Research / Christianity and democracy
One of the most interesting questions in political science – a question which mostly
belongs to the discipline of comparative political science – is the great political
differences that formulate between geographically close units. Although it is merely the
Channel that divides the British Islands from continental Europe, there are numerous
divergences, so it is valid to point to the several political differences between the United
Kingdom and Western Europe. Certainly, one of them is the lack of a strong Christian
democracy in the United Kingdom compared to most of Western Europe. But let us
see what factors lie in the background to justify our statement on the UK.
First, it is clear that there is no strong Christian democratic party in UK politics. In the
past century, Conservatives and the Labour dominated the political landscape. Neither
they nor the current third and fourth biggest party in the UK parliament (Scottish
National Party, Liberal Democrats) are Christian democratic parties. Of course, there
are some Christian democratic parties in the UK (e.g., Christian Democratic Party,
Christian People’s Alliance, and maybe the Christian Party, and Common Good Party), but none have considerable electoral weight. Probably if one wishes to find Christian
democratic values in a party with serious political influence, that would be the
Conservatives, but we argue that the differences between the aforementioned values
and those articulated by the Conservatives (which we underline later) justify that the
Conservative Party is not a Christian democratic party.
Second, and this is connected to the first argument, there is a shortage of strong
Christian democratic politicians in UK politics. There are of course Christians in the
Parliament of the United Kingdom,1 who are democrats as well, but – as far as we
know – none of them have considerable power or are commonly considered Christian
Third, Centrist Democrat International (IDC), a Christian democratic international
political group (formerly called Christian Democratic International), has no UK parties
either among its members
And finally, we can rely on several pieces of literature that underpin our general
statement both directly and indirectly. In the latter case, this means that while most
commonly countries such as Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Austria, Luxembourg,
and the Netherlands are mentioned among those places where Christian democracy
has become a significant political force, the UK is simply absent from these listings.
Moreover, some authors emphasise our argument even directly, such as Thomas
Jansen who wrote that “Christian democracy was and remains at odds in many
respects with British political tradition and, more generally, with political thought in the
English-speaking world and northern Europe”
So, the verdict is quite clear, there is no strong Christian democratic presence in the
United Kingdom. The ambition of our article is to provide explanations for this fact.
Usually, there is of course no clear-cut answer to something that has not happened,
so we can only name the most probable reasons that have led to the lack of a strong
Christian democracy in the UK.
But first – based on Joan Keating’s article – let us see what happened in Great Britain in a crucial period of the evolution of Christian democracy, namely, the 1930s when the basis of several Western European Christian democratic parties and ideas took ground.
The 1930s and the “good” Christian democrats
The 1920s and 1930s were crucial decades in the formulation of Christian democracy.
Several religiously inspired but secular institutions (for instance, organisations and
parties) were founded to implement Catholic social teaching in politics and society.
This process accelerated after Pius XI issued the social encyclical, Quadragesimo
Anno, to the fortieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. The papal document – which was
written “on reconstruction of social order” – reaffirmed the foundations laid by the
Rerum Novarum in 1891: it acknowledged the necessity of social care and encouraged
it, combated socialist solutions by, for instance, defending private property; but
highlighted the faults of the capitalist economic system as well. This encyclical was
able to reflect on the changes of the previous four decades, such as the Great
Economic Crisis; and it could introduce newly crystallised concepts, such as
The ideas of the papal encyclical reached the British Islands too, and even though it
would be a mistake to overestimate the presence of Christian democracy (especially
the number of Christian democratic sympathizers and politicians), Keating highlights
that there were some considerable groups in the United Kingdom.
First, it is crucial to make a distinction between those who at the time sympathised with
Fascist/authoritarian regimes and ideas and those who did not. This latter group we
call “good” Christian democrats: these were those Catholics who, according to
Keating’s analysis supported democracy while trying to reconcile it with papal social
teaching. They professed that the negative consequences of industrialisation could be
mitigated by encouraging “class co-operation, special support for the family, workers’
representation and a limited role for the state (subsidiarity)”.
There were two larger organisations in this respect, the Catholic Social Guild (CSG)
and the People and Freedom Group. The CSG was founded in 1909 and became an
administer of study clubs and provided further education for working-class Catholics.
By 1938 it had nearly 4000 members and 379 study clubs, including the Catholic
Workers’ College at Oxford. The general intention was to prepare the members of trade
unions and the Labour Party to represent and defend Church interests in policy-making
processes. First, the CSG had a monthly journal, the Christian Democrat from 1921, then, after getting the criticism of intellectualism and impenetrability, it launched the more populist Catholic Worker in 1935. The organisation also held summer schools at Oxford – with topics, such as “Corporatism versus Fascism” – supported by European activists.
The other initiative was the People and Freedom Group founded in 1936, with a rather
surprising leading figure in UK politics, Luigi Sturzo. The well-known Italian priest, one
of the first significant Christian democratic politicians, was the founder of Partito
Popolare Italiano (PPP) but had to escape from Mussolini’s regime in 1924. The
Christian democratic ideas were circulated in the People and Freedom news sheet
including Sturzo’s ideas on corporatism, international stability, and justice (which
Keating analyses shortly). The group altogether consisted of educated middle class members and was smaller in numbers than the CSG.
Although the question of the formulation of a Christian democratic party was raised, it
was neither a realistic prospect nor areal option since “existing parties, while not perfect
by Christian democratic standards, were acceptable to most Catholics.” Also, in
Britain (unlike in Italy for a period), voters were free to choose between parties, for
instance, several of them saw the possibility of achieving Christian democratic goals
within the Labour Party. So, the Christian democrats were not enough to form a party
themselves, and the chance of capturing higher public attention was probably missed
as they could not join the few secular movements (for instance, Next Five Years Group
with young Harold Macmillan) that professed similar ideas, such as class cooperation
and limited state intervention. Also, after the Second World War, on the issue of
European Unity, British Christian democrats were far from the electors, while the other
topics, such as democratic procedures and class cooperation were tackled by other
parties as well. Still, the great achievement of these groups was that Christian
democratic ideas were able to develop in a calm environment while their European
“friends” were persecuted on the continent by authoritarian leaders and dictators.