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The election is over, politics can begin

The election is over, politics can begin

Paul Bickley reflects on a turbulent 10 years of UK politics and a Labour victory. Are we finally on course for stability? 05/07/2024

It’s worth reminding ourselves of the last 10 years in politics. 

In 2014, there was a hard–fought and divisive Scottish independence referendum. In 2015, a general election where the Conservative Party won a majority but, with Cameron emboldened by his independence referendum win, included an in/out vote on the EU to beat back UKIP. In 2016, that referendum split the country pretty much down the middle, and saw Cameron resign (the longest lasting of five Conservative Prime Ministers in a decade).  

Theresa May fought to give actual shape to the result of that referendum, wrestling mainly with her own party. The 2017 general election clarified nothing, and resulted in ongoing Parliamentary chaos. Her resignation and Boris Johnson’s coronation offered some resolution, with a 2019 election campaign offering to ‘get Brexit done’. Johnson got his majority and delivered Brexit in January 2020, just in time for the pandemic which offered a set of governance challenges for which he and his wider government seemed almost uniquely unsuited, save perhaps for the early vaccine rollout. Turns out pandemics don’t care if you’re a funny guy.   

The Ukraine war was more in Johnson’s Churchillian wheelhouse, but in the end that didn’t save him from his own failures or party, fearful as they were of the public’s reaction to ‘Partygate’. What can we say about Liz Truss’ 49–day tenure? Perhaps only that ideology ran up against political and economic realities and lost. Rishi Sunak offered competence, accountability and a renewed integrity from his own party. He can offer some defence of his government on the first, but on no reading can claim the third. He asked that the government be judged on five policy priorities, and now we have the public’s verdict, and a verdict on what must surely count as one of the most turbulent decades in the United Kingdom’s political history.  

There’s a lot more there which we should have been talking about, but haven’t. That’s the point. This has been a decade when normal service has been suspended. This has partly been the result of external shocks like Covid and the war in Ukraine, partly the result of Brexit, but also – and this is not a party political point – the result of a party in government that has been unable to locate its own centre of gravity.  

At times it has felt like a drunken man, slurring his words and bumping into furniture, making a lot of noise but going nowhere in particular. An old friend of mine working in the public affairs industry had an interesting observation: for all the breathless pace of “events, dear boy, events”, the actual work of government – the boring work of policy consultation, formulation and execution, stakeholder engagement, careful legislative drafting, of making things a bit better one quarter step at a time – had slowed to a stop. My hunch is that this has been true for too much of government for too much of the last 10 years. 

It is not that the new Labour administration will easily fix what is wrong, either in the immediate or long term. The strategic challenges are significant, whatever the colour of rosette. We the electorate, who are increasingly volatile in our own actions, short–termist in our timeframe and demanding in our expectations, have to reckon with a time of relative stability (hopefully) but perhaps very modest achievements. 

As political scientist Bernard Crick famously said, politics cannot “make every sad heart glad”. This is the so–called expectations gap, long acknowledged by political scientists, but growing wider with every election. Sometimes democracy itself seems set against the good. As Jean–Claude Juncker said, “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re–elected once we have done it.” 

What to do about this? In explicitly theological terms, we should recover an Augustinian view of politics. The ‘earthly city’ – our ‘secular’ human now, can be more or less just, and citizens can strive for better forms of life, but it will always be far from perfect. Why? Because the earthly city is full of people with mixed and often dubious motives, and stuff happens. Citizens of the heavenly city can participate enthusiastically in public life, hoping that people’s dignity and flourishing can be better realised, but part of their task will always be to point beyond the exigencies of ordinary politics to a more eternal justice, a more eternal good.  

In practical terms churches do this through what my colleague Nick Spencer calls “social liturgy”. Doing the stuff – the foodbanks, support for the homeless, debt advice etc etc – and frequently doing this in partnership with public authorities. In the last few days, our new Prime Minister has had some very warm words for the church (“I’m absolutely clear, that there will be no decade of national renewal without the active participation of the church”). It is encouraging when the work of the churches, and other faith groups, receives recognition. But the idea of social liturgy captures not just the action, but its orientation: work done for the love of God and love of neighbour. 

Personally, I hope that ‘politics’ will slow down and back off a little – not just because I think that will be good for the business of government, but because I think that will see the work of the church grow too. 


On Theos’ ‘Religion Counts’ series

This blog is part of a larger body of work including briefing papers and articles exploring the impact of religion on voting patterns in the UK.

The first briefing paper: Do the religious vote? which examines whether voters from different religions backgrounds are more or less likely to vote.

The second briefing paper: Who do the religious vote for? looks at data on party preference – which parties are people from various religious backgrounds likely to vote for?

The third briefing paper: Do the religious feel like they can make a differencewhich explores political efficacy, social trust, and political trust amongst religious participants.

The fourth briefing paper: Economic and Social Values which maps the economic and social attitudes of religious groups in Britain.  

The fifth briefing paper: What do the religious think about key election issues? which breaks down how religious people in Britain feel about the most important issues facing the UK.

The sixth briefing paper: National Identity and Scottish Independence explores what religious people think about national identity.

The seventh briefing paper: Where do the religious stand on climate change? assesses attitudes to the environment by religious affiliation and practice.

Learn more about our Religion Counts work here.

Could you help uncover the impact faith can make in this election year by giving to our Religion Counts election appeal?


Image by Hayden Cutler on Unsplash

on Unsplash

Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Head of Political Engagement at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity.

Watch, listen to or read more from Paul Bickley

Posted 5 July 2024

Conservative Party, Parliament, Politics, Religion Counts


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