Engaging in Politics

This is the text of the talk by the Rt. Hon. Caroline Spelman MP at the Fulcrum Pivot Point held on February 2nd 2015 at Portcullis House, Westminster. The other talk given that evening by Baroness Sherlock is here.

Call to engage in politics

Looking back, my family were quite political as I was growing up. My mother was quite a militant campaigner for Oxfam and Dad was a keen conservationist. We were also a Christian family where my Dad was churchwarden and my Mum a Sunday school teacher, so faith and politics were hardly optional!

I made a decision to believe in God whilst still quite young, but in my teenage years, I said to my parents that I wanted to wait and see what faith meant to me when I left home. When I went to University, I started attending a local church and made strong friendships with other Christians. It was at this point that I decided to get confirmed.

At University, I thought politics wasn’t for me – the Conservative Society was all just men drinking beer, so I decided not to participate. But my friends say they weren’t at all surprised that I went into politics, because I used to debate late at night over bolt-strong coffee! I’ve always been really interested in moral issues and debating them but at that stage it wasn’t party political.

After University, I worked at the National Farmers’ Union and that was what really sparked my political interest. I discovered that continental producers of sugar were exporting their surplus onto the world market with subsidies. I thought that was morally indefensible, as it was ruining the market for developing farmers. It was a trade justice issue. And I thought: ‘I don’t want to be on this side of the table doing that, I want to be on the other side of the table trying to get that changed’.

I then sensed quite a strong calling into politics. The calling was a bit like someone tapping on your shoulder. I was quite reluctant because I’d heard that politics was difficult, but when you have a sense of vocation, I don’t think you can ignore it.

It’s not easy to get into politics. You have to decide where your politics roughly align and then seek that party’s support for your candidature. First, you are tested out in a seat that you’re not likely to win (a so-called “no hope” seat) – so it will test your resolve and your ability to do it – then you go to the next stage, which is looking for a seat you could actually win. And that part was very hard for me – Jeremy Paxman documents it in his book ‘The English’. I was rejected by 27 constituencies before being selected and then scraped in with 582 votes in 1997. By then we had three small children and to be honest I don’t really know how I managed. You make sacrifices if you are sure of your calling.

How does your role contribute to the work of the Gospel and Christ’s Kingdom?

My faith is a source of strength in a very difficult job. It provides a baseline against which to judge wrong and right. When a policy decision is controversial, or I’m faced with voting on issues like whether or not to take the country to war, I search my conscience and ask: “what would Jesus do?". Because of course, as the inscription on the floor of Central Lobby says: “Unless the Lord builds the house its builders labour in vain”. My faith gives me a perspective on what really matters.

I did have to endure quite a bit of scoffing and received requests to speak on “being a Christian and a Conservative?” – note the question mark!

But, I take as my watchword that verse from Micah 6 that God requires us to walk humbly, act justly and love mercy. I try to keep these as the anchors underpinning the decisions I make in the vocation which I feel God has laid on me.

As Environment Secretary, I brought my Biblically-grounded understanding of our stewardship of Nature to the role. The Natural Environment White Paper was the first published for 20 years and it reflects that injunction on Christians to nurture the natural world.

Something the public don’t spot on the outside is that MPs make friends across the parties. There are really decent people on all sides of the House with whom you can do business and bring through changes in the law together, to contribute to the work of the gospel. For instance, the Labour MP Frank Field and I worked together on ‘End of life care’, even when I was a shadow minister and he was a government backbencher. People understood that Frank and I shared our faith and that we were dealing with a moral issue, not one which was party political.

More recently, the Modern Slavery Bill has been a really good example of this. I have worked together with parliamentarians from all sides of the house to put effective legislation in place to tackle the issues of slavery in our society, especially brining transparency in supply chains. Issues like these transcend party politics.

We are so fortunate with the British Parliament having a tradition of free votes on moral issues. You are free to vote with your conscience. We shall have one of these tomorrow night on 3 parent embryos.

I am not surprised there are more Christians in Parliament than in the population at large because it is principally about serving other people. Faced with a surgery full of needy people, I know my job is to do my very best to help them. In fact, if you don’t love people, it’s not the job for you.

The most satisfying thing of all is for somebody to come back into your surgery when you’ve sorted out a problem in their life. Somebody who was at their wit’s end, who you’ve helped to move on into a more positive situation where they’ve got hope and they can look forward to things improving. Being an MP is a job in which you can do that – you can’t solve everything but you can solve a significant number of people’s problems – that is the best bit of the job.

How can Christians be encouraged to engage in politics?

I do think there is a Biblical precedent of Christians being involved in all aspects of society, which extends to politics – look at the example of Daniel in the Old Testament, who was right at the top of the government of the day. Of course that doesn’t mean we all have to become politicians!

The most effective way of encouraging Christians to be engaged in politics is to show them the relevance that it has to them. That’s true at all levels – local, national and international. The decisions on areas from the economy to the environment have consequences for everyone in society.

How can Christians support their politicians?

Participation in politics is about more than just voting once every five years. You can engage with your politicians and support them continually.

Prayer is the main way in which this support can be given – pray for your MPs to make wise choices. And tell them that you are praying for them. It is not an easy job and we don’t always get much thanks for it. So it is encouraging to know that people want to support that and are prayerful. You can do that even if you don’t always agree with your MP!

Some of the most difficult letters I receive are from fellow Christians who don’t agree with the way I have voted even after I have explained that I prayed hard to reach a view. I do wish sometimes the authors of these letters would see how I have striven to be God’s faithful servant, instead of making threats not to vote for me over a single issue.

Also, write to your MP and be actively involved. Connection with ordinary people is vitally important for MPs to stay tuned to what constituents need and want. On Fridays and Saturdays, I hold surgeries and make myself as accessible as possible.  I take a notebook when I do the weekly food shop and full expect to hold an impromptu surgery in the supermarket aisles!

What are (up to) three key issues for Christians in the coming election?

I think three key topics for Christians at the next election will be:

  • How we deal with the hi-jacking of religion for political ends
  • How we preserve the dignity and sanctity of life for an ageing population
  • How we narrow the gap between rich and poor at home and abroad

But overarching all this will be the tone of the campaign. I know my own church is praying that it won’t be dominated by petty point scoring politics, however many leaders debates we watch. So please pray that sense will prevail and people exercise the gift of democracy thoughtfully and prayerfully.

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