David Twiston Davies
Pundits have been so certain that the key role played by religion in the recent American presidential election could never occur in Britain that I have been pondering how far this is correct. George Bush’s victory has certainly fed a surge of revulsion against him in the United States and fuelled anti-Americanism abroad.
But the election showed that Americans have a clear sense of priorities. They may have been uneasy about the way they were led into the Iraq war, but they recognised that John Kerry was offering them no way out of their country’s dilemma. This encouraged them to give priority to the moral issue of abortion, about which western society as a whole is becoming increasingly uneasy. The fact that the country’s traditionally respected elite – sealed off from the majority of their fellow countrymen – was appalled by this counted for nothing.
The familiar argument about British elections never being decided on single issues is dubious. John Major’s government, which presided over a strong economy, was driven out because of the trail of petty corruption left by its ministers in 1997. The previous year the Catholic bishops issued a document, The Common Good, which suggested that Catholics could vote for a candidate who supports abortion provided his policies were otherwise sound. Today that document’s advocacy of a minimum wage in Britain and the questioning of free market economics seem of piffling importance. No wonder Cardinal Hume is said to have been uneasy in his last days about his statement of support for it. Many candidates who unconcernedly went along with abortion or euthanasia at the last election in this country can expect to be challenged much more fiercely when the next election campaign is launched.
As the Conservative Party nervously prepares for the general election, it is clear that its leadership lacks, above all, a fresh, big idea. Tony Blair is keen to fight on the same old issues of schools and health because he thinks, with good reason, that he can win again on them. Of course, he might be defeated if the situation becomes worse in Iraq. But he would also be vulnerable to attack from an opposition that championed those values which (no party leader is yet willing to point out) are rooted in Christianity. For all the talk about our living in a “post-Christian society” people are as attached to the ideal of the family and the institution of marriage as they ever were. In common with the French in the 19th century they will find that the only way they can benefit is from eventually returning to the faith. Significantly, Mr Blair has recently indicated that he would like to row back on the ideals of the hedonistic Sixties, though he must be aware that if he should attempt to implement this he can expect to strong resistance from many of his ministers.
Looking back on Iain Duncan Smith a year after he was ousted as Conservative leader, one can see that his inability to shine in televised Commons debates and his ability to excite exasperation among his own staff and workers were considerable disadvantages. Nevertheless, it is interesting to reflect that his military background would have meant that he was on surer ground than his successor and would have been treated with greater respect once the fighting in Iraq began. He would not have hinted at an instinctive dislike of America, which some Tories seem to have picked up from ambitious Europeans, and he would almost certainly have avoided getting into quite the same personal difficulties with George Bush’s White House. Mr Duncan Smith’s Catholic concern over euthanasia, which he showed recently in the Commons, would also have indicated to Mr Bush they shared the same outlook on moral issues. Certainly Mr Duncan Smith would have been in a position as leader to take advantage from the momentum provided by the Bush victory.
The time is not right for another change in the Tories’ leadership, but if Michael Howard were to address himself to harnessing the consensus of those Christian assumptions on life issues which are steadily growing, the party could have have a real chance of achieving power.