Who will take on the ‘new church’, asks Ed West
On the wall of our bathroom is a Matt cartoon from around the time our first child was born in 2008. It shows a man presenting flowers to a new mother and her baby, carrying the sweet message: “Hello little baby, you’re billions of pounds in debt”.
We have fond memories of the period, but the economic legacy of the government at the time was indeed just that: ruinous. Chancellor Gordon Brown broke the great cardinal rule that you don’t get yourself into further debt during fat years. That is not just economically irresponsible, but immoral, and Matt was not joking in that my children’s generation will now spend most of their lifetimes paying this off. Yet, despite this, it took the threat of a Labour-SNP coalition this year to give the Conservatives a small majority. How could the Conservatives, despite their huge advantage in the economic sphere, not be winning hands down?
Strangely enough almost no one has talked about the moral question of debt in public life, even though it is a Christian issue. While the hierarchies of both the Anglican and Catholic churches have been jumping over themselves to attack ‘the cuts’ or the increasing use of food banks, no one has had anything to say about the reckless spending of the previous years. Perhaps it is because Anglicans and Catholics leaders, scared to touch any of the difficult issues that make them unpopular, are more comfortable thundering about greed rather than lust.
But while the churches are not as influential as they once were, the far bigger problem for the Tories in 2015 and 2020 and 2030 is what has replaced them: the new church, that of the established institutions of government, education, social work and media, and the moral and political consensus that has grown inside them. Sometimes this is called the Blob, or the Cathedral, or new establishment, but whatever we call it, it is understood this new church is all-powerful and institutionally hostile to conservatism.
Yet the Tory-led government not only made almost no effort in dismantling this network but has further empowered it. It cannot possibly hope to win in the long term with this strategy.
This new church incorporates most of the media, especially the BBC, as well as academia, the charity sector, civil service and education establishment. Charities are the most noticeably aggressive evangelizers. For the first three years of the Coalition government the state-funded and hugely powerful Today programme would invite representatives of large charities to condemn government cuts for increasing poverty; all of these charities, without exception, receive funding from the state, and yet are presented as disinterested bodies who profess these beliefs purely out of goodness. It would be like inviting on someone to wax lyrical about how the Catholic Church was the answer to society’s ills without mentioning that he was a bishop.
Charities were once largely staffed by volunteers, often university-educated stay-at-home mothers, and most had a Christian agenda. Today they are professional, employing humanities graduates and espousing what might be called a ‘progressive’ political agenda (as a rule one should describe people as how they self-identify). In some cases charities originally founded by evangelical Christians in the 19th century now espouse the polar opposite view of what their founders believed, so groups founded to discourage teenage girls from sexual activity and pregnancy now work to destigmatise lone parenthood. Where once these bodies relied on the church, they now rely on the state. Where once they were Christian, they are now statist.
Then there is the education system. The Times columnist David Aaronovitch, in a piece criticizing the existence of religious schools, recently asked “We’d never allow Marxist-Leninist schools to brainwash children so why do we give religions similar rights?” Having gone to an ILEA school in the 1980s, I smiled at that one.
Sure, we might not have a Joseph Stalin Free School, as he put it, but the Anglican equivalent of Marxism, the soft-Left, has almost total control of the state education sector, even (despite what many believe about religious indoctrination) Christian schools. It’s no coincidence that 50 per cent of pre-Corbyn Labour Party members are now believed to be teachers.
This domination extends up to universities, too, where the leaders of tomorrow are taught the Standard Social Science Model of human behaviour: people are born as blank slates and formed entirely by social structures. Once taught this (entirely erroneous) view of the world, progressive, state-centred politics based on utopian ideas about humanity make perfect sense.
This is before we get to the arts. Every time I’m dragged to the theatre the play seems to be about Margaret Thatcher, the evils of big business or racial injustice in the Deep South. How often does British theatre actually produce ‘controversial’ plays that challenge the Left-liberal narrative? When the arts were financed by the Church, artists gave glory to God. Now it is state-funded, they give glory to the state.
All of these powerful institutions help to create a social consensus, one that is internally flawed and resented by much of the population, and yet we have a government that accepts it, that actually believes the latter-day eschatology about there being a ‘wrong side of history’.
Much of the present Tory leadership are fairly relaxed about progressive domination, so long as the economy ticks over, yet so long as they accept the new church, conservatism will always remain a heresy, partly because the social liberalism of the 1960s requires a large state bureaucracy to take on the roles of family and other areas.
As Tim Montgomerie has pointed out, “conservatism cannot triumph in economics while it remains totally beaten in the cultural sphere”.
The F-word is central to this. Even I feel mildly bored and repulsed by politicians talking about families, especially if the word “hardworking” is inserted beforehand, yet there is a very good reason why progressive politicians are not so keen on old-fashioned ‘1950s-style’ families as they call them – married people are far more likely to vote for conservative parties. Much has been written about the ‘gender gap’ in US politics, but the voting gap between unmarried and married American women is a whopping 30 per cent. Conservative political success therefore really does depend on social institutions that encourage stability, social investment and, well, conservatism.
This makes the Government’s lack of enthusiasm for one-income, two-parent families so strange. George Osborne would clearly rather well-educated, highly-intelligent women were in the workplace generating tax revenue rather than producing and nurturing the next generation. Fine - but while the essence of liberal, pluralistic society is that people should be free to choose their own life courses, one would expect a Conservative government to not actively punish those who live a conservative lifestyle, if for selfinterested reasons if nothing else.
Margaret Thatcher was opposed by powerful union interests, and when the manufacturing industries shed their jobs - with terrible human cost - its power base was destroyed. Yet, under Thatcher, the Conservatives built up a far bigger and more powerful enemy class, led by local government and the administrators of the welfare state that flowered during her reign. Furthermore, by centralising education, she also made it more, not less, institutionally anti-Conservative.
The growth of the new church, vastly accelerated under Tony Blair’s reign, means that, for a new generation, huge numbers of talented people work in areas where there is an institutional hostility to conservatism, for the simple reason that conservatives do not believe their work should be professionalised and run by the state. The Conservatives should be trying to weaken the power of the Blob, by separating charities from government welfare, by decentralising education and even introducing parental vouchers, but most of all by doing everything possible to make it possible for a one-income household to afford a home, a car and a foreign holiday a year.
Instead of challenging this Blob, the current Government has followed their assumptions. Perhaps Cameron and Osborne, like Thatcher’s predecessors with the consensus establishment of their day, think they’re on the wrong side of history. Yet the socially liberal consensus faces three huge problems in the coming years: the shortage of available money to finance their schemes, the failures of the multiculturalism in which it has invested so much (in particular regarding Islam), and the further erosion of the blank slate model by science.
The next few decades promise to be conservative ones, if only the Tories have confidence in themselves and to see that the social consensus is no more inevitable than the economic one was in 1970.
Ed West is a blogger for the Spectator and deputy editor of The Catholic Herald, and tweets at @edwest.
This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Autumn 2015 on 11/11/2015. Published online 15/03/2016.