By popular demand, we’re going to continue tonight with our project of putting Clerical Whispers out of business worm’s eye view of English Catholic politics. I’d like to begin by thanking Dr Ivereigh for obfuscating elucidating certain matters around Catholic Voices, and if you feel inclined to get stuck into Austen, just remember he was game enough to go on Newsnight and debate with Sinéad O’Connor, which must have been like debating with David Icke, and raises some questions about the judgement of the Newsnight editors.
To begin with Catholic Voices – and we must enter the plea that the project’s shy and retiring nature invites speculation – perhaps we can recalibrate somewhat. From the websites of both CV and the Catholic Union, it certainly appears as if CV is a CU project, that it is operating under the auspices of the CU, and that it is being patronised by Dan Brennan. Notwithstanding that the CU may not actually have handed over a cheque – and I have no evidence to dispute Austen’s account – the CU has certainly lent its brand, which is as good as a cheque if not better. Having the imprimatur of the Catholic Union makes it much easier to raise money, and furthermore allows one to use “Catholic” in the title without having to go through the usual episcopal channels. One may further note that, while the CU is a membership organisation, said membership is not known for being very assertive, and most of the time Dan and Jamie are able to run the show very much as they see fit.
Well now. Let us for the moment turn our attention to matters broader and older, and I want particularly to muse on the intimate connection between institutional Catholicism and the Labour Party.
Catholics, as a group, are significantly more likely to vote Labour than the British electorate as a whole. In the 2005 election, Labour polled 35% of the vote, but surveys suggest the party pulled in 53% of the Catholic vote. Most parish priests vote Labour; the Bishops’ Conference is heavily, though not exclusively, Labour in its sympathies. This well-known situation simply does not compute for the No Popery brigade on Liberal Conspiracy, and is a constant source of baffled outrage for Catholic Tories like Damian Thompson, but is easily explicable. One factor is simply that Catholics are significantly more likely to be working class, and significantly more likely to be of immigrant background, than the societal norm. (This includes young Damo himself, who is of course of Irish extraction.)
There’s also the factor that the basic concepts of Social Catholicism – communitarian, anti-war, anti-poverty, in favour of society placing restrictions on the market so as to serve the common good – are a pretty good mesh for what we might loosely term Old Labour politics. Not such a good fit for undiluted Thatcherism, although the moderate Christian Democracy of someone like Chris Patten would be acceptable. There was also, a generation ago, the persistence of anti-Catholicism in some Tory circles, although today that prejudice has largely migrated to the liberal-left. Those are the sociological and ideological elements; there’s also a straightforward element of power politics.
The broad alignment of the bishops with Labour goes back decades, although in many ways the architect of its modern form was the late Archbishop Derek Worlock. This, by the way, was a dividing line of sorts with Cardinal Hume, who had a broader concept of integrating the hierarchy into the British establishment and thereby getting past the pervasive prejudice about Catholicism’s foreignness. Generally, though, the BCEW came to bear an uncanny resemblence to the Labour Party at prayer. To get a sense of the persistence of this sort of outlook, despite radical changes in the LP in the interim, you have to remember that the English episcopacy consists of a couple of dozen men who all know each other very well, who hold their jobs for long periods, who tend to think very much alike, and who in many ways resemble an old boys’ club. I’ve mentioned previously that it was Worlock who gave Vincent Nichols his leg up the greasy pole in the Liverpool archdiocese; it’s also worth remarking that, when +Derek was working his previous stint in Portsmouth, his private secretary was none other than a young Fr Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. It’s a small world, indeed.
Speaking of which, a useful area of investigation for future biographers would be the remarkably close relationship between Cardinal Cormac and Mr Tony Blair. This keeps on popping up in a number of different contexts. There would be, for instance, Gordon Brown’s offer of a peerage to Cormac on his retirement, so he could sit in the Lords alongside the C of E bishops and Chief Rabbi Sacks. It’s not exactly a pontifical secret that Cormac was desperate to accept this – charitably, it would be an outward sign of Catholicism having arrived at the highest rungs of society; less charitably, while Cormac is a very very nice man, he’s also a terrible snob – had it not been for that pesky provision of canon law that forbids priests from holding political office. See the case of Bruce Kent, and see also the current president of Paraguay. Cue anguished phone calls from the Cormac camp to the Canon Law Society looking for a loophole, until the Holy See made it clear that there wasn’t one.
A more enduring aspect of this relationship is the current heavy involvement of the Mr Tony Blair Faith Foundation in the organisation of the papal visit. Not many people are going to turn a profit from the visit – possibly the guys who are paying tribute to the Bavarian pontiff with commemorative Pope Benedict beer steins, but I somehow don’t think they’re official – however, I would be astonished if the Mr Tony Foundation actually took a serious hit to the bottom line.
The BCEW-New Labour relationship, though, has other elements to it as well, which have come to mute the Church’s voice as its leaders have sought influence. Now, of course the bishops will have to deal with whomever is in power and build up relationships with them. Vincent Nichols, a Scouser and therefore not one of the world’s natural Tories, has been spotted hobnobbing with the Conservative Christian Fellowship; no doubt feelers have gone out to the few Catholics left in the Lib Dems, although neither Charlie Kennedy nor David Laws has that much influence these days.
Lobbying ministers is fine, but lobbying ministers at the expense of any other methods, like, oh, making a public argument, is not. When the Sexual Orientation Regulations were going through parliament and the threat to the adoption agencies became clear, the word from Eccleston Square was “we’ve spoken to Mr Tony and he assures us we’ll be all right”. When the recent Children, Schools and Families Bill was going through, the line was “we’ve spoken to Ed Balls and he assures us we’ll be all right”. And when the assurances turned to dust? Having eschewed making the argument in public in favour of talking to ministers, the bishops came to the argument late and just looked completely unreasonable. Losing an argument is fine, but losing an argument by default through not turning up until the last minute, and doing this repeatedly, is not fine.
Perhaps a lesson could be learnt from Stonewall, who are also extremely close to New Labour and have gained so much from government largesse as to be effectively a quango, but who still do the basic stuff of lobbying MPs, working the media and so on.
Nor is this simply a matter of defending one’s own sectional interest. Take the invasion of Iraq. You will recall that John Paul II, despite his failing health, was a very strong voice against the war, and that the Holy See did a lot of diplomatic heavy lifting at the UN prior to the invasion. Getting a firm position from the bishops in the aggressor countries was a tougher job. In the US, there was a grand total of one prelate who condemned the war outright – that would be the rather splendid Bishop Botean, the Romanian Uniate eparch, who threatened to excommunicate any of his flock who took part – but it took some arm-twisting on the part of the Vatican to get even a weak formal statement on the general desirability of peace out of the 300-strong USCCB.
Were matters better in Britain? Well, in Scotland perhaps, where Cardinal Keith O’Brien isn’t known for mincing his words. South of the border, there was plenty of word-mincing – while statements were issued, these were of the “yes, well, obviously war is always a bad thing, y’know, in a very real sense” variety which wouldn’t have ruffled any feathers on Thought for the Day. What would have been great would have been a tough formal statement, allied to some lobbying of MPs. I can think off the top of my head of several Catholic MPs – Geraldine Smith, for instance, or Jon Cruddas – who initially voted for the war but then came to change their minds, and whose backbones could conceivably have been stiffened. Would it have made a difference to the vote in parliament? Possibly not, but it could have made the vote close enough to be interesting. But then, all that would have meant not worrying too much about your chummy relationship with Mr Tony.
And this brings us back to the whole question of communicating your case, and it’s clear the discreet lobbying impulse lives on. I read in the current issue of the Suppository that Archbishop Nichols has been lunching with newspaper editors, and yea, has even met Uncle Rupert himself. At least this demonstrates that +Vincent understands the necessity of a proactive press strategy, even if his concept of a press strategy is straight out of the 1950s, and exactly the sort of thing that pisses hacks off. A modest suggestion – it may benefit the English hierarchy if their press officers could take time out from feuding with each other to actually issue press releases. Schmoozing journos wouldn’t hurt either, but baby steps.
And it is indeed the general hopelessness of official channels that leads us to the necessity of freelance operations like Catholic Voices. Actually, we’ve seen a precursor to that in the recent past, in the shape of the Da Vinci Code Response Group, which operated under the aegis of the Archdiocese of Westminster but was formally autonomous. It’s not clear exactly what impact the DVCRG had either in terms of Dan Brown’s bottom line or in terms of debunking some of the mythology surrounding the book. What is clear is that the DVCRG got an article into the Spectator, and on that basis the party line at Westminster declared it a massive success.
Oh yes, I knew there was something else. The DVCRG consisted of nine or ten members of the great and the good who all had particular areas of expertise, but there were three people effectively driving it. The first was Peter Scally SJ, who runs a magazine called Thinking Faith which caters to the many insomniacs one finds in the Society of Jesus. The other two were entrepreneurial Opus Dei honcho Jack Valero, and this blog’s good friend, diminutive Catholic intellectual Dr Austen Ivereigh.
Does this seem familiar? You bet your ass it does. What would be surprising would be if there was a major event coming up and Beavis and Butt-head weren’t involved in the media side.
Rud eile: I’ve noticed that of late this blog has been getting quite a few hits from Vatican City IP addresses. I would like to imagine that this would be some staffer on the increasingly weird L’Osservatore Romano, whose cultural section has just done a five-part series on the Catholic significance of The Blues Brothers.
Rud eile fós: Did I mention Benedict XVI beer steins? What say youse to a Pius IX cologne? David Beckham had better look to his laurels.