DESPITE Alastair Campbell's famously saying: "We don't do God,"
in the light of developments in British politics since Labour came
to power in 1997 it seems that God does politics.
Faith has played a more vocal and open part in domestic politics
in the past 16 years than it has done since the time of William
Gladstone in the late-19th century, and, arguably, more than it has
ever done. During the premierships of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and
David Cameron, religious questions have risen ever-higher up the
Religion is now firmly part of the political landscape. Its
leaders have joined other "stakeholders", such as trade unions and
businesses, as important groups with whom the Government and
Opposition parties consult on policy questions. It used to be said
that the unions enjoyed beer and sandwiches at 10 Downing Street in
their heyday, but nowadays perhaps we should talk about faith
leaders enjoying samosas and bagels in Downing Street.
When I worked in the Chief Rabbi's office a few years ago, we
issued written responses and held meetings with officials on a
gamut of issues from admissions in faith schools and the
legislation on burial grounds to rules on religious broadcasting
and laws against incitement to religious hatred.
THE most significant change in the prominence of faith
communities in Westminster and Whitehall took place during the
premiership of Tony Blair, from 1997 to 2007. This was partly
driven by exogenous events such as 9/11 and 7/7, but also by Mr
Blair's personal faith.
Under his leadership, the structures of interaction between
faith communities and the Government were built up, and a working
group was established that later became the Faith Consultative
Council. A government minister was appointed specifically for faith
communities, initially in the Home Office.
There were regular meetings between faith leaders and Mr Blair.
This was not the first time that clerics had visited No. 10, but,
under him, the encounters became more systematic and regular. There
were also return visits to churches, mosques, synagogues, and
temples. Mr Blair was the first PM to send regular messages to
communities on their festivals, whether at Christmas and Easter,
Diwali, Ramadan, or Jewish New Year.
THE faith-engagement team at the Department for Communities and
Local Government now takes the lead on consultations, although
officials in many other government departments liaise with
communities. The officials in the faith unit take a panoramic and
day-to-day view of the concerns of the nine main communities in the
UK: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Zoroastrian,
Jain, and Baha'i.
They report to the Faith and Communities Minister, Baroness
Warsi, who is also a Foreign Office Minister. They also help to
manage Inter-Faith Week, which was introduced in 2009, and takes
place in November every year.
The capacity of faith groups to liaise with government has
improved markedly in recent years, and levels of sophistication and
resources are increasing. At times, they might seek urgent meetings
with ministers, as was the case in 2006, when the Government was
forced to backtrack over a proposal to require faith schools to
allocate a quarter of their intake from outside their own
community: this came after pressure from religious groups,
especially the Roman Catholic Church, and the Jewish community.
Faith groups are becoming more active in areas such as global
poverty and climate change. They were instrumental in the Make
Poverty History movement in 2005, when an estimated 225,000
protesters gathered in Edinburgh. Five years before that, they had
lobbied the G7 meeting about debt-reduction, prompting the
political economist Will Hutton to comment: "The left-of-centre
should take note: it's no longer Morris, Keynes and Beveridge who
inspire and change the world - it's Leviticus."
This work has continued, and such groups again lobbied the G8
meeting in Northern Ireland in June.
FAITH groups have an increasingly high-profile presence in
Parliament. This extends to a growing number of parliamentary
groups (some partisan, others all-party) to complement
well-established ones such as Christians on the Left (formerly the
Christian Socialist Movement), and the Conservative Christian
Fellowship. In October, all-party groups for the Zoroastrian and
Jewish communities were launched.
It is no longer unusual for religious representatives to give
evidence to parliamentary committees. In June 2011, for example,
the then Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, spoke to a committee on the Big
Society, alongside the Bishop of Leicester, and an official from
the Roman Catholic Church. These appearances highlight the extent
of common ground among faith communities on ethical public-policy
issues - contrary to the perception that is sometimes given to the
THERE are, however, some challenges to faith communities'
interaction with the political system. First, to paraphrase Henry
Kissinger when speaking about Europe, the Government always faces
the question "Whom do I call?" Many of the communities are diverse,
and do not have centralised representation: Muslims, for example,
have no single religious authority.
Second, while the situation has improved, faith groups in
general are not always trained to deal with government. Some have
well-established machinery, while others have threadbare
Third, given that each community is very varied, it is sometimes
hard to identify mainstream opinion within each. Rabbi Jonathan
Romain, for instance is a high-profile opponent of single-faith
schools, but is not thought of as representing the mainstream
Jewish viewpoint by large numbers from that community.
Finally, there are also concerns that the current Lobbying Bill
could inhibit the political activity of faith groups (News, 11
October). Leaders from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish organisations
recently wrote to the Prime Minister to express anxiety that the
Bill "may curtail our ability to express deeply held beliefs in the
IN THE future, faith groups will need to be careful not to become
narrow lobbyists, instead of having the common good at the heart of
their thinking and action. They can do this by stepping up their
efforts on civic engagement, on occasions such as Remembrance
Sunday and Inter-Faith Week. For example, the Jewish community has
pioneered Mitzvah Day to encourage people to perform "good deeds"
on a particular Sunday in November, a model which has been exported
to other faith communities (Comment, 15 November).
Furthermore, faith groups need to understand that they cannot
always get their own way on public policy - such as the publication
of material that is deemed offensive, or on questions of ethics
such as abortion. They can articulate their views, but the
Government is not duty-bound to listen to them.
The fact that faith is now woven into the fabric of the British
polity is a welcome development. Religious groups can continue to
speak truth to power, but in making representations on any
political issue, they must be able to take no for an answer.
Zaki Cooper is a Trustee of the Council of Christians and
Jews. His essay "God and Government" is published by Demos