Skip to main content

Features

A new fab four

If faith-based reform is to take hold in Great Britain, these are the men who will make it happen

Among London's top tourist destinations are the Cabinet war rooms, the below-ground strongholds from which Winston Churchill and his aides directed from 1940 to 1945 England's combat against Hitler. Now, a new Battle of Britain has begun, with compassionate conservatives trying to reassert the central role of family-formation and faith in God. WORLD will follow over the next two years four individuals involved with the House of Commons as they prepare for the upcoming Parliamentary election that will either boost their influence or leave them wandering in the political wilderness for another five years.

Tim Montgomerie, 30 years old and an evangelical Anglican, directs the Conservative Christian Fellowship, which is the Christian witness within a Conservative Party committed to free market ideas but often ignoring the biblical basis of those ideas. Mr. Montgomerie started CCF when he came out of college 10 years ago and entered a career in finance, but three years ago gave up a high-paying position at the Bank of England to devote full time to building CCF. His hectic days are now spent networking politicians, fielding media calls, and proposing ways for the Conservative Party to do well while doing good.

That Party lost its majority three years ago in part because of a general desire for change after almost two decades of rule by Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Another element of its defeat, however, certainly stands out: the general sense that Conservatives were the party of posh and cared little for ordinary blokes. Mr. Montgomerie has emphasized the need for Conservatives, as in the 19th-century era of Benjamin Disraeli, to become a national party for both rich and poor, with a cross-class building of community that can challenge the Labour Party's traditional class consciousness.

Mr. Montgomerie himself visits many poor areas and describes well those who live there. Concerning a day trip to the seaside by some poor 11- and 12-year-olds, he wrote, "These children are incredibly streetwise and on the journey to the coast they point out locations where drugs are on sale and where prostitutes ply their trade." But when they hit the seaside, often for the first time, "they become children again ... as they splash and play." Mr. Montgomerie particularly likes one-to-one mentoring programs such as one in Liverpool where 350 children are astounded that 350 adults will spend time with them without shouting, swearing, or being abusive.

Mr. Montgomerie's networking ability has helped CCF to become not only a focus for fellowship and prayer but a resource looked to by Conservative Party head William Hague, 39, the second political leader whom WORLD will follow. Mr. Hague's most visible role as party leader comes on Wednesday afternoon when he takes a seat in the House of Commons; he sits opposite Prime Minister Tony Blair at a distance that is, by tradition, the length of two swords. Then comes the lively ritual known as Question Time: For half an hour Mr. Hague and other MPs fire questions and arch comments at Mr. Blair. Labourites and Conservatives sometimes not only talk to and point at each other across a narrow aisle but make barnyard noises in a way that belies the image of restrained Brits.

Mr. Hague does well in such debates, but he hasn't always answered questions about his own personal behavior to the satisfaction of many British churchgoers. He received ardent criticism in 1997 when he shared a hotel room with Ffion Jenkins, then his fiancée, at the Conservative Party's annual conference. (He later said it would have been "strange and hypocritical" to do otherwise, and argued that "Living together can be a very healthy and good thing to do before marriage.") In 1998 Mr. Hague said he is a Christian and goes to church every month, yet on many Sundays skips church to walk in the countryside: "If you want to feel God and close to nature, that can often be the best place to be."

But Mr. Hague has been effusive in his praise for what churches can do in fighting poverty. Last month he declared that "In some of Britain's poorest areas churches and other faith communities are pioneering innovative projects to help people to overcome multiple disadvantages. These projects appreciate the economic challenges facing individuals and their communities, but balance this with consistent relational support and a spiritual message of hope." Mr. Hague spoke of his visit to Yeldall Manor, a drug rehabilitation center where addicts have "found forgiveness and the chance of a fresh start in Christian teaching." He now pledges to promote marriage as the cornerstone of family policy, to encourage church-based welfare programs, to end discrimination against Christian broadcasters, and to give religious groups new opportunities to run schools.

Probably the most influential MP in this Conservative redirection is CCF Chairman Gary Streeter, 45, who attends a Charismatic church and sits a few seats away from Mr. Hague during Parliamentary debates. Mr. Streeter starts with the biblical basics in thinking through his political philosophy: "Although we know that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ He has done it all, we also know that God requires an individual response from us." Similarly, "We must require individuals to respond and not to seek to do everything for them." He criticizes the British tendency to turn immediately to government: "We have built these local authorities which are responsible for everything. If our street is dirty we ring the council. If there is vandalism down the road we ring the council. It cannot always be someone else's responsibility. We need to rediscover community and neighbourhood."

Mr. Streeter, married with two children, dissents from the libertarian strain of conservatism that is influential in Britain by noting that "In the last 30 years we have been scared of making value judgements for fear of offending the minority. We must respond to those who have fallen with love and compassion and care but surely we must set up as the optimum, the starting place, the key cornerstone of society-the family."

Tim Montgomerie, William Hague, and Gary Streeter recognize that their chance of gaining a majority in the House of Commons depends on the vote of swing districts such as Harlow, a constituency just east of London with many socially conservative "Essex men"-what we call Reagan Democrats. The Conservative Party has already chosen its candidate for Harlow: Robert Halfon, 31, a policy analyst who advises blue chip companies and trade associations on public affairs issues, is already campaigning each weekend in the poor area that will decide his electoral future, and perhaps his party's.

Mr. Halfon, the fourth British compassionate conservative that WORLD will follow, was born with short Achilles tendons and has to walk with a cane. He does not like to talk about his disability except to note that it has pushed him to develop compassion. "I know something of vulnerability," he said in a speech to Harlow Conservatives. "Providence dictated that I would be an active conservative, rather than an Olympic runner."

Mr. Halfon is also Jewish, and talks of how his grandfather "knew the importance of hard work. He started off with a horse and cart in the east end, selling fruits and vegetables. He retired with a successful and prosperous business." Similar successes are possible today, Mr. Halfon asserts, particularly when government policies encourage hard work. When problems occur today, he notes, "the first reaction of everybody is to ask why isn't [the] state doing more." The key questions, however, are "Where were that person's friends? Where were that person's neighbours? Where were that person's relatives?" He attacks "claims that Labour has the monopoly on compassion," and argues that "welfare policies must actively support and encourage neighbourhood initiatives."

The battle is joined. "We've got to argue persuasively the biblical case for involvement," Tim Montgomerie says, "while we argue the case that true change comes from within."

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.