Clegg should assert secular liberalism

Nick Clegg has said he favours disestablishment of the church. He should now put the case more explicitly

Nick Clegg confirmed on Radio 4's PM programme that he favours disestablishment; the separation of church and state is part of what liberalism means to him. He is generally rather reticent about this – unnecessarily reticent I think.

In last Thursday's debate he took exactly the same line on the pope as the other two party leaders. Benedict, all agreed, is very welcome here, for the Catholic community is a valued part of the electorate, I mean the country. But that doesn't mean that one agrees with his opinions, which are highly offensive to a large part of the electorate, I mean country. This, it seemed, was the politician's inescapable line on religion: faith communities are wonderful things, despite the fact that many of them are regrettably backward.

Clegg should have used the question as an opportunity to show his commitment to liberal principles. This is what he should have said, when agreement was reached and the discussion was starting to move on.

"Actually, before we move on, I think there is something else to be said on the issue. In the past decade, religion and secularism have been coming into conflict in a new way. On one side, some religious groups feel hard done by, as if their rights are denied by the secular state. And on the other side, many secularists feel that faith communities are given too much leeway. Of course, this sort of disagreement can't suddenly be solved, but I think it can be handled better.

I think that the Labour government has got the balance wrong: it has been over-respectful of the claims of religious institutions, and has allowed the principle of secular liberalism to get rather lost. The clearest example is faith schools: their numbers have greatly expanded and it is now more common for them to select on the basis of parental religious allegiance. The Liberal Democrats would make faith schools more inclusive. State-funded schools have to be forces for community cohesion, not division.

We would also end the anachronism of bishops in the House of Lords. The other parties equivocate on this, for fear that such a constitutional change would offend traditionalists. We have been clear, for years: no religious organisation should have a special right to sit in parliament. This is an overdue liberal reform. Indeed many of us in the party, myself included, feel that the whole idea of an official national church is outdated. We as a nation are bound together not by Anglicanism, or any other form of religion, but by liberal values. Maybe it's time to be honest about that – even if it means a process of constitutional change.

Now of course our change of emphasis will be accused of being anti-religious, as if we want religious believers to be persecuted by the secular state. But this is wrong. All we seek is a reassertion of liberalism as the nation's common ideology. This means people are free to practice their religion, but also that religious institutions are kept in check, and none of them privileged. This is a core part of the liberal vision, and of course it's compatible with Christianity. This party grew on Christian soil just like the other two parties – but only this political tradition is seriously committed to reconciling religion and liberalism. The other two parties are so scared of offending religious traditionalists that they cannot reassert the principle of secular liberalism.

So I would say to the pope: you're welcome to come here, but also please understand that we reject your demonisation of secular liberalism. We are a proudly liberal nation, and your church would do well to respect this."

Well, no big surprise that he didn't say this. But he seems to believe it.

I will vote for the Liberal Democrats because they are more honest about the deep-rooted constitutional change that Britain needs. I hardly blame Clegg for downplaying this at election time, for the Tories would have an easy time depicting him as a dangerous revolutionary. But he could make a few careful noises about the need to reassert liberalism against reactionary religious institutions. He had a golden opportunity to do so in last week's debate.


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  • Fulton Fulton

    29 Apr 2010, 3:09PM

    Without finding any disagreement on the substance . . . not sure this is so pressing a subject that Nick Clegg should be spending any time on it in the final week before an election (unless directly asked of course).

  • BorisOnishchenko BorisOnishchenko

    29 Apr 2010, 3:10PM

    "Nick Clegg has said he favours disestablishment of the church. He should now put the case more explicitly"

    Please. Let's not try and shoehorn our own pet fantasies into Nick Clegg's to do list.

  • SimonSarmiento SimonSarmiento

    29 Apr 2010, 3:23PM

    Contributor Contributor

    In the previous election, the Lib Dem manifesto had a rather vague reference to disestablishment being a worthy thing to do, as I recall. In this election, there is no such reference.

    I had interpreted this "change" as a decision by the manifesto creators that the issue was not one likely to win extra votes.

    I am in favour of disestablishment myself, but I agree with the previous commenters that it is not something to spend much effort on in the next seven days.

  • Joe558 Joe558

    29 Apr 2010, 3:24PM

    If he is to go into a coalition after the next election, which is the most likely result, then this is not an issue which either of the other two parties will have the courage to take any action on. He is far more sensible to campaign on issues like electoral reform and action on climate change which he might be able to push through after the election.

  • daicefnllys daicefnllys

    29 Apr 2010, 4:01PM

    While I whole-heartedly with the thrust of your article, I feel that there needs to be a wider debate on matters secular to include disestablishment, whether state schools stay in the state sector, the place of religion in matters constitutional, the proscription of religious extremism and so on. These issues are political but emphatically not party political and need to be progressed firmly but with pregressive consensus.

  • sonoftherock sonoftherock

    29 Apr 2010, 4:07PM

    The general idea in these election campaigns is to win votes.

    A public school boy like Clegg, defending by his silence the most socially exclusive institutions in education, if not in society, while complaining about ethnically diverse faith schools in peripheral housing estates,which parents are queuing up to get their kids in to, will lose votes.

    As to disestablishment of the Church of England, it seems to this Scot that no one gives squat for this as an issue and the number of people who would allow it to determine their vote is infinitesamal.

  • tolstoi tolstoi

    29 Apr 2010, 4:14PM

    "We as a nation are bound together not by Anglicanism, or any other form of religion, but by liberal values." It would be nice if Theo could think through what he is saying. Are we all to be frogmarched into liberal values? What are these total values in which we all cohere? Are they individualism, the right to produce whatever goods and services we want, including arms for whover wants them, the right to obliterate all voluntary corporate groups seeking public expression, because they do not consist of individuals, the right to create multiple identities etc etc. Liberalism as an ideology can be as totalitarian as the next. Indeed, Liberalism plus advertising has been the most total form of indoctrination the west has seen.
    You can have your disestablishment of a few bishops, but if that the most compelling form of establishment in Britain today, we must be already post corporate.. Don't dominant political parties contribute far more members to the House of Lords?

  • gingerjon gingerjon

    29 Apr 2010, 4:30PM

    An elected upper chamber should make the disestablishment of the church nothing more than a nicety anyway as without the Bishops in the Lords there would not be any actual legislative influence by the Church of England any more.

  • FrancyPants FrancyPants

    29 Apr 2010, 4:33PM

    "My brother was recently shocked by a group of students he was with calling everything "gay". "

    Apparently, according to a youthful member of my family, the word gay in this context no long means homosexual. Check out the South Park biker episode for clarification.

    Anyway, to refer to the actual point of the article, rather than some weird tangent, I believe that although the author of this piece makes a valid point, it's just not the time for him to push this forward. Hopefully post election Clegg will have the bottle and the stature to push something like this through.

  • Amnesty Amnesty

    29 Apr 2010, 4:39PM

    An elected upper chamber should make the disestablishment of the church nothing more than a nicety anyway as without the Bishops in the Lords there would not be any actual legislative influence by the Church of England any more.

    No, it would just take away the balance. The Queen is the head of the church, the PM appoints bishops, and the government can force the General Synod to bend to its will regarding women bishops.
    Disestablishment would free the CofE from political interference and allow it to be truer to it's mission.

  • Amnesty Amnesty

    29 Apr 2010, 4:44PM

    But that doesn't mean that one agrees with his opinions, which are highly offensive to a large part of the electorate

    I'm not sure how true this really is. The elite in this country, political, intellectual and media certainly find it highly offensive, but homophobic violence (and the use of the word "gay" as an insult) is highly prevalent outside that ivory tower. My brother was recently shocked by a group of students he was with calling everything "gay". I think that in reality both casual homophobia and violent homophobia are much more deeply set in the attitudes of the majority than is often thought. Blaming churches for his homophobia seems ridiculous given the low attendance levels at churches in this country, and in my experience people within churches have been forced to take a long hard look at their views which result in a much more nuanced approach. I've never heard people within my church tell homophobic jokes, and I've never seen or heard of the youth in the church shout abuse at gay people, and yet I see and hear that kind of thing from gangs of working class youths on the streets, and old women on the bus all too often.

    Homophobia is a real problem in our society and is unjust, cruel and wrong, but I think churches are being made a scapegoat, because the view that homosexual acts are sinful is no more prejudice than saying sex outside marriage is sinful is prejudice, and no more prejudice than saying calling someone a bigot is sinful. You may disagree with the moral position, but we all have moral positions, and judge people accordingly.

  • annedemontmorency annedemontmorency

    29 Apr 2010, 5:09PM

    Removing bishops from the House of Lords would change nothing since it's a purely undemocratic institution anyway, filled as it is with political cronies, some olde tyme peers, and Olympic athletes.

    Abolition is a better prospect.

  • boulderboy boulderboy

    29 Apr 2010, 5:16PM

    i'd have liked to see him answer the question on the pope differently. something about showing the pope the values of law and rationality over doctrine as a way to run a civilised country.

    agree with the other points, last week of the election he has to show that his party wouldn't f-up the economy despite not having been in power for a bajillion years, convince people that its not 'wasting' your vote to vote for him wherever you are in the country (it'll give him a mandate to press for political reform) and to continue to seem clear, concise and seperate from the other two.

    he has his priorities - voting reform is right up there. it has struck a chord. stick with it and look trustworthy on economy and he'll do well.

  • Chessplayer Chessplayer

    29 Apr 2010, 5:18PM

    Faith Schools are over subscribed.
    Faith schools are strongly represented in top of the School League Tables.
    Faith schools follow the national curriculum like any other school.

    No one is is forcing secularists to go to faith schools.

    Clegg & Co are being highy illiberal and undemocratic with their proposals.

  • richard213 richard213

    29 Apr 2010, 5:19PM

    I always find the secularist vendetta against religious ( not faith) schools mystifying. The number of religious schools is increasing, is it because of some secret government task force forcing these schools on a reluctant public? Or is it a lot of people who like religious schools, want the same thing for their kids. Anyway, we more enlightened people who know whats best, will ensure that what makes them attractive is destroyed, we can't let these people who think they know what they want get away with it.

  • bamberry bamberry

    29 Apr 2010, 5:19PM

    The political sway of the church is massively disproportionate to the number of people who attend. I'm all for a secular society and a party willing to work towards this aim would definitely come into consideration for my vote.

  • Lamarck Lamarck

    29 Apr 2010, 5:22PM

    We are so close to getting real, democratic change.

    Why jeopardise it to emphasise this subject, which will surely follow on from a constitutional convention anyway?

  • JudySulo JudySulo

    29 Apr 2010, 5:30PM

    When considering the question of disestablishment, it is well to remember that there is no "official national church" for the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland.

    And it is also well to remember that not all parts of the electorate/nation have an established church.

    For instance, Scotland does not have an established church - so there is no church there to disestablish!.

    The majority church in Scotland is the Church of Scotland. It is a Presbyterian church i.e. it does not have bishops. The Church of Scotland is Scotland's national church but it is not an established church. In Scotland there is complete separation between church and state.

    Gordon Brown is a member of the Church of Scotland.

    In terms of numbers, the second most important church in Scotland is the Roman Catholic Church.

    There is a (relatively small) church in Scotland that is a member of the Anglican Communion. It is the Scottish Episcopal Church. It chooses to recognize the primacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury BUT neither he nor the Crown has any authority over it.

  • theohobson theohobson

    29 Apr 2010, 5:33PM

    Contributor Contributor

    @tolstoi
    "It would be nice if Theo could think through what he is saying. Are we all to be frogmarched into liberal values? What are these total values in which we all cohere? Are they individualism, the right to produce whatever goods and services we want, including arms for whover wants them, the right to obliterate all voluntary corporate groups seeking public expression, because they do not consist of individuals, the right to create multiple identities etc etc. Liberalism as an ideology can be as totalitarian as the next."

    a good summary of the cliches of 'postmodern' = reactionary theology. cowardly nostalgia for pre-modernity, with a strong church directing culture

  • stevehill stevehill

    29 Apr 2010, 5:42PM

    I wholly favour disestablishment and secularisation, and voting LibDem seems to be the best way to accelerate this.

    That said, I can't see (save probably losing the Lords Spiritual in the context of electoral reform) that this will be a first term priority with everything else that has to be dealt with.

    Then again, education changes could remove schools' "rights" to discriminate both on employment grounds and on pupil selection grounds - all of which is in the manifesto - so it's not a giant leap to disestablish the Church of England.

    It's the least we can do to deliver some measure of equality to the Welsh, Scots and Irish, and every other minority whose church is already disestablished. There is absolutely no logic in the CofE's privileged position - and Rowan Williams knows this too. He's not going to resist much.

  • stevehill stevehill

    29 Apr 2010, 5:47PM

    chessplayer

    No one is is forcing secularists to go to faith schools.

    Yes they are.

    My nearest 6 primary schools are state faith schools. Neither my MP nor my County Council can offer me any assurance - which I have sought - that my (currently pre-school) children will not be required to attend one of these schools.

    I have confirmed I am happy to travel to the nearest non-faith community school instead, but it's a rural village school with a tiny annual intake.

    You know as well as I do that there is no real parental choice in schooling in most areas.

    50% of UK primary schools are faith schools. All too often, us secularists get no choice at all about using them.

  • spirit2534 spirit2534

    29 Apr 2010, 5:53PM

    Actually if one looks at the facts - disestablishment of the CofE would bring Britain into line with the United States - complete separation of Church & State. In the United States religion is on the rise, church attendance is very high & increasing. So disestablishment could actually energise the Christian religion.

    Chessplayer

    29 Apr 2010, 5:18PM

    Faith Schools are over subscribed.
    Faith schools are strongly represented in top of the School League Tables.
    Faith schools follow the national curriculum like any other school.

    No one is is forcing secularists to go to faith schools.
    The question of faith schools is one of individual choice, their success shows that parents want them, if parents disagreed then they would support secular schools. The idea proposed by the Conservatives for increased Parent Power, can only lead to better schools. One of the major factors in the success of Public (Independent) Schools is the degree of parent involvement. Some by direct action, interacting with staff, others by the cheque book but involvement nevertheless.

    Religion is a personal thing (at least outside the Roman Catholic Church) based on ones beliefs, on ones faith. There should be a level playing field between those who are religious and those who are not. Roman Catholics are entitled to their opinions, their beliefs the same as all in society. They must be subject to the same laws, same standards as the rest of society. A lot of the problems with the child abuse cases are were the RCC felt that Church (Canon) Law was higher that Civil Law. This was especially true in places like Ireland where deference to the Church was greater than deference to the Civil Authorities.

    Once the House of Lords becomes a more democratic place, perhaps a true Senate then disestablishment will not be such a problem.

  • afghangran afghangran

    29 Apr 2010, 6:22PM

    @ euangray - I just tried twice to recommend your point as it is a valid one but the recommend button for your particular comment has been disabled. comment is obviously not free in some circumstances.

  • doesnotexist doesnotexist

    29 Apr 2010, 7:36PM

    @euangray,

    It's time for an Addendum to Godwin's Law.

    Islam is not an Established Church in the UK, is it? Nor would many (or indeed any) secular liberals want it to be.

    @afghangran - no need to be paranoid, it's just the Guardian website moving in its customary myserious ways.

  • stereoroid stereoroid

    29 Apr 2010, 8:30PM

    Since this issue would be likely to cost Clegg more votes than it gains, why should he bring it up? If he becomes the next PM, he can raise a proposal and have it given the full Westminster treatment. It's the kind of thing that you would try to do because it's the right thing to do, not because it's popular.

    If that sounds to you as if I don't trust the electorate to do the right thing ... you'd be right. The lumpenproletariat would think he was taking away their opiates. ;-)

  • VictorPurinton VictorPurinton

    29 Apr 2010, 10:13PM

    Nick Clegg has said he favours disestablishment of the church. He should now put the case more explicitly

    Woooooo-hooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    It is, in my mind, the very best thing the UK can do, both for itself and the world. First item on the agenda: faith schools. Set a target date, and phase them out.

  • SirOrfeo SirOrfeo

    29 Apr 2010, 11:07PM

    Nice thought Theo, but there's a very good reason Clegg's reticent about this. That's because we don't live in a country full of Guardian readers (were it so). My prediction: he won't be making this a priority any time soon, and certainly not before polling day.

  • euangray euangray

    29 Apr 2010, 11:33PM

    doesnotexist

    Quite right, but...

    It's rather depressing the way right-on atheists (and I am an atheist myself) fall over themselves to criticise Christianity and thus boost their secular credentials, but (with a few honourable exceptions) are somewhat more reticent when it comes to saying the same things about a certain other monetheistic religion.

    Quite right to say people have no right to wear crucifixes, relic of an outmoded superstition, etc, etc. Burqas? Ah, well, you see...thing is...glad you mentioned that...err...

    This is, it seems to me, simply because of fear. It's not brave when you know your target won't fight back.

    EG

  • pizzadeliveryninja pizzadeliveryninja

    30 Apr 2010, 12:58AM

    EG - did you not see what I said about Islam? I'll say the same about Judaism, about Zoroastrianism, about Thor-ism (if it exists!), about Scientology, about Mormons, about Buddhists, about Hindus and any other religion.

    It is all bollocks.

    But please don't let that stop your pointless whinging.

  • supertec supertec

    30 Apr 2010, 10:25AM

    It's easy to slag off Christianity.

    Would you be so brave with Islam?

    It's just as easy to slag off Islam. Islam is a backward, warmongering, hatefilled ideology with no legitimacy in the modern world!!!!!! See?

    The slight hitch is that there are more Muslims prepared to martyr themselves in the name of defending their beliefs than there are Christians.

  • Silverwhistle Silverwhistle

    30 Apr 2010, 12:16PM

    JudySulo:
    Good post. I get fed up of articles assuming that what is true of England is true also of the rest of the UK.

    Disestablishment in England would be a good idea: no Bishops in the Lords would be a step towards an all-elected upper house.

    No state funding for schools that segregate children by their parents' religion (a better description of 'faith' schools) would also be good. However, here in Scotland, there's a great deal of political cowardice about this: somehow taking a major step against sectarianism is spun as 'sectarian'.

  • freewoolly freewoolly

    30 Apr 2010, 12:57PM

    It's just as easy to slag off Islam. Islam is a backward, warmongering, hatefilled ideology with no legitimacy in the modern world!!!!!! See?

    Mmm run that by us again supertec but under your real name and with your pic in the top corner...

  • PDenyer PDenyer

    30 Apr 2010, 1:37PM

    freewoolly
    30 Apr 2010, 12:57PM
    Mmm run that by us again supertec but under your real name and with your pic in the top corner...

    That's a bit rich coming from someone calling themselves 'Freewolly', and as for your picture..........

  • OldBathrobe OldBathrobe

    30 Apr 2010, 1:49PM

    euan

    Quite right to say people have no right to wear crucifixes, relic of an outmoded superstition, etc, etc. Burqas? Ah, well, you see...thing is...glad you mentioned that...err...

    If you mean Shirley Chaplin, she was told she could wear her pendant cross tucked inside her uniform and two clip-on cross earrings visibly. Nobody has banned wearing the cross. The silly woman simply wasn't amenable to any sort of compromise.

  • engagebrain engagebrain

    30 Apr 2010, 2:44PM

    richard213
    29 Apr 2010, 5:19PM

    I always find the secularist vendetta against religious ( not faith) schools mystifying. The number of religious schools is increasing, is it because of some secret government task force forcing these schools on a reluctant public?

    Blair turned out to be a closet Catholic and Brown is some sort of god botherer.

    There is a demand for good schools and but what church schools are good at is selection both for god bothering and behavior.

  • translated translated

    30 Apr 2010, 5:21PM

    Amnesty wrote:

    Disestablishment would free the CofE from political interference and allow it to be truer to it's mission.

    To me this is a good argument against disestablishment. In his headlong rush to adopt the behaviors of conservative American Christianity, George Carey already seems to have abandoned the self-confident pragmatism of what the CofE used to be. I't might be tempting disestablish the enterprise, but all that will do is encourage fundamentalism.

  • Peason1 Peason1

    30 Apr 2010, 11:32PM

    translated -

    George Carey already seems to have abandoned the self-confident pragmatism of what the CofE used to be. I't might be tempting disestablish the enterprise, but all that will do is encourage fundamentalism.

    Self-confident 'pragmatism' has managed to alienate both church goers and non church goers alike.

    A church that isn't prepared to defend its own faith will wither and die.

    And what on earth is so horrific about a fundamentalism that returns to the word of the Bible? Scared the CiFers will turn a bit nasty?

  • Peason1 Peason1

    30 Apr 2010, 11:41PM

    Oh, and Theo, could you explain to me how revving up the engines of secular liberalism is going to help spread the Word of God?

    And how does

    This means people are free to practice their religion, but also that religious institutions are kept in check,

    square with your claim to be a Christian?

    It is on a par with one of the apostles going to the Roman authorities and saying 'although we bring you the most important and overarching message it is possible to deliver we appreciate that you have your own culture and you need to put some measures in place to ensure people like me don't upset your vibe'.

  • BarabbasFreed BarabbasFreed

    1 May 2010, 3:57PM

    PDenyer

    freewoolly
    30 Apr 2010, 12:57PM
    Mmm run that by us again supertec but under your real name and with your pic in the top corner...

    That's a bit rich coming from someone calling themselves 'Freewolly', and as for your picture..........

    No, he really does look like that. Demographics can prove it. We know he's currently in NZ. The present population in NZ for both sheep and people is 36.8 Million (4.4 Million people and 32.4Million sheep). So, on average we would expect a photo will look kind of sheepish.

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