Test Acts and modern politics

The dust hasn’t yet settled from the UK general election, and debate across Britain is febrile over the wisdom and propriety of Theresa May’s Conservatives placing themselves in debt to the DUP.

Astonishingly and – one might think –  irresponsibly, the controversy is but rarely over whether Britain’s governing party should be beholden to the only Northern Irish party in Westminster, especially at a time when the North is in a state of constitutional crisis following the Brexit vote and the collapse of the Executive.

Few seem willing to engage with the morality of destabilising and undermining the Northern peace, and fewer still seem prepared to think about whether the possible consequences of that for Britain and the North is a reasonable price for a supposedly stable government ahead of the Brexit talks.

Instead, almost all online discussion relates to the social conservatism of the DUP, with English secularists and liberals taking issue with the unionists’ opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, while English Catholics and conservatives defend them on these issues.

Given the eerie silence from both groups on the North during 2016’s Brexit debates, and how the North was only a live issue during the election campaign when questions were raised over Jeremy Corbyn’s 1980s support for the IRA, it is hard to escape the suspicion that a lot of frantic googling is taking place. Michael Gove may claim the British people are tired of experts, but it rather appears that instant expertise is something with which a lot of them are quite comfortable.

One of the more thoughtful British interventions has come from the ‘All Along the Watchtower’ blog at, which in a post entitled ‘The new Test Act’ asks whether anyone holding orthodox Catholic views can hope to hold high office in British public life.

“During the recent General Election, the attitude taken towards the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, an Evangelical Christian who had expressed orthodox Christian views on same-sex marriage and abortion, was forced to recant them, which led to the question of whether we have a new Test Act,” it observed, explaining that “The old Test Acts, a product of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, were designed to bar Catholics from public life by requiring of voters the ‘test’ that they were loyal Anglicans.”

The acts, of course, were finally wiped from the statute books with Catholic Emancipation in 1829, though suspicion of Catholics remained a feature of British public life.

One thinks of how Hilaire Belloc, running for parliament as a Liberal in 1906, was challenged for his faith. He responded in typically fiery fashion, launching his campaign at a Catholic school, and proclaiming: “I am a Catholic. As far as possible I go to Mass every day. This is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative!”

He was elected, which might give some of today’s more spineless representatives cause to reflect on the wisdom of compromising and concealing their religious beliefs.

In any case, the post’s author continues, “The new Test Act can be seen from the reaction to the fact that Prime Minister May is forming a pact with the Democratic Unionist Party. It has given British liberals a terrible shock to learn that there are those who oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, and that they have seats in parliament.”

Leaving aside the fact that DUP comments on same-sex marriage often went rather beyond Catholic teaching, the author observes that based on this reaction, it “seems clear that anyone holding orthodox Catholic views cannot confess them and hold high office” and suggests that the Conservative Party is joining the Labour party, the traditional home for British Catholics, as an increasingly cold house for them.

It’s an important post, for Ireland as much as Britain, and one we would all do well to ponder.