Oliver Cross: Is Cameron fighting the good fight with his show of faith?

David Cameron

David Cameron

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OUT OF a clear blue sky, and for no obvious reason, David Cameron announced last week that he was a traditional Anglican Christian with an evangelical bent.

The supposed reason for this unexpected revelation was that it was Easter, but Easter happens every year and never before has Mr Cameron felt the need to discuss (in several places, so you couldn’t miss it) his Christian beliefs. It’s as if they had previously slipped his mind.

Alistair Campbell’s view was that New Labour didn’t ‘do religion’ – and although his boss, Tony Blair, clearly did, he didn’t think to mention it until he was out of office, which was, I think, rather slippery.

Campbell has been thoroughly sceptical about Cameron the evangelist. He said last week, in a blog post that he’s since decided to remove (although if there’s anybody I wouldn’t trust to revise history, it’s Alistair Campbell) that Cameron’s Christianity is a political ‘tactic’, of the type that led him to have himself photographed with huskies in the Arctic to show that the Tories would lead “the greenest government ever”, a claim which quickly wilted.

Of course, Campbell is an expert on political tactics and presentation and, because mainstream British politicians are mostly very similar people wearing different rosettes, Cameron is too. Neither would make any statement about their personal beliefs without wondering, out of habit, how the statement would be likely to ‘play’ with the electorate.

But I’m not cynical about Cameron’s Christianity; it’s what you would expect of the prime minister of a still-Christian country. The Church of England may, through its experience in supporting food banks and fighting poverty, tend to the left but it is still an establishment body, just like Eton College, ancient universities and other places Cameron feels at home in. It’s just his timing I find interesting.

The suspicion is that it may be related to a fear that Nigel Farage’s Ukip party will perform well in the European elections on May 22, taking votes from older Tories who generally support the Church of England, often more because it’s ‘of England’ than because it’s a church. It’s reminiscent of John Major’s evocation of Englishness in his most famous (actually, his only famous) speech about ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mists’ and it represents a reassuring kind of Conservatism, far removed from the radicalism of Margaret Thatcher, who was as conservative as a flame-thrower.

I do wonder, though, whether David Cameron isn’t being a bit short-termist in stressing his Anglican roots because, four months after the European election, comes the Scottish referendum, and singing the praises of the Church of England isn’t an obvious way win over Scottish Presbyterians. Congregants at many kirks, churches and chapels in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland might feel uncomfortable at being dragged into Cameron’s (and Major’s) vision of a national faith which is essentially the faith of middle England. It doesn’t bode well for the union.

And, incidentally, having just finished, about a year after everybody else, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s two wonderful novels about Henry VIII’s fixer, Thomas Cromwell, I was reminded that the Church of England was not built by old maids on bicycles but by fiercely disputatious factions beating each other to pulp in an effort to establish their version of the faith throughout the land.

So when Tony Blair establishes a faith foundation, or Baroness Warsi of Dewsbury, who deserves a proper job but is now the minister for faith and communities, declares that Britain has “the most pro-faith government in the world”, I wonder firstly whether Iran or Afghanistan might have a better claim to the title and secondly, whether I should be investing in body armour.