Cover Story

A coalition coalescing?

In Minehead: Will the Conservatives dig out gold or lumps of coal?

Issue: "UK: Two faiths collide," July 22, 2000

in Minehead - Minehead is not the sort of place that spawns political movements. The train doesn't even reach this sleepy seaside town on the southwest coast of England. The few year-round residents are largely retirees who enjoy breathing the salt air and walking on the windswept, red-sand beach. Every spring, however, the town wakes up for Spring Harvest, a three-week conference that draws up to 50,000 Christians at two venues, making it the largest such event in Europe. For three weeks, England's evangelicals pour into Butlin's, the 1950s-style "holiday park" that even the locals admit is more than a little cheesy. (Think Myrtle Beach without the sunshine, or Las Vegas without the money.) Here they pray, study the Bible, and worship in a rollicking style that belies the stiff-upper-lip image of their countrymen. To an American observer, the only thing missing from Spring Harvest is politicians. No American office-seeker would let thousands of Christians get away without a stump speech. But in Britain, no party leader has ever addressed the Minehead conference. Until this year. On a rainy, windy Monday afternoon, William Hague-who will become prime minister if Conservatives can recapture the House of Commons-helicoptered into town for a historic speech. He wasn't listed in the 122-page conference program, and the national media weren't allowed to attend. Under a giant green-and-yellow big top, some 8,000 spectators rose from their red plastic chairs to sway and clap as they sang worship choruses. A girl did backflips across the stage. And then the surprise guest of honor took the microphone to tell the crowd how much his party valued the churchgoers of Britain. The reaction was electric. Long ignored and politically impotent, the Christians at Minehead cheered and applauded as if they'd just been addressed by Billy Graham himself. "Where was Tony Blair?" some asked indignantly as they filed out of the tent. (The prime minister was invited, but didn't bother to reply.) "He's not interested in our concerns or our votes," volunteered one man in reply. If those concerns and those votes ever coalesce into a discernible religious-conservative movement in the British Isles, historians may well look back on the Minehead speech as the moment it all started. Will that movement grow? Many of Britain's evangelicals have been influenced by the "Christian Socialist" tradition that Tony Blair has embraced, but the battle over Section 28, a law that prohibits promoting homosexuality in Britain's schools, is costing him support. Mr. Blair's Labour government has pushed hard to repeal the law, but British churchgoers (with the exception of a small group called the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement) strongly support Section 28. In a closely contested election, concern about such social issues could swing the election. British evangelicals tend to live mostly in suburban and rural areas, and their geographic distribution gives them potential clout beyond their numbers, thanks to Britain's parliamentary system, in which all elections are essentially local. Voters cast a ballot for their local member of parliament, and the party that controls parliament then forms a government and names the prime minister. Under this system, a handful of votes in a few close races could literally make the difference between a Labour or a Conservative government-and evangelicals represent considerably more than a handful.

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