'Cameron is not an enigma, he’s an Anglican'
The Tory leader is not a holy man, says Andrew Gimson, but he is steeped in C of E tradition and, like the Church, he relies on an innate moral compass
The reason why so many people cannot fathom David Cameron is that he is an Anglican. This gives him considerable (some would say contemptible) flexibility as far as dogma is concerned, while making him intent on upholding a strict (if unstated) code of behaviour.
No wonder the Tory leader infuriates those in his own party who crave certainty. The hungry sheep look up and are not fed. Theirs is the predicament of Nigerian Christians who look to Canterbury for dogma, and find themselves fobbed off with liberalism.
Robin Harris, who as director of the Conservative Research Department was Cameron’s first employer at Westminster, gave memorable expression to the sense of betrayal felt by such Tories when he said of the present leader: ‘I don’t think that in any shape or form he could be described as a Conservative in philosophical terms. He has no principled sense of direction: his only sense of direction is upwards.’
Critics who demand intellectual consistency are unlikely ever to be satisfied by Cameron, one of whose merits is his refusal to confine himself in an ideological straitjacket, especially an out-of-date one. Christopher Caldwell recently defined in the New York Times the dilemma facing the three Tory leaders before Cameron: ‘They could not embrace Thatcherism, because it lost elections for them, but they could not discard it, because it was their intellectual lodestar.’
Cameron escapes this problem by not being an intellectual. This does not mean he is stupid: he is astonishingly quick on the uptake; but it means he can leave to anxious members of his staff the thankless task of discerning the coherence of his ideas. Nor would those staff get any thanks if they tried to discharge that task by telling inquirers that their boss is an Anglican: such an answer would produce a mixture of scorn and incomprehension, and would be taken as confirmation of Dave’s essential vacuousness.
The vacuum is in the imagination of those critics who assume that ‘Anglican’ is synonymous with ‘wishy-washy’. I am not a friend of Cameron’s, and reserve the right to be as rude about him as occasion may require, but I think I can see, albeit from a considerable distance, where he is coming from. He was brought up in an old rectory which stands next to a church where his father served as churchwarden and his mother did the flowers. His memory of Sundays is that ‘you spent a lot of time walking through the graveyard’, and he has also said, ‘When I think of home, I think of church.’
Cameron knows, as Gordon Brown does not, that ostentatious piety simply will not do, so when taxed with his family’s Anglicanism he plays it down. In an interview with Charles Moore, he said, ‘We didn’t all sit around reading the Bible every day,’ and when Moore pointed out that some of his family were holy and a great-uncle was a bishop, Cameron replied with a laugh, ‘Anglican and holy are not the same thing at all.’
Which is perfectly true, and from the point of view of this article there is no need to accuse Cameron of being holy. Nor is it conclusive that he sends his daughter to a church school, attached to a church where he himself worships and sometimes takes the crèche: this latter an experience which enables him to tell stories against himself about his inability to keep small children in order while explaining a biblical story to them with the help of a bucket of water and a cup.
The point is that Cameron is steeped in an Anglican tradition of behaviour. This gives him an innate sense that there are certain things one simply cannot do: he too has a moral compass, though the magnetism of power is such that in years to come we may find it deviating every bit as wildly as the ancestral, brass-bound instrument which Brown carried proudly all the way from Kirkcaldy to Downing Street.
Many observers are struck by the rapidity and confidence of Cameron’s judgment. He is quick not merely because he is clever, but because the greater part of his thinking has been done for him by previous generations, and he has the sense to accept this inheritance. The Tory leader is not some rootless rationalist, as sketched in Michael Oakeshott’s sublime essay on Rationalism in Politics, who ‘with an almost poetic fancy... strives to live each day as if it were his first’. Cameron instead takes his place in a political tradition which as Oakeshott reminds us ‘is pre-eminently fluid’, though the rationalist attributes to it ‘the rigidity and fixity of character which in fact belongs to ideological politics’.
By this stage the reader may impatiently be asking for some practical example of where Cameron’s Anglicanism can be shown to have had an effect. If forced to offer an example, I would cite the Tory leader’s almost evangelical insistence on the value of marriage: ‘My view is that marriage is simply a very good institution. It’s not the only way that couples come together and stay together, but it helps people, the sense of commitment, the fact that you’re standing there in front of friends and relatives and saying it’s not just about me any more, it’s about us together, we have commitments to each other... Some people will say, you’ll sound a bit old-fashioned — I don’t care... Anyway, I think I’m in a better position perhaps than some previous Conservative leaders to make this point, because when I made it, at a Conservative conference, in front of a Conservative audience, I said, by the way, I don’t just back marriage but I also back civil partnerships.’
In the same interview, with Dylan Jones, Cameron claimed his support for the family ‘is not just some view that springs from religion or morality’, to which one may reply: not just from religion, certainly, but it is hard to imagine him talking in this way without being an Anglican.
Because the Church of England is, or has become, a way of being religious without sounding religious, it is easy for observers to overlook how stern and unbending Anglicans can still be. Cameron’s moral authority has not sprung out of thin air. As Ferdinand Mount has written of the Mount side of Cameron’s family, ‘a high moral tone came naturally to them’.
The press seldom reports on the Church of England except when that institution is beset by embarrassment: the large amount of useful and generally unpaid work done by Anglicans is almost entirely disregarded. And the Church does not blow its own trumpet, not just for fear of sounding pharisaical, but because it knows it is in many ways quite weak. It cannot remain the Established Church by being the church triumphant: it has instead to be the church tolerant and inclusive, which makes friends with anyone of good will, including not only the local Roman Catholics but the local Muslims, and which encourages women to take over those roles which were previously reserved for men. Rather like the Tory party under Cameron: an organisation which many thought to be dying — it is only four years since Geoffrey Wheatcroft published its highly enjoyable obituary under the title ‘The Strange Death of Tory England’ — but which is instead regenerating itself.