On moral issues, do we really want to take the American way?

Most people would agree that the US has a toxic political culture. Bernie Sanders, in the UK this week, makes the point that both blue and red are in hock to big money. The information space is completely dominated by echo chambers which make reasoned political argument ever more unlikely. Political institutions are in what seems like a state of permanent partisan seizure.

All this is caught up with the binary nature of the political system. Almost any given issue is a win/loose scenario, and the political extremes get to dominate. Whether on health care, gun ownership, debt ceilings, there is no incentive – no perceived win – in a depolarised approach. This is rarely more the case than on so-called ‘moral’ questions – abortion, same-sex marriage, trans issues (I say so-called moral, because of course all significant political issues are moral).Michael Wear, a former adviser to the Obama administration, has written how – ironically – forces in both Republican and Democrat movements worked to scupper cross party work reducing the number of abortions. The thing that both sides could agree on was that they didn’t want to work together.

Who wants UK politics to become more like this? Well, the British public it seems.

When Kate Forbes threw her hat into the ring for leadership of the SNP and position of First Minister of Scotland, questions were raised about her support for progressive positions on same-sex marriage, gender self-id, and children out of wedlock – even on the question of women in church leadership.

Forbes, a member of the socially conservative Free Church of Scotland, does hold conservative positions on these questions.Several MSPs withdrew their support, and outgoing leader Nicola Sturgeon made her own views clear: “Scotland is a socially progressive country and I believe that is majority opinion… people look to their first minister to see someone who will stand up for them and their rights and the job of first minister on a daily basis involves responding to things based your positions your values, your outlooks.”

In recent years, the SNP has sought to make itself a twin-engine aircraft – those engines being, on the one hand, the cause of Scottish independence, and, on the other, socially progressive policies (though their inability to offer coherent answers to tough questions on gender self-id has contributed to a feeling of general malaise).You could therefore say, and many have, ‘hard cheese, Kate’.

The position of First Minister is one of national leadership, and the national leadership that the SNP has sought to offer, has been full throated support for the LGBT+ community. That offer – along with competent leadership, Tory-dominated Westminster, and a growing national confidence – has seen them win every Scottish Parliamentary election since 2007.

Forbes willingness to say that she won’t act on these principles, based on a longstanding Christian recognition that faithful morality need not necessarily be legislated, seemed to do her no good – at least in the Twittersphere. The debate underlined what for many has been obvious since Tim Farron’s torrid term as leader of the Liberal Democrats –liberalism has narrowing limits, and it will be hard for anyone with a conservative religious sensibility to lead a major political party, certainly one of the left.

In response to the campaign, the religion and society think tank Theos commissioned YouGov to ask UK adults what beliefs and views they thought should on principle debar someone from holding senior public office. The results were instructive.

More than one in ten of us – 11% – think being a Catholic meant that you should not be allowed to hold public office. Perhaps oddly, given the historic anti-Catholicism in British culture, this position saw the lowest level of opposition.

Even more – 13% – think the same way about Orthodox Jews, 16% about Muslims, and 19% about evangelical Christians. In other words, nearly a fifth of people believe that evangelicals should on principle not be allowed to hold senior government jobs. Ten years ago that result would have been very different. It is now evangelical Christians, not Muslims, who are seen as the other. That is surprising enough in itself.

The poll also highlighted some fascinating differences between how voters of different political parties answer the question.

Labour voters are significantly more likely than Tory or Lib Dem voters to oppose a person with a religious faith holding a top govt job (one in four Labour voters polled would oppose, compared to 17% for both Tory and Lib Dem voters).Labour voters are also more likely to think someone who is an evangelical Christian should not be allowed to hold a key government job (26% said they felt this way). The Labour Party – the Party of Keir Hardie, Blair and Brown– has a growing problem with religion. Owes more to Methodism than to Marx? Has a vibrant Christian movement as an affiliated body? These things, it seems, matter less and less to the voter base of the likely next party of government. Having fought to hard to banish one form of religious prejudice, it is a live possibility that Starmer’sLabour will embrace another.

As with the SNP, so with Labour. Many will argue that it’s just the price you pay for holding socially conservative views – and maybe it is. I would say that Labour would be a stronger party if it remains what G. D. H. Cole called “a broad movement on behalf of the bottom dog”. The alternative is that we being to do things the American way, and map social conservatism onto economic liberalism, or worse, that we suggest to such people that they find their home in movements beyond the political mainstream.

Obama managed to find a language which empathised and reached out to democratic leaning pro-lifers (perhaps 3 in 10 democrats). In other words, he did much better at engaging the moderate part of the evangelical and social conservative Catholic vote. Why in 2016, some people have asked, did evangelicals – some of which had supported Obama – vote so overwhelmingly for Trump? I’m sure there are many reasons, but among them is the fact that Trump asked them to vote for him, and Hilary Clinton did not.

In the light of Forbes’ troubled run for the SNP leadership, we should ask ourselves which kind of politics we prefer – the Obama-style politics of consensus and movement building, or the Trump style politics which thrives in the polarising use of wedge social issues, with clientelist kowtowing to some groups, and atavistic othering of others.

I know what my answer is.

These are the stats on the YouGov