‘Be in no doubt: if you are teaching intolerance, we will shut you down’. Stalinist Russia? North Korea? Some other totalitarian regime, maybe? No – the United Kingdom in 2015. This is David Cameron’s new big idea involving Ofsted and anyone who doesn’t conform to the government’s social orthodoxy. The trouble is, this extends way beyond the confines of the classroom into families, into private lives, and into the right of parents to raise their children in a faith.
Just over a month ago, the Telegraph reported on leaked information which said that all faith leaders would have to enrol on a national register and undergo government specified training before being allowed to go about their work with children and young people. It all sounded so Orwellian that I didn’t write about it at the time, not wanting to appear like a fully signed up conspiracy theorist.
Turns out, though, that the report was broadly correct. In his speech at the Conservative Party conference this week, David Cameron spelled it out – anyone teaching intolerance in their faith organisation will be shut down. As ever, intolerance remains conveniently undefined, with the fine detail to be filled in by Ofsted later. Apparently though, intolerance equates (in his mind anyway) to ‘filling children’s heads and hearts with hate’. His target? Madrasas, Sunday schools and yeshivas.
Unity, Mr Cameron, is not the same as uniformity. Nor is cohesion the same as conformity. You need to understand the difference. For example, I hold a personal view about marriage – I believe that God ordained marriage to be between one man and one woman, who enter the relationship with the intention of it lasting for life. That doesn’t mean that I’m intolerant of other people’s views on marriage. I’m perfectly capable of holding a personal belief whilst accepting that others hold very different, equally personal, beliefs. I live and work alongside people with all kinds of different beliefs about life. Holding to a distinctive faith and its teachings is not intolerance. Nor is articulating it or writing about it intolerant. It’s only intolerant if I expect everyone to conform to my view. It’s only hatred if I actively seek to harm everyone who disagrees with me.
I choose the above example advisedly, because definition of marriage and belief in God as the creator of the world are two key litmus tests that the government loves to apply to people of faith. If you don’t conform to the liberal dogma, you’re branded intolerant; extremist, even. And you can be fairly sure that they will be wheeled out again when it comes to registration. Active promotion of LGBT rights and gender identity, together with active promotion of evolution as the only sane explanation for our origins, will be the required price.
First media responses suggested that Sunday schools won’t be affected because there will be a rule which gives exemption to any organisation teaching for less than eight hours each week. But if a church’s work with children and young people is accumulated (toddler group; Sunday school; youth club; after-school care) many churches will find themselves needing to register. It will certainly affect all churches and organisations offering holiday clubs, camps and beach missions.
It does, of course, depend on the definition of intolerance, but based on recent track records, it’s not looking good. Teaching about creation has been branded extremist more than once by both the DfE and Ofsted, as have schools which teach a traditional view of marriage. The vague, amorphous mass of British values can mean whatever the powers that be want it to mean. Behind its smokescreen, the government can take out everyone who disagrees with them, knowing that because of the fear that terrorism engenders, they will enjoy broad public support.
Over the last couple of years, they have wilfully constructed in the public psyche the idea that people who take their faith seriously (Muslims, Jews and Christians alike) are extremists. It’s generating unprecedented levels of hatred, although the government still happily expects people of faith to remain heavily committed to social action. They want the benefits of outworked faith without the inconvenient belief bit that motivates the action.
Just after the election this summer, David Cameron told the National Security Council that: ‘For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values’. Isn’t that exactly what the government of a liberal democracy should do? But there’s to be no more balancing of the different values of law-abiding citizens. The government is coming after anyone who doesn’t embrace its single set of values.
That adds an ominous new intent to One Nation Conservatism.