I'm a Conservative MP who doesn't believe in God. Polls suggest that my lack of belief puts me in the same position as most people in the country. So what's the big deal?
The reaction to my saying this has been mixed. One was a comment under an article in the Independent - 'What kind of a pussy MP keeps his faith quiet just because there is pressure to do so?' The answer, self-evidently, is this kind of pussy, the kind that wanted to be selected as a Conservative candidate and then elected as an MP.
Last week I told the story of Peter Walker who, when he was a Minister answering questions in the House, was asked something about whether his motivation for supporting a particularly right-wing policy had been sycophancy or cowardice, and his answer was, ‘Almost certainly both.’ It was a well-received joke (I was in the House at the time) which no doubt contained a kernel of truth. And I would give the same answer in relation to my keeping quiet about not believing in God.
My lack of belief would not have prevented my election – the people of North East Hampshire are a generous lot - but it could well have stopped my being selected as a candidate, a notoriously competitive arena. Conservative activists who used to do the selecting tend to be older and more traditionally minded - this is no surprise.
Another reaction has been, ‘Oh dear. Why did he need to say anything?’ This rather confirms what I have said. In politics, the pressure of ‘don't ask, don't tell’ is similar to that applied in the armed forces – and in some families - about being gay. There's nothing spoken about this pressure, but everybody knows it exists.
I don’t know of any other Conservative MP or candidate who has admitted publicly to not believing in God. And yet, if the statistics are correct, only around a third of the country does believe in a God or Gods. Either that makes Tory MPs completely unrepresentative (of course that’s possible, but I don’t myself believe it to be true) or it suggests that the Conservatives might benefit from more openness, in order to be more in touch with and representative of the electorate.
They have little to fear. The vast bulk of the reaction I have received, and not only from those who do not believe in God, has been ‘Well done. About time we had some rationality in politics!’
James Arbuthnot is the MP for Hampshire North East