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Faith rises up the political agenda

20 December 2013

Religious questions are now more prominent than ever, says Zaki Cooper


Voices: nuns, friars, and other religious protesters lobbying Parliament in May about poverty

Voices: nuns, friars, and other religious protesters lobbying Parliament in May about poverty

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 political agenda.

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 general public.

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 resources.

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 political arena".

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 (www.demos.co.uk).

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