Opinion Articles


Sunday Blues: Conservatives, Religion and Party Identity


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The Conservative Government recently suffered another setback at the hands of its own backbenchers. A measure allowing large shops to extend their Sunday opening hours was defeated on 9 March by a cross party alliance that included 27 Conservative MPs. Their spokesman, David Burrowes, expressed concern for both shop workers and ‘faith groups’. The government responded to the defeat by focussing on SNP ‘hypocrisy’; Sunday trading laws have already been relaxed in Scotland. This conveniently sidestepped the Conservatives’ historic identification with Christianity; a legacy which in recent decades has come into conflict with their belief in the free market.

The Tory party was conceived during the exclusion crisis of 1679−81. ‘Tories’ were those MPs who rejected parliament’s right to determine the royal line of succession. In Tory eyes, kings were divinely appointed, as both sovereign and head of the church, and were therefore beyond the jurisdiction of an earthly institution. The Catholicism of James II, and parliament’s decision to replace him with William III and Mary II, placed Tories in an awkward position, but their primary loyalty was to the Established Churches of England, Scotland and Ireland. Indeed, Tories often identified themselves as the ‘Church Party’.

The Tories’ preference for Stuart kings led to their long exclusion from public office under the first two Hanoverian monarchs. This drove some Tories to support the ill-fated Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Even when the ban was lifted by George III, the reputation of Tories was so poor that only the most zealous defenders of the state churches identified themselves with the party.

By the early 1800s the label “Tory” was again in usage, applied to the followers of William Pitt the Younger, a reflection in part of their staunch patriotic defence of state Protestantism. This worked both ways, and clergymen of the Established Churches readily leant their support to Tory candidates at elections. In parliament, most Tories opposed attempts to grant political rights to Catholics. In 1828 this provoked one of the largest rebellions in the history of Tory party; the Duke of Wellington only succeeded in granting ‘Catholic Emancipation’ with Whig support.

Parliament’s interference in 1833 with the revenue and organisation of the state church provoked another major backbench rebellion against Wellington, though the party managed to present a more united front the following year by opposing a Whig measure to admit ‘dissenters’ to universities. Tories experienced another bruising division in 1845 when their leader, Sir Robert Peel, increased the state subsidy to Ireland’s main Catholic seminary. As with Catholic Emancipation, the Tory rebellion was so large that the measure required Whig support.

Tory MPs—increasingly labelled “Conservatives”—may have been divided about how to preserve the residual privileges of the Established Churches, but Protestantism remained a dependable rallying call at general elections. This was especially the case in Ireland, and also in British cities settled by large numbers of Irish Catholic migrants. This added a ‘democratic’ sectarian aspect to the Conservatives’ Protestantism, which at Westminster took the form of Conservative opposition in 1847 to the extension of political rights to Jews, and in 1852, a Conservative government ban on Catholic processions in Ireland.

The capacity of Established Church membership to mobilise the electorate declined in subsequent decades, though it held out well into the twentieth century - particularly in Lancashire and parts of Scotland, and also in Ireland (in spite of the disestablishment of its Anglican church in 1871). In part, Conservatives needed to appeal to an expanding and increasingly diverse electorate. But even amongst Anglicans, fractures within the Church of England were mirrored in the Conservative Party at Westminster. Nevertheless, the Established Churches remained a significant part of Conservative identity, as confirmed by Benjamin Disraeli in his famous 1872 speeches at Manchester and the Crystal Palace. Furthermore, an enduring anti-Catholicism was clearly an undercurrent in Conservative attitudes to Irish Nationalism.

There was still a small but determined number of Conservatives committed to defending the Established Churches in matters that went against prevailing political opinion. In 1920 Lord Hugh Cecil was at the forefront of a hopeless campaign against the ‘robbery of God’; the Conservative-led coalition government’s decision to disestablish the Anglican Church in Wales. And the 1927−28 ‘prayer book controversy’ revealed strong opinions amongst Conservative (and other) MPs about the protestant character of the Church of England and its relationship with the state.

The ease with which many Conservatives identified with the Established Churches diminished noticeably in the 1980s as the Thatcher government clashed with clergy over controversial political and moral questions. At the same time, however, grassroots Anglicans alienated by the Church of England’s supposedly liberal leadership looked to Conservative backbenchers to defend orthodox positions on the ordination of women, family life, and the significance of Christianity in national identity. The Thatcher government addressed some of these concerns, but it inevitably came into conflict with Christians in 1986 when it attempted to liberalise Sunday trading laws. Defeated on this occasion by a large backbench rebellion, the logic of Thatcherite free market dogma finally won out in 1994.

Twenty two years later, the most recent Conservative rebellion on Sunday shopping demonstrates that the party’s religious background has not been completely eliminated. The decision of the present government to desist with further reforming Sunday trading recognises this fact, as well as the capacity of a determined minority of backbenchers to exploit the government’s small majority. With the EU referendum on the horizon, David Cameron needs to avoid further exposing the vulnerability of his administration to backbench rebellion.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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