The Conservative Party’s emptying pews
But Disraeli’s political fortunes were as dependent on the Church as the Church was dependent upon him: his own conversion was always more political than religious. Queen Victoria considered it a duty of Government to oppose Romanising ritualism, and so Disraeli remained politically allied to the Archbishop of Canterbury in order to satisfy the Protestant feeling of the country - and court a sizeable constituency in the process.
The fate of the Conservative Party and the state of the Church of England seem somehow to be symbiotically linked, fused at an ineffable religio-political level, each divided by its traditional High ‘right’ and liberal Low ‘left’, and each in perpetual search of its own via media. The Conservative Party’s rank-and-file may no longer swell the Church of England’s pews, but the spiritual union endures.
The two great institutions have shared periods of strong and decisive leadership, growth, determination and commitment. But they have also coincided in their times of indecision, confusion, and the abandonment of their traditional creeds for another gospel. Margaret Thatcher’s reign was mirrored at Lambeth by the sometimes equally-intractable Robert Runcie, which gave way to the indecision of the Major-Carey years, which in turn was succeeded by the confused Hague/Duncan Smith/Howard/Cameron era of Rowan Williams.
Both the Church of England and the Conservative Party now seem to be searching for a new identity, and few know what either actually stands for.
But as the Church of England experiences year-on-year slow decline, it transpires that the Conservative Party has lost 25 per cent of its members since David Cameron became leader.
Not even the Church of England has lost a quarter of its members in just four years.
For all his ability, charm, charisma, determination and riding high in the opinion polls, David Cameron has been unable to retain the membership he inherited.
And one gets the feeling that neither he nor the Party machine particularly cares.
Perhaps because donations from the great and the good over prestigious dinners are now far more important than the paltry membership dues of the less and the insignificant.
It is interesting to note that in the years and months approaching the inevitable victory of Tony Blair in 1997, Labour membership soared by more than 100,000. But the Conservative Party’s increasing popularity under David Cameron is not translating into an increase in party membership. Even the ‘safe’ seats are bleeding members: young blood is not replacing the ever-aging party stalwarts who remember not only the good years of the YCs, but the Queen’s Coronation, the outbreak of World War II, the Abdication crisis... Baldwin and Churchill seem like recent memories.
Certainly, this may be a symptom of the times: people may be less inclined to formally affiliate with institutions and organisations they support nonetheless.
But this reasoning ignores the fact that people are inclined to join associations which have something to offer.
Party membership used to offer not only a social life but also voting rights, policy input, the opportunity to propose conference motions, and it was a prerequisite for becoming a councillor and a parliamentary candidate. But this is no longer the case.
Now anyone may become a Conservative parliamentary candidate, irrespective of commitment, loyalty and even of political philosophy. Local members may no longer interview and select their candidates: they can be imposed centrally by the Party Chairman. And neither can they deselect their MEPs, who are now among the unaccountable and immovable privileged élite.
If the Conservative Party has learned anything from policemen, teachers, doctors and nurses, it ought to be that there is no point in recruiting if there is no strategy for retention. The Church does not evangelise only to ensure that seed falls on stony ground. In a church which is functioning as it ought, every sheep which goes astray is sought and urged to return, because it is cared for, encouraged and loved.
But the Conservative Party appears not to be remotely concerned with its missing flocks. From the millions of members they used to have, there are now fewer than 200,000.
If the faithful shepherd is exhorted to leave his 99 sheep on the hills to go in search of the one that wandered off, how much more should he search frantically for a missing 40,000?