A One Nation defence of the Church of England

David Cowan 6.01am

At the beginning of Holy Week this year, David Cameron made another foray into religious affairs. It was a rare glimpse of that elusive aspect of the Prime Minister’s character - his Christian faith.

Mr Cameron’s most significant defence of Christianity to date was during the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible (see Jack’s and Daniel’s comments). He claimed:

"Britain is a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so… the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today."

It is Christianity’s conceptualisation of the nation that is at the heart of Mr Cameron’s moral code. This is evident in his vision for a ‘Big Society’, where responsibility, duty and community are most valued. And of course the institution that upholds the Christian faith and defends these values is the Church of England.

The local church is often at the heart of our communities. It provides spiritual support as well as voluntary assistance to charities, social enterprises and, importantly, schools.

The Church of England currently educates one million children in 4,800 schools, making it the biggest single provider of education in this country. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has reaffirmed the Conservative party’s commitment to supporting faith schools by urging the Church to run more academies.

Throughout the Conservative party’s long history, the defence of the established Church has been second nature. Christian morality has been a significant guide for many One Nation Conservatives, including Harold Macmillan, who said:

"If you don’t believe in God, all you have to believe in is decency. Decency is very good. Better decent than indecent. But I don’t think it’s enough."

A Christian ‘fightback’ should be supported by One Nation Conservatives within the context of greater toleration. We live in a pluralistic society. Other cultures must be respected. Yet Christians have become somehow exempted from the toleration afforded to others and fair game for discrimination by aggressive secularists.

Wearing a cross at work, holding town hall prayers (see Jack’s comments on these pages), Norwich County Council’s banning of a local church from a community centre.

It is appalling that this victimisation of ordinary Christians is happening at the same time that Yusuf al-Qaradawi is allowed to stay in this country, be embraced by Labour’s London mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone, and defend suicide bombing, wife beating and the violent persecution of Jews and homosexuals.

Discrimination against Christians has also been a defining feature of the debate about same-sex marriage, in which opponents are brazenly dismissed as homophobes. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, for instance, is opposed to gay marriage but supports civil partnerships and has certainly not expressed hatred towards homosexuals.

It also says a lot about the current state of the debate that the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is forced to ban “gay cure” adverts from the capital’s red buses, while Christians offended by gay rights charity Stonewall’s campaign are denounced as bigots.

How can we possibly have a grown-up debate about an important subject such as same-sex marriage if senseless demonisation is allowed to trump rational discussion?

Whatever side you take, there is a principle at stake here. Toleration has to incorporate toleration of those people who we disagree with or believe to hold intolerant views. It is time for toleration in Britain to live up to Voltaire’s famous and apocryphal quotation: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Regrettably, Mr Cameron’s attempts to tackle aggressive secularism have been undermined by George Osborne’s recent blunders over the so-called 'charity tax' and 'heritage tax'.

The Government is launching a formal consultation on charity tax relief and will hopefully heed the advice given by Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister, on BBC’s Newsnight recently.

But we have yet to see if the Government will reverse its decision to slap a VAT bill of £20 billion on the 12,500 listed church buildings. There is already an e-petition with a growing number of signatures demanding that the VAT zero rate on alterations to listed buildings be revived.

This hit to charitable giving and listed buildings threatens irreparable and unnecessary harm to churches such as Wakefield Cathedral. Many churches stand as bastions of beauty and monuments to tradition. Several have stood since Norman times. It would be a crime against our common heritage to allow these tax policies to continue.

Once upon a time it could be said, with some truth, that the Church of England was ‘the Tory party at prayer’. David Cameron and other One Nation Conservatives should have the courage of their convictions to defend and praise the established Church’s role in the spiritual life of the nation and the wellbeing of communities; to fight for full religious toleration; and to conserve our precious buildings.

Follow David on Twitter @david_cowan

A new autumn Bank Holiday should be bread & butter for traditional Conservatives

Michael Economou 7.05am

A campaign has existed for some years to create a new Bank Holiday in mid-Autumn known as 'Community Day'. The idea is designed to encourage charitable participation and according to its promoters, it would have “a special focus on celebrating and promoting voluntary community activity”.

The project is being led by voluntary sector organisations such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Community Service Volunteers and Volunteering England, but it also has the backing of a wider range of groups, including the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

The main objection to a new Bank Holiday is that it would damage UK economic productivity - concerns made more significant in light of the announcement by the ONS that the extended Royal Wedding holiday period contributed to slower growth in Q2 of this year.

However, Community Day would not be a one-off event. It would be a national day to celebrate proactive citizenship and it could lead to an increase in voluntary charitable activity across the UK. The social goods would outweigh the economic impact.

Indeed, a report by the TUC suggests:

If Community Day were to increase the value of volunteering and community activity by just 5 per cent, this would offset the cost to the economy of a new holiday.

The same report points out that previous efforts to encourage volunteering (such as Make A Difference Day) have created a large number of committed volunteers who continue to be involved several months later.

Moreover, even with the addition of Community Day, the UK would still have two fewer public holidays than the US and the EU average.

It is easy to see why the Conservative party should welcome a new Bank Holiday. The idea complements the Giving Green Paper, which contained provisions to enable people to make charitable donations at ATMs and the ‘Round up the Pound’ scheme.

A day to celebrate the community could also play an important role in the Government’s decentralisation and ‘big society’ agenda.

Nevertheless, the Conservative party has mixed views about Bank Holidays. There were murmurings that the ‘Quality of Life’ policy review group headed by Lord Gummer had flirted with the idea of creating a number of new holidays but these did not make the final report.

Today, as the Labour party attempts to brand David Cameron as a right-wing ideologue, it would be worth reviving interest in a new Bank Holiday and remind the Left that the Conservative party is - and always will be - Britain’s most valuable champion of the voluntary sector and community values.

Not flash, just Gordon: Prime Ministers and Comic Relief

Nik Darlington 8.22am

Tony Blair has a lot to answer for. He irrevocably altered the job of Prime Minister. Never again will the leader of this country be able to say no to Comic Relief.

That sketch with Catherine Tate was not only cringeworthy, it was terribly unfunny - though this is more the fault of Tate than Blair. The bar was not set very high for David Cameron, who made a game attempt this year at playing along with a mini episode of Masterchef but looked uneasy and bored throughout.

Next time around will be more difficult because whoever the incumbent is, they will have to follow Gordon Brown.

Yes, Gordon Brown. One of the most unpopular Prime Ministers in history. The politician without a smile. The big clunking fist without emotional intelligence. Not flash, just Gordon.

He displayed a warmth of character only rarely seen when he was in office. He was self-deprecating. He smiled. Helped in no small part by an inspired script and a talented comedian, luxuries not afforded to Blair or Cameron, Gordon Brown came across as human and, dare I say it, likeable.

If you don’t believe me, here it is:

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