“We are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society”—Tim Farron, former leader of the Liberal Democrats.
The right-leaning Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland won just 10 of Parliament’s 650 seats in this month’s UK general election, yet it has found itself with a surprising amount of influence. The Conservative Party is required to form either a coalition or minority government to remain in power after it failed to earn an outright majority, so the 10 DUP seats have become a lifeline for the Tories. Negotiations are currently underway, with the finalized Conservative-DUP minority government’s plans to be announced at the Queen’s Speech tomorrow on 21 June. However, the DUP’s arrival at the forefront of UK politics has simultaneously moved in them into the crosshairs of the British Left.
Modern politics in Northern Ireland is inextricably tied to the history of the country. Party lines are typically divided along those who wish for their country to break from Britain to form a united Ireland (nationalist, e.g. Sinn Féin), and those who wish to remain part of the United Kingdom (unionist, e.g. DUP). These divisions are also traditionally tied to religion, with nationalist voters and parties typically being Catholic and unionists typically Protestant. Though Sinn Féin is slightly more progressive than the DUP, the strong link between religion and politics leads both parties to conservative social policies that uphold more traditional Christian values.
Significantly, aside from its links to politics, Northern Ireland is far more religious than Britain. The 2011 UK Census revealed that 45 percent of citizens in Northern Ireland regularly attend Church and 82.3 percent identify as Christian. This is far more than the 58.8 percent who identify as Christian or the mere 15 percent who attend church regularly in Britain.
In light of this evident cultural difference, it is no surprise that the DUP’s recent rise to fame in Britain has been met with some disdain. The DUP’s policy of not negotiating on Sundays likely raised a few eyebrows, but more controversial distinctions have caused a much fiercer response. Its more traditional stance on same-sex marriage and abortion were not an issue when most in Britain had not heard of the DUP. But with the announcement of Conservative-DUP power-sharing negotiations came a huge spike in Google searches by Britons curious about this small Northern Irish party. And with that came outrage.
As news of the DUP’s socially conservative ideology reached mainland Britain, protests broke out across the country. Protestors who gathered in Parliament Square were soon brandishing anti-DUP placards and chanting “racist, sexist, anti-gay, the DUP has got to go”. While it is possible that some DUP supporters do hold discriminatory views, which rightly ought to be challenged, learning of a party’s existence one day and protesting its “hateful” policies the next shows a lack of understanding of cultural and political differences between the two countries, and the underlying reasons for which one could endorse such policies.
The DUP has made it clear that they have no intention of pushing any of these social agendas in its deal with the Conservative party, so this uprising is not public resistance to potential British policy changes that may come to England, Scotland, and Wales with the coalition deal.
It is an extreme allergic reaction that reveals an underlying truth: anyone who holds traditional Christian values is not welcome in British politics.
There has been no clearer example of this than the resignation of Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats. On 14 June, Farron stepped aside due to finding it “impossible” to lead the party he loves and “remain faithful to Christ”. Farron was no “racist, sexist, anti-gay” MP, but a self-proclaimed “liberal to [his] fingertips”. Rather than focusing on the policies Farron was promoting, which were some of the most liberal of all British parties, questions during the 2017 general election campaign came to focus on his privately held beliefs.
Before announcing his resignation to party staff, Farron stated that,
Liberalism means that I am passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me.
There are Christians in politics who take the view that they should impose the tenets of faith on society, but I have not taken that approach because I disagree with it—it’s not liberal and it is counterproductive when it comes to advancing the gospel.
Even so, I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in.
In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.
I would agree. During the 2017 general election campaign I watched several journalists directly ask politicians, “Do you think gay sex is a sin?” Theresa May, a practicing member of the Church of England, gave an immediate and unequivocal “no”, as if trained to show no hesitation in response to that question. Farron, on the other hand responded with “we’re all sinners”, which was evidently not sufficient. A witch-hunt soon began, with journalists desperate to draw out his private moral convictions for public scrutiny. He was forced later in the campaign to state that he did not think it was a sin, though this was clearly uncomfortable for him.
Journalists have a right to ask whatever they think important, but why this? For a country that evidently wants faith out of its politics, it is revealing that the question was consistently whether they thought it a “sin” rather than “wrong”. And it is scary to think that a response of “yes, but that doesn’t affect my policy, which promotes liberalism, tolerance and acceptance of all” would likely signal the end of one’s election campaign.
Senator Tim Kaine is an example that provides us with an interesting contrast between American and British politics. A Catholic Democrat, Kaine’s personal anti-abortion views have been widely known for many years. Despite how his views do not align with the typical Democrat stance, and are a long way from Hillary Clinton’s (for whom abortion is a top priority), they did not prevent him from being selected as Clinton’s running mate in the 2016 presidential election, nor did they provoke much public outcry. This is likely because his voting record in recent years remained in line with his party, and it was that voting record that was considered important.
Not so in Britain. There is no tolerance for personal religious values in British politics so long as they differ from the secular moral consensus. A liberal voting record provides little protection.
There are two ways in which a nation forms a secular society: it either promotes tolerance of beliefs and values equally, or it attempts to force them out of the public sphere. Sadly, it appears as if Britain is headed towards the latter. If the British public would rather opt for the political turmoil of a minority government than see a Conservative-DUP coalition, it has lost touch of the goal of liberalism. And if a good politician is unable to lead a liberal political party, even when intentionally keeping his private views private, then, certainly, it is not a tolerant society.
Matthew Allen is an intern for Providence. Originally from Plymouth, UK, he is currently a student in Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, where he is working towards a B.A. in Public Policy and International Affairs. He is particularly interested in the promotion of human rights and advocacy for the poor, oppressed, and voiceless around the globe.
Photo Credit: Protest in Sheffield, England, on 13 June against the likely Tory/DUP minority government. By Tim Dennell, via Flickr.
 Remember, “Great Britain” is the island on which England, Scotland, and Wales are; the official name of the UK is “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.