We in Britain had become rather smug when looking across the Atlantic. While we were cheerfully celebrating HM the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee—flags, special prayers at church, street parties—there were the Americans gulping with the dawning realization that, come November, they would have to choose between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as President.
It was tempting to email to American friends “Wanna come back under the protection of the Crown?”, and it was all mildly enjoyable.
Then suddenly we were plunged into a leadership battle of our own, and for a while everything seemed slightly weird.
It was right and proper for David Cameron to resign when he lost the Brexit vote: the nation had spoken clearly, and it was right to go. And his speech was dignified and manly—until he got to the bit about his achievements, and put in the horrid reference to same-sex marriage. Oh dear. It just reminded us of what a dreadful thing that was, just as we were beginning, however briefly, to think that history would not treat him too badly.
And so the Great Tory Leadership Contest began. And what a contest! What started as an oh-Boris-everyone-knows-it’s-going-to-be-you thing, turned into the most extraordinary series of events, and then we had two ladies representing, broadly left and right wings of the party. Tory party members around the country were eligible to vote. In the end, that did not happen, as Angela Leadsom withdrew, so the contest didn’t happen, we knew we had a Prime Minister, and things began to feel normal again.
At one time, I would have been eligible to vote in the Conservative Party contest, as I was an active party member: leaflet door-to-door, hurrying enthusiastically to party conferences. But should ordinary party members have a vote, anyway? It doesn’t seem quite right, somehow. Britain is a Parliamentary democracy: political parties have a role in that, but Parliament itself is what matters. For a great many years, leadership battles of this sort were for Parliamentarians alone, and although that may have meant all sorts of private arguments and deals, we achieved some reasonable leaders that way. People now seem to think that it was shocking that ordinary party members had no say in the choice of, for example, Sir Alec Douglas Home, or, looking further back, Harold Macmillan. I am not sure that I can share that indignation: the system seemed to work reasonably well, and indeed although I am no particular fan of Theresa May, it seems to have worked reasonably well this time, too.
I enjoyed my years as an active Conservative, and at the risk of sounding pompous, I do believe that involvement in politics can be a form of service to the community (full disclosure: I was for some years a local borough councillor, an active Young Conservative, and worked as a researcher for the Conservatives in Parliament). But there are only 24 hours in every day, and one must make the best use of them, and I felt a few years back that it is the spiritual and cultural things that matter most for the future of our poor old country, and it might be more useful for a while to try to make some tiny modest contribution there. So, for good or ill, I’ve been busy in recent years with things like the nationwide Schools Bible Project—through which pupils at secondary schools study events in the life of Christ and write essays to show their understanding of them—and other ventures. No regrets.
Anyway, we now have Mrs May: daughter of an Anglican vicar, well educated (grammar school, Oxford), happily married, regular churchgoer. That last is rather unusual in modern Britain, and in all sorts of obvious ways is rather reassuring in a Prime Minister. But these last few days have also seen the Church of England General Synod meeting in York, with all sorts of horribly predictable things being said about accepting and blessing same-sex unions, so don’t expect any mainstream Anglican to start being robust about publicly defending male/female marriage as the basis for all public policy any time soon. Mrs May is an obviously kind and decent woman with a clear moral sense—but she is a woman of today’s ideas, and specifically today’s Anglicanism.
In any case (and this is the real point) no Prime Minister can now have much personal influence on some of the great social and moral trends of the day: the influences come from elsewhere. Of which more later, but let’s meanwhile take a brief look at the Labour Party.
After the massive Labour defeat at the General Election in 2015, and the subsequent resignation of Ed Milliband as leader, you could join the party and elect a new leader by paying £3. So lots of Hard Left people did just that, and had a field day. Duly appointed, Jeremy Corbyn and his hardcore network have been enthusiastically promoting the kind of ghastly policies that reduced Central and Eastern Europe to misery for half of the last century.
Unrepentant Marxists, with lots of edgy connections to iffy Muslim and passionately anti-Western lobbies, they can draw on substantial numbers of young people for angry and occasionally violent demonstrations. But the problem is that Labour Members of Parliament are increasingly uncomfortable, knowing that all this makes it unlikely that they can get re-elected. And they are now also being bullied in their own constituencies as young hard-left activists take over the relevant committees and so on. Tony Blair’s soft-left politics is absolutely not fashionable at the moment, and today’s angry young activists are nothing like the sort of Labour voters who identified with, say, Jim Callaghan forty years ago.
For some while now, large numbers of boys and girls have been brought up in households where they have had to live with various serial relationships, and in an education system where very little history has been taught, and where religious education has been reduced to a sort of quick whirl through a supermarket of options. They are not confident that they are loved or loveable, and they are uncertain about their place in the world.
Many are spiritual and cultural orphans, endlessly nagged to reveal their feelings and receive various sorts of counseling. They are conscious of the known certainties in the modern jungle of ideology: same-relationships are fine, being “transgender” is very OK indeed, Mrs Thatcher was extremely wicked, and so were all the people like her who, er, oppressed women and gays, and, like, the important thing is to fulfill your dreams and know that you are, um, wonderful and have a right to your own self-esteem.
Meanwhile, Islam offers other certainties, “sexting” becomes a ghastly sort of escape into a sordid byway, and the prospect of a grown-up life with a job and a home and a family seems remote, accessible only to previous generations.
Scroll back to that earlier paragraph about the spiritual and cultural needs of Britain; when the pieces on the political chessboard have been duly rearranged over the next months, these great realities will remain. The tasks facing the new Prime Minister now are daunting—not so much the Brexit negotiations, which are manageable and capable of resulting in many good possibilities for Britain—but the realities of our everyday social and cultural decline, exemplified by those angry screaming middle-class young people who shriek support for Corbyn.
It’s not just peering across the Atlantic that reveals a scene that is less than cheering. For all of us in the West, the urgent need is for re-evangelizing, with a new vigor for the Christian message that offers hope for a tired and apprehensive civilization. Young people will be gathering in Krakow this summer: it was there that one of the great saints of the modern era gave us the message that offers us a chance to make things better, that a spiritual renewal can prove much more lasting and important than politics. We should not be afraid. Christianity has within it the power to change things, to bring to birth a fresh culture. As Saint John Paul II’s biographer put it, the late pope taught us that “It is culture that drives history, over the long haul”.
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