How has the relationship between religion and voter behaviour in Britain changed because of rising Euroscepticism and/or Brexit?

hi Chapter 6, we consider the consequences of the relationship between religion and Euroscepticism for electoral politics in Britain. Religious identity has long been associated with a tendency to support one or another political party; in fact, religion was the main social cleavage upon which the British party system was based before the 20th century. Anglicans were the basis of support for the Tory Party (which eventually became what we now know as the Conservative Party), while Catholics and so-called

‘non-conformists’ (i.e. free church Protestants) supported first the Whigs, then the Liberal, Labour and/or Liberal Democrat parties. The First World War and enfranchisement of the working class changed this, giving rise to political conflicts between social classes that cut across religious lines. Combined with the increasingly secularised British society and the increasing hostility exhibited by British voters towards public figures' expressing religious influence for then decisions, many have assumed that religion had no significant effect at all on voter behaviour since the Second World War (Hornsby-Smith 2015; Steven 2010; Tilley 2015). Beyond the influence of secularisation in weakening the attachments voters have to then political parties in the post-referendum era (Fieldhouse et al. 2020) the role of religion in the tumultuous period of British politics that followed the EU referendum has barely been considered.

A growing literature shows that this omission is misguided, and religious identity and behaviour, in particular, continue to shape voters’ party identification and electoral decisions (Tilley 2015; McAndrew 2017a). Even voters who do not identify as members of a religious community show a preference for the party of then family’s religious background, reflecting the influence of political socialisation and the intergenerational transmission of partisan beliefs from more religiously engaged parents and grandparents (Tilley 2015). In Chapter 6, we look at the voting behaviour of Britain’s largest Christian communities in general elections since 1979, examining how it has changed as the processes that led to Brexit - the rise of Euroscepticism, the weakening attachments between voters and traditional social institutions, and the failure of major parties to represent socially conservative and Emosceptic voters - shaped British elections and party' politics. We also consider, however, whether the ‘religious vote’ has been substantially affected by the challenges to existing party loyalties posed by Brexit, or whether voters’ religious characteristics shaped or mitigated how likely then party loyalties were to change in light of then Brexit preference. We know, for example, that Anglicans are more Eurosceptic than most and have a historic tendency to support the Conservative Party - so did the Conservative’s shift to a staunchly proBrexit stance in the 2017 and 2019 elections strengthen this bond, and were Anglicans who did not vote Leave less likely to abandon the party for an antiBrexit rival because of their historic association with the party?

Chapter 6 shows that while the size and electoral significance of the ‘religious vote’ have fallen as fewer people have exhibited religious characteristics, the traditional allegiances between some religious communities and political parties are still clear. Anglicans, for example, remain staunch supporters of the Conservatives, and Presbyterians also have an above-average tendency to support the party. While there have been some switches away from the Tories among Anglicans and Presbyterians opposed to Brexit, the religious link with the party acted as a buffer against such Brexit defections, that is, anti-Brexit Anglicans were less likely to switch from the Conservatives to Labour after 2015 than anti-Brexit non-Anglicans. There are also important changes underway in the ‘religious vote’, however, changes that - while Brexit may have accelerated them somewhat - largely precede the EU referendum and point to a more fundamental and long-running shift in the relationship between Christians and the UK’s political parties. Most remarkable in this regard is the collapse of Labour’s Catholic vote. Historically, Labour was the party of Britain’s Catholic community, reflecting the party’s trade union roots and the fact that most Catholics were, or were descended from, working-class migrants (primarily from Ireland) who sttpported the trade union movement. Since the 1980s, however, Labour’s sttpport among Catholics has steadily declined, to such an extent that, by 2019, Catholics were no more likely to support Labour than anyone else. A similar, though less pronounced, trend is the deterioration in support for Labom and the Liberal Democrats among free church Protestants, who were similarly no more likely to vote Labour in 2019 than other voters. Rather than the erosion of a partisan preference among Catholic, Baptist and Methodist conununities, this reflects the replacement of then preference for Labour and/or the Liberal Democrats with a preference for the Conservatives. Conservative support amongst Catholics, Baptists and Methodists has been steadily increasing since the 1980s, and in the 2019 election, the party won marginally more support among Catholics than did Labour.

This shift in Christian support away fr om Labour and the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives is the most important feature of the religious vote in British politics of the last 40 years. It was neither caused by, nor particularly strongly affected by, Brexit - but we argue that it is related to Brexit in that the same trends that led to Euroscepticism being an increasingly salient issue in the wider electorate have also contributed to this transformation of the religious vote. As we discussed earlier, the rising salience of Euroscepti-cism reflected not only the increasingly integrated nature of the EU but the consequences of that integr ation for domestic political priorities, values and identities. As Europe became more integrated so did political values such as tolerance for other cultures, views of social, economic and political change, and national identity become more important determinants of not only how voters felt about Europe but also then political priorities. Voting behaviour became increasingly shaped by voters’ social conservatism or liberalism, which Chapter Five shows are strongly influenced by religion, alongside the traditional left versus right economic divide. As social conservatism and national identity became more important determinants of voters’ priorities and electoral behaviour, therefore, the key influences on those

The missing link 15 values and identities - including their religion - became more important to understanding their' voting behaviour and party loyalties. While there are substantial différences between denominational communities, Christian voters in general tend towards social conservatism, right-wing economic ideologies and traditional, exclusive national identities (such as Englishness). This ideological agenda aligns far more closely with the historic ideology of the Conservative Party than Labour or the Liberal Democrats, and so as voters’ religious values and identities have become more important influences on their voting behaviour and party loyalty they have felt more compelled to support the Conservatives.

The uniqueness of British politics is commonly exaggerated in comparisons with other European countries, but one lasting unusual feature of the British party system is the absence of a clearly Chr istian political party, or a party that dominated the support of Christian communities, akin to Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, Denmark's Christian Democrats or the Netherlands’ Christian Union (Steven 2010). While there are considerable differences between the ideologies and policies of the Conservatives compared with those more overtly Christian parties, the most substantial change in Britain’s religious vote for the last half century has seen the party emerge as the closest thing to a Christian Democratic Party the country has ever-seen, and this is in large part driven by the same processes that led to Brexit.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >