Pro-life campaigner Lois McLatchie gave an impassioned defence of Christianity’s role in the conservative movement during a speech at the National Conservative Conference entitled ‘On Fighting Lost Causes’. Here it is in full
“You’ve said you’re engaging in prayer, which is the offense.”
“You were still engaging in prayer, which is the offense.”
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not quoting 1984. I’m quoting an exchange between a police officer and a member of the British public on the streets of England in 2023.
Isabel Vaughan-Spruce is a charitable volunteer who stopped to pray inside her own mind outside an abortion facility in Birmingham – outside of its operational hours. Her actions were imperceptible. She was simply standing on a street, thinking thoughts. But these thoughts were not acceptable to authorities.
She was arrested, criminally charged and faced trial in Birmingham Magistrates’ Court.
For believing, in her mind, that the lives of unborn children matter, and that women deserve better than abortion.
Arrested for these thoughts, in an apparently 13-years-conservative Britain.
How is this possible?
That we have become so illiberal towards simple, compassionate and heaven forbid, Christian thought – that we have created a literal thought police?
And our government have now passed legislation which would roll these local thoughtcrime measures out across the country, resulting in even silent prayer becoming illegal on many more streets of Britain.
This one story consolidates just about everything that has gone wrong with our movement. If Conservatives of today cannot even conserve the inner sanctum of the mind, to hold a personal and goodness me – Christian – belief – if we cannot preserve this basic, natural right, it’s possible we’ve lost our way a little about what we’re trying to conserve.
The lethargy of Conservatives is oft attributed to the fact that by our very nature, we aren’t prone to act, to build.
We are, as Edmund Burke would have it, connecting the dead, the living, and the yet-to-be-born by preserving our well-worn democratic values - the excellently-built, beautiful Cathedrals that we have been handed down by those before us.
Cathedrals, our long-held British values, are only sustainable if we actively sustain them.
And our democratic foundations, of free society, free speech, space for the individual to thrive and prosper with support from strong family and community ties, will not remain firm if we don’t do the necessary work of repairing and strengthening these foundations against a stormy and hostile climate.
The battle for freedom of speech, freedom of thought, was fought and settled throughout various moments of British history.
God help conservatives, you might say – heaven knows, we need it
And our legal tradition also protects long-established common-good values, such as the right to private family life and the right to life, without merit or distinction.
The Cathedral has long been built.
But just as Notre Dame burned in the neglect of modern Europe of 2019, we know that even the grandest of Cathedrals require serious and active protection before the roof caves in.
Many of us watched with great interest as the party that bears this movement’s name was elected into power in a 2019 landslide. The Tory party manifesto made a bold pledge to “champion freedom of expression and tolerance, both in the UK and overseas.”
We’ve heard slam-dunk soundbites in the chamber against “tofu-eating, Guardian-reading twitterati”. And yes, Conservative leaders might have decided to feel comfortable to describe a woman as an adult human female.
But talk is cheap, and speech still isn’t free.
While such lip service was being paid, we saw, in reality, the opposite of a conservative vision for society play out in real time.
This isn’t passive neglect, it’s active demolition. It is the Conservative government who actively voted for a bill eroding of freedom of thought for people like Isabel Vaughan-Spruce.
It’s not only those who pray near abortion facilities who are feeling the demolition of our foundational British values of free speech, and freedom of religion.
It’s those that hold pro-life thoughts today. But their censorship opens the floodgates for the censorship of anyone who might dare to share their beliefs in the public square, like street preachers or gender critical feminists, anti-monarchy protestors, or numerous others.
Meanwhile, the government is actively pushing legislation to criminalise parents who pray with their kids about gender confusion, or laws which could threaten our ability to freely exchange thoughts and ideas online.
This panel might be called “the restless right”. But I’m more interested in restless rights. The rights to free speech, free expression, free thought – basic civil liberties to protect all individuals and allow him or her to prosper.
If this is what “championing freedom of expression and tolerance” looks like, I’d hate to see the results of a government that opposes it.
The case has been made eloquently throughout the last few days that there is a clear link between social institutions and human flourishing. That a strong family empowers the individual to thrive.
Family. Another common good value. Another Cathedral.
And the numbers don’t lie.
Families are great. We’ve heard all the facts - Children who live with married parents are less likely to suffer from poor mental health. Fathers in the home are one of the strongest safeguards against adolescent poverty and crime. Women who are married are significantly less likely to be the victims of violent crime. Men who are married are less likely to perpetrate violent crimes.
In this light, it’s easy to look around in despair right now.
The strands of society which wove together to support the individuals and communities throughout history are eroded. Our UK marriage rate is at an all time low. Most women don’t have children before the age of 30, leading to an impending demographic crisis. And 200,000 lives are lost every year to abortion on this island.
That’s another life lost every 2.5 minutes in our country to abortion. In the time it takes me to give this talk, that will be another six children lost.
That’s leaving another 6 vulnerable women to deal with the trauma of that impact.
70% of women in the UK, by the way, want to see our abortion gestational term limit lowered from the current six months (24 weeks), to something more humane – perhaps moving towards the European standard of three months. Yet we conservatives won’t even talk about it – or blindly push to erode protections for women and children further.
The culture war wages on, but it feels like we’re losing ground to stand on and to conserve with every passing moment.
God’s not dead
One more note on Cathedrals. I can’t help but notice too that Cathedrals are not only built to be beautiful, but, at their heart, are a monumental home of worship to God.
Yet the conservative movement, in my view, took a fatal hit by allowing the new atheist moment of the early 2000s to proclaim the death of God.
As a movement and indeed at this conference it’s evident that we long for the Cathedrals of old – the traditions of human dignity, of natural rights, of justice, but we also are content to see Christ thrown out of the Cathedral.
Well I’m convinced a Cathedral, and a worldview, a code of morality will crumble into confusion if it’s not built on a solid rock, a framework that was once offered by Christianity.
Indeed, those on the liberal left have filled the void with their own religion, with rules and dogmas and prophets and a concept of sin and redemption. They pay credence to the teachings of Oprah Winfrey and Dylan Mulvaney and pay retribution for the original sin of their born privilege.
Human beings long for religion and the left have filled that need with an attractive religion that is not true, while we have been left empty-handed with principles moored without a basis, and without real hope, truth, beauty and redemption to offer.
God help conservatives, you might say – heaven knows, we need it.
We are overwhelmed by the cultural and institutional dominance of those who oppose freedom.
This has led to demoralisation among those of us who seek to uphold policies based on the common good. These issues feel like lost causes.
Yet our response, largely, has been one of two poor choices.
Either we conservatives fly from the big conversations we need to have – about abortion, marriage, freedom of speech - with heads in the clouds, appeasing the liberal “woke” mob for whom the ground we give will never be enough.
Or we stand, hands on head, standing over the abyss yelling “STOP!” – to tumbleweed.
We can cry all we want to. But freeze-framing and armchair complaining will do nothing to transmit the values that we know will prosper our generation and those to come.
Saying ‘yes’ to truth
I propose a reframe. Conservatives might not be builders. But we need to put our shoulder to the grind of refurbishing and reclaiming and re-articulating the beauty of common-good beliefs that have been handed across generations for the benefit of everyone.
If we believe what we say is true – that our fellow man benefits from the liberal traditions that Britain holds dear – that is free speech, free thought, democratic dialogue, support for the family so that even our youngest and weakest members can thrive – then we have to be able to make our case, to offer something different, special, appealing.
Instead of just saying “no” to extreme gender ideology, why don’t we say “yes” to celebrating true biological malehood, and womanhood? To reassure kids that they are wonderfully-made, healthy, and normal?
Instead of saying “no” to censorship, can we say “yes” to a plurality and diversity of views?
Can we take steps to further embed free speech at the heart of our legal framework, and bring forward training to help officers better balance the true weight of the right to free expression as they make their proportionality assessments when it comes to dealing with comedians, street preachers or silent prayers?
There are people far wiser than me who have, on this stage, made interesting concrete policy suggestions, including on better supporting the family.
We have so many ideas to pull from across Europe from countries who have recognised the terrifying trajectory of an upturned demographic pyramid and re-established supportive family values, like homecare allowances and family-friendly tax restructuring.
Even before we dive into considering and pushing such ideas, we need to be articulating and making the case for the common good. Writers, editors, tweeters, cultural influencers - there is a huge responsibility on us now to be making this case every day.
Don’t shy away from the “A” word, abortion; don’t shy away from furthering thoughtful positions on championing marriage, motherhood, fatherhood, free speech, freedom of belief for all.
Most people believe that their family is important, that children deserve stability, that you shouldn’t go to jail for saying, or thinking, unpopular things, and yes, even that 200,000 abortions a year is too many, and that women deserve better. The more we act like these are unacceptable beliefs, the more they will become so.
My presentation today is on fighting lost causes. But, ladies and gentlemen, these causes – free speech, free thought, family, the right to life for our most vulnerable citizens - aren’t lost because they are defeated.
They’re lost because we lost them – we misplaced them for a while. But lost things can be found.
They can be dusted off, touched up, revived into something attractive and meaningful, that will provide the foundations for future generations to thrive.
It takes one leap of faith – it takes the conservatives stepping out of their comfort zone, and once again, embracing conservatism to the full. It will take a lot of courage and maybe, if you like, a bit of prayer – though do be sure to consult the laws about where you’re about to do so, at least for the time-being.