The British people have spoken, and their voice has confounded all expectations. Almost immediately after the polls closed in the General Election at 10pm on Thursday night, a nationwide exit poll indicated that the Conservative party, led by David Cameron, the prime minister since 2010, was going to win far more seats than predicted.
For months, polling data and the consensus of the pundit class was that both the Conservatives and their principal opponents, the Labour party, had around 32-33 percent of the vote. This would have left both parties well short of the magic number of 323 seats needed for a majority (although there are 650 seats in the House of Commons, representatives of the Northern Irish party, Sinn Fein, refuse to take their seats, reducing the de jure majority of 326). Either Labour or the Conservatives would need to seek a smaller party to form a coalition government, similar to the Conservative tie-up with the Liberal Democrats that governed since 2010.
The problem was, the Liberal Democrats were predicted to lose many seats (and so it came to pass: an unexpected surge in 2010 gave them 55 seats; they retained only 8 on Thursday) thus leaving no potential coalition partner for the Conservatives, who instead would have sought a difficult tie-up with the Democratic Unionist Party, a Northern Irish party on the right of the political spectrum, and conceivably the rump of the Lib Dems as well. Labour repeatedly denied the spectre of a partnership with the Scottish National Party, whose success was widely anticipated (in the event, winning 56 of the available 59 seats).
The surprise Conservative victory, with a working majority of 8, has a number of potential explanations: “shy” Tory voters who didn’t reveal their preference to pollsters; the success of a campaign that played on the fears of English voters of a Labour/SNP coalition; positive messages about the turn-around in the British economy over the past five years; and an election machine that was disciplined and targeted at defending the 40 most marginal seats held by the party and winning the 40 seats most likely to swing to the Conservatives (more than half of these were Lib Dem-held seats, and the Conservatives were hoping that they would be the main beneficiaries of any collapse in Lib Dem support).
Does the Conservative Party Uphold Catholic Values?
The first place to look for an indication of the next five years (although potentially less if fixed-term Parliaments are scrapped) is the manifesto. As I wrote shortly before the election, there is plenty in it for Catholics to support. There are over 80 pages of pledges and promises, but the honest reader should recognize that many will prove to be mere aspirations that fate or circumstance conspire to never let see the light of day.
But, as I summarized, there are lots of promises of assistance, including for the marginalized poor, including an increase in the national minimum wage and greater assistance for the disabled; “relationship support” for families (although how far this will go in stemming the epidemic of family breakdown in the UK is uncertain, given the small sum of money, and nebulous quality, of the proffered support); greater promises of help for the elderly and infirm, without recourse to the legalization of assisted dying; and a renewed emphasis on the development of a strong and stable civil society.
This last strand is perhaps the Conservative’s greatest positive offering for Christians in the light of Catholic social teaching. Mr Cameron was made fun of when he used the notion of the “Big Society” in opposition to big government before the 2010 election. His idea was that virtuous citizens would volunteer to manage and run community projects, and that the state could facilitate this by ‘nudging’ good action. The emphasis on civil society taking action was something of a gamble given the persistence of state interference in family life, an addiction fed by successive post-war governments and one that reached its apex under Gordon Brown. It was borne out of necessity: in the recession and financial crises, there simply was not enough money to continue a high level of funding for public services.
The Big Society has not yet reached its turning point, when Britons once again feel that they can and should do something about the ills that afflict communities, without simply turning to the state and demanding that something must be done. What is true about the next five years is that the “austerity” measures of the previous five will have to continue. The public finances are still in a parlous position; the annual deficit (the difference between tax receipts and government spending, which has to be made up through debt) is not expected to be nil until 2018 at the earliest. The total level of debt is still growing, albeit at a reduced rate; what matters here is not the absolute measure but the total in relation to output, and the figure is still scary: it is around 90 percent of GDP. This means that British civil society will have to shoulder greater burdens—and I, for one, welcome that.
Aside from the manifesto, the other big indicators of what the Conservatives will do now are their past performance and the characters of the ministers and so-called back benchers (i.e. everyone who does not hold a formal government job) who make up the Parliamentary party. As I also noted before the election in a separate article, yes, the Conservative leadership has been lukewarm on those issues important to orthodox Catholics which are not left within the realm of prudential judgment (i.e. that Catholics cannot argue about in good faith). The leadership generally supports moderate restrictions on abortion, and would reduce the all-important time-limit, but abortion has historically been a matter of private conscience and is not whipped to a party line (at least not on the Conservative benches; Labour and the Lib Dems do, and are far worse). One piece of good news is that the Conservatives overwhelmingly oppose assisted dying, and any attempts in the House of Lords to introduce the measure will likely fail.
Same-sex marriage is over as a debate: it is not going to be abolished. However, fed by a number of incidents were surrogate mothers have lost control over their children, there will likely be greater public interest in same-sex couples who, frankly, have their offspring bred to order. The swirling mess that is the divide between genders in the British public imagination will only worsen: mothers and fathers are, it seems, wholly indistinguishable in public policy. Other than by putting more money into people’s pockets via economy recovery and one limited tax break, I cannot see the dire collapse of the family unit being arrested.
Reading the runes of ministerial appointments, the most important is the re-appointment to the education portfolio of Nicky Morgan. A practicing Christian, Mrs Morgan is known to support a specific measure and set of policies addressing “homophobia” in schools. This problem is already thoroughly tackled by legislation and in practice, and the widespread fear is that it will be used to suppress supporters of traditional marriage. This is an indicator of the wider trend that will certainly continue unless, by chance, the government deliberately acts to stop it: the slow ebb of religious freedom in British culture and law.
At the time of writing, the re-appointment of a Catholic, Iain Duncan-Smith, to the welfare portfolio is uncertain. His legacy has been to point the welfare system to getting people off benefits and into work; it may now be time for a more nuts-and-bolts-oriented manager to make the machine work.
Finally, it remains to be seen whether the Conservative backbenches remain generally positioned towards social conservativism. A number of new MPs would tend towards social liberalism, but early indications are that the line will hold. We shall see.