It may prove an uphill struggle in this secular day and age, but the Prime Minister is aiming to put religion right at the centre of government. Kamal Ahmed reports on a major break with British tradition
The Guardian (England), Aug. 3, 2003
Tony Blair knows it is one of the most delicate of subjects. When asked about it he squirms and tries to change to a more comfortable line of inquiry. But quietly the Prime Minister is putting religion at the centre of the New Labour project, reflecting his own deeply felt beliefs that answers to most questions can be found in the Bible.
The Observer can reveal that Blair is to allow Christian organisations and other ‘faith groups’ a central role in policy-making in a decisive break with British traditions that religion and government should not mix.
The Prime Minister, who this weekend becomes the longest continually serving Labour Prime Minister in history, has set up a ministerial working group in the Home Office charged with injecting religious ideas ‘across Whitehall’. One expert on the relationship between politics and religion described the move as a ‘blow to secularism’.
Blair’s move is believed to have the strong support of the two other leading Christian members of the Cabinet, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, and Paul Boateng, Chief Secretary of the Treasury.
The working group will be chaired by the Home Office Minister with responsibility for what is called ‘civic renewal’, Fiona Mactaggart. The members will include Estelle Morris, the former Education Secretary who is now the Arts Minister, and Christian organisations including the Evangelical Alliance. Known as the Faith Community Liaison Group, it will have an input into controversial policy areas such as faith schools, which are allowed to select their pupils on the basis of their beliefs, and religious discrimination.
Blair, a committed Christian who keeps the Bible by his bed, knows he is taking a risk by revealing the importance he places on religion in informing his politics. He also knows that many of his key officials feel uncomfortable about the central role that God plays in his life. There were furrowed brows of consternation when Blair, asked who he would answer to for the deaths of British soldiers, replied: ‘My Maker’.
Alastair Campbell, Blair’s communications director, said ‘We don’t do God’ when the Prime Minister was questioned in a recent interview with Vanity Fair about his religious beliefs. When Blair wanted to end his televised address to the nation at the start of the war in Iraq with ‘God bless you’, he was advised against it.
Some No 10 officials are concerned that the Government will fall victim to unfavourable comparisons with the Republican administration in America, where President Bush makes no secret of his religious faith and right-wing religious organisations have a powerful input into policy-making, particularly on sensitive issues such as abortion.
Blair, in contrast, has always been cautious about speaking about his faith. He sidestepped questions from Sir David Frost last year and Jeremy Paxman this year when both asked if he prayed with the US President when they met at summits to discuss the Iraq war.
The new high-powered ministerial grouping will have an input across government. Although based in the Home Office, it will advise the Departments for Education, Culture, Media and Sport and Trade and Industry.
Underlining its importance, William Chapman, the Appointments Secretary at No 10, will have a key role. The Prime Minister’s own ‘religious envoy’, Labour MP John Battle, will also sit on the committee.
The Home Office announcement was slipped out in a parliamentary written reply four weeks ago, and published here for the first time. In it, Mactaggart outlines what the group will attempt to do: ‘Its terms of reference are to consider the most effective means of achieving greater involvement of the faith communities in policy-making and delivery across Whitehall [and] to identify the specific policy areas where this input would be most valuable.
‘The Prime Minister is aware of our plans and attaches considerable importance to this. It will lay down the foundations for the effective involvement of the faith communities’ perspectives and needs in policy development across government.’
Non-religious groups attacked the plans, saying they gave a special platform to religious groups denied to others. In a letter to Mactaggart, Keith Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, which includes in its membership a number of Labour MPs, said: ‘We feel this is a further example of the Government’s desire to favour and privilege religious organisations, and wonder when the opinions and needs of those who are non-religious will be similarly regarded. The non-religious feel alienated and excluded from the political processes that help shape our society.’
Wood said that despite repeated requests non-religious groups have been excluded from any involvement in the religious working group.
Christian organisations said that there was much that could be learnt from religious groups and the work they do in the community. ‘This is an important development that goes way beyond a narrower set of faith community concerns like faith schools or regeneration,’ said Graham Dale, director of the Christian Socialist Movement, of which Blair is a member.
‘The group will have the freedom to engage in policy issues across the board but also to address other less tangible areas like values in public life. It raises to a new level the recognition of faith as a factor in government consultation and indicates the Government’s willingness to engage with people of faith in every area of public life.
‘It therefore also represents a blow to secularism. As the 2001 census revealed, four in every five people in Britain still align themselves with one of the major faiths. The group is a bold step forward in getting better representation of faith groups in politics, and getting their views and opinions heard in policy formulation.’