more than three years old?
Even more to the point, how can he reconcile that part of the nation which believes his “Brexit or bust” approach is misconceived? And to what extent does he recognise the groundswell of discontent with establishment and elitist figures like himself that lay behind the 2016 result, especially in poorer working class constituencies in the Midlands and the North? One Nation Conservatism has a lot of work to do.
As for defeating Jeremy Corbyn, however, there are many Labour MPs and party members who would be delighted to see the end of the current leadership and a Johnson win in a general election might deliver that. He is likely the only Tory leader who could confidently face such a contest. Whether it would cement him in power is another matter. So Mr Johnson deserves a good launch, even though there are storm clouds waiting on the horizon which may well sink him. Only one thing can be guaranteed: it will be colourful. Britain’s new Prime Minister is no ordinary politician.
SEA OF FAITH WITHDRAWS
CLASH BY NIGHT IN A SECULAR UK?
It seems Britain has taken a sharp turn away from religious faith over the past three decades, according to the latest report from the British Social Attitudes Survey. While some of its analysis is useful, it still leaves many more questions than answers. Without at least some of those answers, it is difficult for religious organisations to know whether these trends towards a totally secular society are irreversible.
Some of the most frequently cited explanations are only partly sustainable, according to Stephen Bullivant of St Mary’s University, writing in The Tablet today. The Church of England’s demographic crisis is more severe than that of the Catholic Church, whose membership is also falling, but less steeply. Anglicanism has to make a major adjustment into being a minority faith, something the Catholic Church is already familiar with. The issue of church establishment in England is bound to be raised, though to relinquish it would represent a serious administrative upheaval. But it certainly will be asked: why should the incoming Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, for instance, have any say in the appointment of Anglican bishops, and why should some of those bishops have an automatic right to sit in the House of Lords?
The decline of religious faith is not by and large a move to anti-religion, but to indifference. In both the Catholic and Anglican cases, many young people, even those brought up by religiously practising parents, are unwilling to accept the right of the Church to be a teacher of eternal truth. Christian doctrine partly relies on the authority of the Church for its credibility: if that authority is weakened, faith loses one of its fundamental pillars. It is significant that churches that rely more heavily on the other fundamental pillar, Scripture, are doing rather better. The Evangelical churches and independent churches are, to a degree, bucking the trend.
The Catholic Church, even more than Anglicanism, has itself to blame for much of its collapse of authority. Not only has its reputation and credibility been gravely damaged by the scandal of child abuse, but its teaching that all same-sex relationships are sinful and its opposition to women in the priesthood look reactionary rather than counter-cultural. That is not to say its teachings are wrong, but it has not been able to make its case convincingly. The Catholic Church’s lamentable treatment of women is one aspect of this.
Yet the Church of England’s efforts to keep pace with secular trends have not attracted an increased following, though it’s impossible to know if its decline would have been even more severe if it had resisted change. It is possible that the historical credentials of the Church of England as the traditional “religion of the English” have just worn thin in the modern age.
These are hard questions. Looking at them from the perspective of the interests of society rather than just of organised religion, the really troubling question is this: does the decline in faith inevitably lead also to a decline in hope and charity? Without those moral pillars derived from faith, could it be the fate of British society to end up, somewhere in the future as, in Thomas Hobbes’ phrase, “a war of all against all”?
2 | THE TABLET | 27 JULY 2019