Religion and (Abortion) Politics in Great Britain: Tony Blair’s Faithworks Speech

Joseph M. Knippenberg

March 1, 2005

There’s going to be an election soon in Great Britain. On May 5, to be exact, the date recently set by the governing Labour Party.

What’s interesting to watch from this side of the Atlantic is how religion, all of a sudden, has become a factor in the election. Earlier this month, Conservative leader Michael Howard called for a change in the abortion laws, proposing to lower from twenty-four to twenty weeks the gestational age limit for abortions. His call was immediately hailed by leaders from many of Great Britain’s religious communities, including Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain.

Of course, according to newspaper reports, as little as 5% of Britons regularly attend church services, though roughly 70% still regard themselves as Christians.

But all this talk about "social issues" has made the Prime Minister and his Labour Party a little uncomfortable. Blair, by all accounts one of the most religious prime ministers in the past century, does not, as we have heard said of another candidate, wear his religion on his sleeve. He is a member of the Church of England, but frequently attends his wife’s Roman Catholic church, which it is rumored he will join after he steps down from office. And while many Labourites consider themselves Christian Socialists, the party also has a substantial and vocal secularist wing, one presumably unaccustomed to being challenged by people from the pews and pulpits.

Did I mention that British Catholics seem to be wavering in their traditional support of Labour?

Is any of this sounding familiar?

If it isn’t yet, let me add that in early January of this year a Conservative MP, David Willetts, a member of Howard’s shadow cabinet, gave a speech on "compassionate conservatism and the war on poverty" and that Steve Chalke, the founder of Faithworks, an evangelical anti-poverty group, recently called for a "level playing field" for secular and religious groups in their dealings with government. I haven’t yet seen a political reference to "the culture of life," but I confess that I haven’t looked that hard.

While no one has yet written a book entitled Whats the Matter with the Midlands?, a columnist for the left-wing Guardian has conceded that "this shift into what the Americans call the ’culture wars’ does seem real." His explanation? British voters take prosperity for granted, "regarding it as a technocratic matter, beyond politics," which "leaves the space clear, as it has been for several decades in the US, for social and cultural battle."

This sets the stage for a major address on religion and public life, delivered last week by Tony Blair, at a forum sponsored by Chalke’s Faithworks. Since Blair is self-evidently a smart and articulate man, a very successful politician, responsible almost single-handedly for reviving the fortunes of the Labour Party, and a man of deep religious faith, his thoughts on these issues ought to be of interest, not only to students of religion and politics, but above all perhaps to those Democrats who think that more openness regarding religion can help them out of their political wilderness.

Some of what Blair had to say would sound very familiar to observers of the American political scene for the past decade. He welcomed an increasing social role for Britain’s churches, saying "I would like to see you play a bigger not a lesser role in the future." This is an argument based both upon the capacity of the churches and the capacity of the government:

The only politics that works today is one based on partnership with the people. The days when government could "do it for people" are over. They can do it with people or not at all.

Repeat after me: "the era of big government is over."

Government can’t raise your family. Government alone can’t get you a job. Government on its own can’t, from Whitehall, run the NHS [National Health Service] properly, look after the sick and elderly, educate the children in the classroom, mind them when you are at work. Parliament by itself can’t police the streets, give the alienated youngster a place to go or a place to play.

Government, as George W. Bush would say, can write the checks; no one expects community organizations to "make bricks without straw."

We can help do these things. Government can enable it, fund it, help or hinder those taking on the task. But increasingly, the ultimate difference has to be made by the creativity, ability, and dedication of those on the ground working in partnership with central and local government.

In these particular respects, there isn’t much difference between Blair’s New Labour, Clinton’s New Democrats, or Bush’s "compassionate conservatives." All seek to re-envision the welfare state, limiting somewhat the role of government and elevating the role of faith-based and community organizations as its partners.

Before we go on, it is worth noting that, in Great Britain, this stance runs a risk that is somewhat more pronounced than it is in the United States. The Muslim population in Great Britain is proportionally larger than its American counterpart and certainly contains an anti-Western element. Might not the bricks made with government-funded straw be thrown back, as they have been in the Netherlands? On the other hand, it may be that engagement with and integration in British society could produce results similar to the anti-al Qaeda fatwa issued by the Islamic Commission of Spain. Still, if you compare Blair’s rhetoric to any of Bush’s speeches, or even to Michael Howard’s earlier speech to Faithworks, you’ll notice a big difference. Whereas Bush and Howard refer frequently to individuals and individual responsibility, Blair’s speech is all about community. Here’s his peroration:

At the heart of my politics has always been the value of community, the belief that we are not merely individuals struggling in isolation from each other, but members of a community who depend on each other, who benefit from each other’s help, who owe obligations to each other. From that everything stems: solidarity, social justice, equality, freedom. We are what we are, in part, because of the other.

While Bush, for example, speaks frequently about love as the emotion that takes us outside ourselves—we are enjoined to love one another as we love ourselves—Blair does not so much enter into the moral psychology of the individual. I am tempted to argue that Bush’s approach to community is "theological," while Blair’s is "sociological." And where Bush speaks of the "ownership society," whose goal is to help individuals become self-reliant (but nonetheless loving), that sort of language seems to be absent from Blair’s lexicon.

Another striking difference between Blair’s speech and that of any contemporary American politician with national aspirations is the complete absence of biblical references from the former. Part of the explanation lies, of course, in Blair’s religious background. Both the Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions emphasize liturgy over "Biblicism." Another part lies in the relatively secular nature of British politics in the past century, which Blair insisted in response to questions after his speech that he would uphold: "I do not want to end up with an American style of politics, with all of us going out there beating our chest about our faith." (This invidious comparison with American politics was, by the way, the headline in virtually every British newspaper story about the speech.) That Blair was willing and able to eschew biblical references before an evangelical audience, where such references would presumably have been welcome and where they could perhaps have established a certain rapport with the listeners, is vivid testimony of his commitment to an essentially secular approach to politics. From this side of the Atlantic, another striking feature of Blair’s speech, given the political context, is his utter silence about the question of abortion, forcefully raised in the preceding week by both political and religious figures. It is difficult to imagine an American politician in his position getting away with this. (Indeed, an article in the Boston Globe, "Abortion debate shapes UK election," anticipated, albeit wrongly, that Blair would have to discuss abortion in his Faithworks speech.)

But in Great Britain, such a (non-) response is at least somewhat understandable. Abortion is regulated by law, not a product of judicial interpretation, and abortion law is a matter of conscience, not of party. All three major parties are "big tents" on abortion and leave their members free to vote their consciences on abortion legislation. (Indeed, one of Blair’s cabinet ministers responded that he would support an even more restrictive abortion law than the one proposed by Michael Howard.) No governing party ties its fate to a stance on abortion, and hence none would regard a parliamentary vote on abortion as a vote of confidence or no confidence in the government.

Thus when Michael Howard said that he favored further restrictions on abortion, he was committing only himself to that position, not his party. He was committing his party only to facilitating a vote on the issue (which is more than Blair has done for his party). Of course, there were political calculations involved—arguably, predominantly—in this commitment. Detaching a portion of the relatively small Roman Catholic vote from Labour (its traditional home) could make a difference in some constituencies. And the proposal seems to be polling well: in one poll, 55% supported reducing the limit, while in another there was a 3-2 (43% – 29%) margin. In the latter poll, 51% of women favored increasing restrictions on abortion, as opposed to only 33% of men. Overall, a poll released late last week had Labour ahead of the Tories by only a single point, down by six points from a month earlier.

It seems to me that we can draw two conclusions from the events of the past month in Great Britain. First, abortion turns out to be a potent political issue, even if it need not be, strictly speaking, a partisan issue. Its salience is not simply a function of a people’s religiosity. Human beings are not built to ignore and be unmoved by the increasingly vivid evidence of the humanness of the baby in the womb. (And, I might add, human beings can’t help but confront and be somewhat troubled by the ways in which scientific and technological advances are challenging our very humanity. These questions are also bubbling up in the UK.) Tony Blair can run from these issues, but it’s not clear that he can hide from them.

Second, if liberal and social democratic parties in Great Britain can be "big tents" about abortion, there would seem to be no reason why their American counterparts could not follow suit. There is ample evidence to suggest that some pro-life American voters, who are otherwise liberally inclined, would migrate to the Democratic Party if it accommodated their views on this issue and its concomitants.

To that end, I have the following modest proposal for my friends in the Democratic Party: support a constitutional amendment to return American abortion law to the status quo ante Roe. Affirm, as Antonin Scalia has argued, that the US Constitution is silent on abortion and that abortion law is a matter for state legislatures to decide. Different states would decide differently. Different Democrats and Republicans would decide differently, following either their consciences or what they took to be the inclinations of their constituents. By returning abortion to the political arena and opening up the party to pro-life candidates and voters, Democrats would deprive Republicans of a mobilizing issue at the national level, enabling political leaders and voters to focus on other pressing issues, the ones we are often told we are distracted from by constant (Republican) invocations of the politics of social issues. And at the state level, by obscuring any sort of bright line of distinction between Democrats and Republicans on abortion, electoral battles there could also be waged on what are said to be the "real issues" dividing the two parties.

Yes, in some states, we’ll likely have very restrictive abortion laws. In others, the laws might be even more lax than they are now. But, deprived of its relatively popular pro-life rallying point, the "religious right" might actually see its influence diminish somewhat. Or, to put it another way, as morally conservative religious folks spread into both parties, they would be having a larger variety of conversations and might learn both to "moderate" and to "widen" their views. Some portion of the "religious right" would likely migrate in the direction of the political center.

Of course, there’s a very big "if" here. The pro-choice activists in the Democratic Party have to be willing to give up their court-enforced privileged position, trading their elite judicial bastion for the give-and-take of (small "d") democratic politics. They will lose ground in some states. But wouldn’t that be a small price to pay for heading off "the theocrats" at the national level and for the opportunity of taming them at the state level?

Or is the fanaticism of the pro-choice wing of the Democratic Party just as much an obstacle to "grown-up" British-style politics as are the views of those deluded souls in Kansas who don’t know what their real interests are?

Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.