December 5, 2016 by James Crossley
Theresa May has continued the standard route of the mainstream politician by authorising her politics vaguely in Christianity and God. But perceptions are marked by the political times and for May it is Brexit. We might begin by recalling what has happened to May’s words in different interviews for Desert Island Discs and the Sunday Times. In these interviews she made seemingly innocuous comments about ‘faith’ like ‘It is part of who I am and how I approach things’ and a favourite of politicians, the spectacularly vague ‘doing the right thing’. In the Sunday Times interview she mentioned about getting on with the terms of Brexit but the afterlife of the interviews made the (sometimes ironic) connection between God and her words while providing plausible deniability in that she didn’t quite make an explicit connection in the interview. Let’s take two different perspectives:
‘Theresa May Says God and Her Faith Are Guiding Brexit Decisions’ (Huffington Post)
‘GUIDE ME, O THOU GREAT THERESA: Theresa May says her faith in God will guide our path out of Europe as she admits Brexit is keeping her awake’ (The Sun)
The idealised Huffington Post reader isn’t a May voter so no real damage done there while Brexit-supporting Sun have gone for a twist of appreciative irony in their support. But luckily for May, the recurring theme of her as the ‘vicar’s daughter’ is working in terms of authenticity in a way that Christianity did not for Blair. Compare, for instance, the following write up from the Financial Times:
“She feels that she has been called to do this. She has a very strong sense of vocation and destiny and a very clear sense of right and wrong,” says Prof Linda Woodhead, an expert on the Church of England at Lancaster University. “Like her father, she has huge grit and determination and stamina to see through the moral vision she believes in.”
That firmness of purpose has been evident in Mrs May’s drive in her previous job to cut immigration and to tackle what she sees as the failings of Britain’s police force. It will now be tested as her government decides how to pursue Brexit.
Tony Blair would have loved that sort of press in relation to his faith, at least on a constant basis, but his belief wasn’t perceived to be a Good Thing.
It is indeed looking like Brexit is providing a subtle shift in recent political uses of the Bible. The following exchange about Christmas took place in Parliament this past September:
Mr Shailesh Vara (North West Cambridgeshire) (Con): The Prime Minister will be aware of coverage regarding a report to be published by Dame Louise Casey, the Government’s integration tsar. The report will speak of British laws, culture, values and traditions, such as Christmas, being threatened by political correctness from council officials. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to send a loud and clear message that the best way to secure a harmonious society is not only for mainstream Britain to respect minority traditions, such as Diwali, Vaisakhi and Eid, but for council officials to appreciate that minority communities should respect the views and traditions of mainstream Britain, which means that Christmas is not “Winterval” and that Christmas trees are not “festive” trees?
Prime Minister, Theresa May: I agree with my hon. Friend. I will not comment on or pre-empt the findings of Louise Casey’s review, which is an important piece of work. I will simply join my hon. Friend by saying that what we want to see in our society is tolerance and understanding. We want minority communities to be able to recognise and stand up for their traditions, but we also want to be able to stand up for our traditions generally, and that includes Christmas.
So, we know that Christmas means Christmas and not Winterval. One notable aspect of this exchange is that it plays into discourses about ‘political correctness’ and, of course, the alleged threats to Christmas itself. This has been a favoured discourse of the Right for some time now—including tabloid campaigns to save Christmas—though one which does not correspond with what has actually happened behind the stories. These stories have consistently reported wrongly in newspapers, as Oliver Burkeman has shown conclusively on a couple of occasions. Moreover, terms like ‘festive’ and ‘Christmas’ have been used interchangeably for at least as long as I can remember. And in the olden days things weren’t so obviously ‘Christmas’ as we might think, such as this (which isn’t as good as the mouse riding a lobster):
In other words, there is no significant attack on Christmas aside from the imaginations of the political Right. Nevertheless, accurate details are irrelevant as the ideological position is what really matters here. It certainly taps into a common tradition embraced by all leading politicians, namely that Christianity, the Bible, Christmas etc. are a part of English or British cultural heritage but the spin on it is clearly one that might broadly be associated with the Tory Right, right-wing tabloids, or, indeed, UKIP. What is also striking are these comments by Theresa May: ‘We want minority communities to be able to recognise and stand up for their traditions, but we also want to be able to stand up for our traditions generally, and that includes Christmas’. David Cameron’s socially liberal Christianity/Bible/Christmas, following the Blairite emphasis on a socially (and economically) liberal Christianity, would typically involve statements about ‘all faiths and none’ holding the same values as everyone else, including Christians. Yet May’s rhetoric so far looks subtly but significantly different. Note in May’s response the strong division between minorities (‘their traditions’) and the dog-whistling assumption of a normative British (‘our traditions’, including Christmas).
This parliamentary exchange took place in September but it was a more recent exchange in Parliament that brought about greater press coverage:
Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): Comments this week by the equalities commissioners about not being worried about talking about Christmas at work were important, because many Christians are now worried, even fearful, about mentioning their faith in public. Will the Prime Minister therefore join me in welcoming the recent Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship publication “Speak Up!”, which confirms that in our country the legal rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech to speak about one’s faith responsibly, respectfully and without fear are as strong today as ever?
Prime Minister, Theresa May: My hon. Friend raises an important issue which matters both to her and me. I think the phrase that was used by the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship was “the jealously guarded principle” of that ability to speak freely, as she says, respectfully and responsibly about one’s religion. I am happy to welcome the publication of this report and its findings. Of course, we are now into the season of Advent. We have a very strong tradition in this country of religious tolerance and freedom of speech, and our Christian heritage is something we can all be proud of. I am sure we would all want to ensure that people at work do feel able to speak about their faith, and also feel able to speak quite freely about Christmas.
Here the assumed aspect of normative culture/Christmas appears to be under threat again (from whom it is not clear but audiences can fill in the gaps for themselves). We might think that Christmas jumpers, decorations, public Christmas trees, private Christmas trees, unsafely decorated houses, drunken Christmas parties, Noddy Holder, VH1 in December, Wizzard, Blackeye Friday, Shaky, the announcement of Christmas adverts, buying presents for people you barely know or care about in fear of recriminations, secret Santa, the Queen’s message, expert Cooperite blogs about Christmas number ones, complaining that Christmas starts earlier each year etc. etc. etc., might suggest that some people do indeed ‘feel able to speak quite freely about Christmas’. But this would be beside the point. It is again the dog-whistling assumptions of a threatened normative culture but one which lays a claim to the values of ‘religious tolerance and freedom of speech’. Once again, there is no mention of other traditions holding the same values, as was the case with her predecessors.
May has even given an interview with the Radio Times about her Christmas which has been summarised and reported online. It is notably ‘traditional’ and distinctly British (a goose, not [an American] turkey!) infused with what might be assumed to involve no-nonsense, middle-class values and manners:
- A quick drink ‘with friends in our village’
- ‘the churches in my Maidenhead constituency come together to put on a lunch and entertainment for older people who would otherwise be on their own’
- ‘I always like to cook the Christmas meal myself’.
- ‘it won’t be turkey. For a few years now we have tended to have goose instead’
- Doctor Who…Agatha Christie…David Suchet as Poirot
- ‘I don’t tend to eat in front of the television’
The interview brings up the vicar’s daughter cliché. In this respect, the interviewer asks if ‘the religious side’ of Christmas is important and the answer is an unsurprisingly ‘yes’. And ‘religious’ here is deemed to be ‘going to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and church on Christmas Day morning’ and the recollection that as a child ‘I had to wait until my father had finished his services before I could open my presents’ which ‘felt like a very long wait’ as friends ‘would be able to open their presents first thing in the morning’. This is part of May’s post-Cameron branding as a kind of idealised Daily Mail reader’s unflinching, no-nonsense Prime Minister, similar to the perspective that comes through strongly in the representation of May’s middle-class, disciplined, and traditional church upbringing in the Financial Times, deemed to transfer into her politics and which has echoes of the representations of Thatcher’s upbringing in the 1970s. She is not part of the Liberal Elite, she is not like those snobby metropolitan types rejected in the Referendum, ok? Indeed, in addition to the assumed background of this being the soul of British culture, heritage and identity, there is a Thatcherite downplaying of gender itself being significant while simultaneously constructing an idealised female figure of Right-of-Centre, Middle England. So, when asked if she had any TV role models, she can reference British National Treasures (Diana Rigg and Joanna Lumley in The Avengers) but add that ‘I don’t think I thought about it in those terms. I have never had a female role model – I’ve always just got on with doing what I am doing’.
So what is emerging is Christmas as a cipher for a picture of a normative culture, politics, and heritage which is deemed tolerant and represented in distinction from ‘minorities’ led by someone who is a woman, not that gender politics should remotely matter, so this logic goes. We need more time to see how this picture develops and the annual Christmas addresses by the Prime Minister and political leaders are imminent. It may be that May does move towards the Blairite/Cameroon position of ‘all faiths and none’ representing the same values as Christianity and the Bible. But the above examples show that this is not a current emphasis.
The main reason is, I think, fairly obvious: the ubiquitous Brexit. May (a quiet Remainer during the Referendum) has repositioned herself or been repositioned in the media as integral to Brexit (‘Brexit means Brexit’, remember). Her government has been moving, rhetorically at least, towards a more ethno-nationalist position we might associate more with UKIP and no doubt partly to keep Leave Tory voters and Leave MPs onside (remember the call for companies to publish non-British workers…). But it is a difficult position for a politician to take at the moment as traditional voting patterns are clearly in flux. The recent Richmond vote—a significantly Remain constituency—saw a huge swing to the Lib Dems from Conservatives and almost certainly because of Brexit. It is striking in this respect that May’s Brexit Christmas and Brexit Christianity is not sustained but found here and there. As ever with political uses of the Bible (and much political rhetoric more generally), this involves trying to speak to different audiences without alienating those that matter. May still needs the traditional Tory voters because her government has only a small majority. If a few more Tory seats go the way of Richmond, there is a potential electoral problem for Tories and so too much aggressive Brexiteering will not help. It’s not called ‘dog-whistling’ for nothing.