Let’s stick with the old Kremlinology for the time being, because I want to discuss That Mysterious Email and matters arising. Many of you will already have heard of That Email that’s doing the rounds, the one that when you click on the attachment sets off all sorts of alarms and sternly warns you that your IP address has been logged and if you’re viewing this content without authorisation you will be liable for divers lurid punishments in this life and the next.
There are several curious things about this. One is that the email emanates from the Diocese of Westminster, not an organisation known to be overburdened with computer whizzkids. However, the email itself is advertising an upcoming seminar to be held Monday week at Eland House, the corporate headquarters of the Department of Communities and Local Government, and gives a DCLG official as the contact. This in itself is odd, in that one can understand the discussions at the seminar being held under Chatham House rules, but all this Mission Impossible stuff seems better suited to MI5 than the DCLG. It also stands in some contrast to the content itself.
This, as you’ll have guessed, is a seminar aimed at orienting officials ahead of the papal visit. Nothing remarkable about that. Government departments of course hold these sort of seminars all the time. If you work at DWP headquarters, you may well get the opportunity to hear an academic speaking about labour market trends. If there’s something interesting happening in the Bananastans, the Foreign Office and/or the Department for International Development may well ask a SOAS professor to come in and give some background briefings. And, after the Foreign Office memo affair, government departments evidently need all the background briefings they can get. If the DCLG is having a seminar, you can bet that other relevant departments – the Foreign Office, Home Office, Scotland Office etc – will be doing likewise.
In the same vein, the itinerary is sensible enough. It makes sense to have a representative from the C of E’s ecumenical division to talk about ecumenical relations. Given the centrality of the Newman beatification to the visit, it also makes sense to be giving officials some background on who Cardinal Newman was and what his significance is to both the Catholic and Anglican traditions. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with the opening talk being on the theme of “the Roman Catholic Church in Britain today”. I do note, though, that the speaker marked down for this session is none other than our old friend Catherine Pepinster.
Let me make this perfectly clear. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Ma Pepsi talking to officials about the outlines of English Catholicism. She is, after all, a prominent lay Catholic and editor of an influential Catholic magazine. There is, however, a sense of cosmic inevitability, a feeling that it was always going to be Ma Pepsi or, failing that, Clifford. There could easily be an element of sheer laziness involved. Older readers may recall how about 25 years ago, if the BBC were covering a Catholic story and couldn’t get a quote from Cardinal Hume, they would always phone up dear old Norman St John Stevas, apparently on the grounds that dear old Norman was the only lay Catholic their religious affairs staff had ever heard of. So there’s that possibility. There are, however, other possibilities.
You’ll perhaps recall the old story about Peter Jay, and how a Times editor once remonstrated with him that his economics columns were completely incomprehensible. Jay is supposed to have responded that “my column is written for three people in this country, and you aren’t one of them”. There are somewhere between five and six million Catholics in Britain, and the Tablet sells just over 20,000 copies a week. But it’s read by the right people. If the Tablet was simply a magazine for progressive Catholics who enjoyed reading its Hello!-style interviews with Hans Küng, or Bobbie Mickens giving off about the evils of the Latin Mass, it would be of no real significance. Its significance lies in its historic status as the organ of the Catholic establishment. All those baronesses and retired diplomats on its board and trust aren’t there for no reason.
You may recognise this punter:
This is the Right Hon the Lord Patten of Barnes CH, former Tory cabinet minister, former Governor of Hong Kong, former European Commissioner, incumbent Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and all-round member of the great and the good. Chris Patten has recently been appointed by David Cameron as the government’s papal visit czar, reporting directly to Cameron himself. Chris Patten is a member of the Tablet Trust.
Unless you’re a serious politics nerd, you may not recognise this punter:
This is Sir Gus O’Donnell KCB, holder of many civil service posts over his long and distinguished career, and currently the Cabinet Secretary, making him the head of the Home Civil Service. He’s the highest-ranking and most powerful figure in the permanent Whitehall bureaucracy. Gus O’Donnell has spent several months coordinating an interdepartmental committee aimed at getting all government departments dealing with the papal visit pulling in the same direction. Gus O’Donnell is a member of the Tablet Trust.
I am not of course suggesting that either Chris or Gus have been going around actively pulling strings for their mates on the Suppository. I am simply suggesting that the connection doesn’t hurt. And the key point is, if you’re looking for Catholic establishment types, the easiest place to find them is at what the late Cardinal Franjo Šeper is supposed to have described as “that paper that used to be Catholic”.
Now, it’s true that the Catholic establishment and the Tabletista progressive tendency are not coterminous – hence the appearance around the papal visit of such figures as Neil Addison or Dan Brennan, who would be more towards the orthodox end of the spectrum. But it’s very clear which tendency is in the driving seat, and it ain’t the orthodox one.
The other noteworthy aspect of this is the involvement of the DCLG, a department created by New Labour with an eclectic set of responsibilities including council tax, housing, urban planning and the fire service. But one aspect of its powers is that, when the department was created in 2006, it took over the “integration and cohesion” brief from the Home Office, including the Preventing Violent Extremism initiative. This bit of the DCLG has taken on some of the functions of what in the old Soviet bloc would have been the Ministry of Religion.
Mostly, this has to do with Muslims, and the Prevent strategy has borne a strong resemblance to the grantocracy strategy developed by Douglas Hurd and Tom King in the north of Ireland in the 1980s, when local Catholic clergy were put in charge of community development schemes, with the aim of undermining popular support for Sinn Féin and thereby pacifying the ghetto. In a similar way, DCLG, particularly under Hazel Blears, developed a strong tendency towards using patronage to build up a compliant Muslim leadership while freezing out those who were a bit stroppy about British foreign policy. It hasn’t worked very well, and the main effect of handing over all those cheques to Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz has been to discredit them with the people they’re supposed to be influencing, even though as “approved Muslims” they’ve built up reasonable media careers. Let’s see whether Eric Pickles fancies carrying on with this approach.
But this is a tendency of all governments, which is why when we talk about the separation of church and state we have to remember that it cuts both ways. England of course has its long history of an Established Church with the monarch as its Supreme Governor, its bishops appointed by the prime minister and much of its functioning subject to parliamentary approval. On the other side of the world we find the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a body that agrees with all the policies of the Chinese government, dispenses with those bits of Catholic dogma that conflict with government policy, and whose bishops are appointed by the Communist Party.
That’s the extreme end of the argument. The relatively benign end is something like the north of Ireland peace process grantocracy. We are very familiar here with a situation where a small charity or campaigning group gets a grant, suddenly isn’t working on a shoestring any more but can afford fulltime staff and an office suite, and before you know it the charity has become a quango and is consulting on government policy. This usually goes without resistance, because the outcome suits everybody concerned. And it needn’t even be cash – access will do as well.
Stonewall is an excellent example of this. Ben Summerskill and his mates have long since become so close to the centres of power that the shoutier end of gay activism has found lots of mileage in deriding them as the government’s pet gays. Yet, the trade-off for their loss of independence is an enormous amount of influence in terms of shaping government policy, and Summerskill would argue that that influence makes the sacrifice worthwhile. Sometimes, the mutual benefits of this kind of backscratching are such that the late VI Lenin’s classic question “who whom?” becomes very difficult to answer. Look at the Sun, the government’s semi-official newspaper – does the government benefit more from receiving the sunny side of Uncle Rupert’s countenance, or does the Sun benefit more from its easy access to the corridors of power? Looking back at the days when Alastair Campbell was practically dictating the paper’s political coverage, who can say?
When considering the emergent Tablet-government lash-up, the danger is not coercion but backscratching. Of course it’s never stated – it may not even be a fully formulated thought in the relevant people’s minds – but it’s entirely possible that we see the government forging an alliance with the forces of Catholicism Lite. Entirely possible, too, that the hierarchy would go along with this, since it’s at least arguable that their established MO of chumming up to ministers might outweigh their willingness to work with marginal hardline figures like, er, the Pope.
There used to be a good saying about long spoons. It might come in handy in this context.