Paisley, the Pope, and the 1981 papers

Today, the torch of anti-papalism has been passed from Protestants to atheists.

Among the most intriguing revelations to emerge from this year's batch of government files from thirty years ago is the suggestion that Pope John Paul II might have been invited to address Parliament during his 1982 visit to Britain. In the event the idea was dropped, partly because of fears that the Reverend Ian Paisley might "make a nuisance of himself". A horrified Margaret Thatcher considered that such an occurrence would have "the gravest consequences and would damage the pope, the established church and parliament."

The fear was to be realised a few years later, although not in Britain. In 1988, Paisley disrupted the pontiff's speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, standing up to denounce John Paul through a megaphone as the Antichrist. It's doubtful, though, that either the pope or the European Parliament suffered great reputational damage as a result.

There were also constitutional objections to the idea, with the Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong declaring that it would look "very odd if the pope were to address members of the two houses of parliament in a country which has an established church of which he is not head." Even Britain's senior Catholic leaders were dubious about the proposal, while some Protestant campaigners were aghast at the very idea of a papal visit.

In the event, the visit went ahead largely hitch-free, but also with a bare minimum of official involvement, although the pope did drop briefly into Buckingham Palace to have tea with the Queen. Awkward issues were sidestepped by stressing that John Paul was coming in a purely pastoral capacity.

Things were very different last year when Benedict XVI made a full state visit to Britain. Westminster Hall was packed for the pope's address, but there was no sign of Ian Paisley, by then a lord. Paisley had put in an appearance in Scotland a couple of days earlier to denounce the pope's arrival, but didn't make too much of a "nuisance of himself" and didn't try to heckle Benedict directly. Instead he organised a rival church service at John Knox's old chapel in Edinburgh, at which he lamented that the papal visit should have coincided with the 450th anniversary of the Scottish Reformation.

Instead, the torch of anti-papalism has been passed to a new type of dissenter. I suspect that when the equivalent files are released in 2040 it'll be Richard Dawkins, rather than Ian Paisley, who'll be seen to have caused the government the biggest headaches. The protests against last year's papal visit were dominated by secular concerns about child abuse and opposition to the Catholic church's stance on contraception, homosexuality and the role of women. Where Paisley quoted the Book of Revelation, Geoffrey Robertson QC referred to the UN Charter and tried to threaten the pope, not with hellfire but with the International Court. (Though the threat was, let's face it, no less theoretical.)

Indeed, there's unlikely to be anything quite so embarrassing as what has already emerged -- the leak in April 2010 of a bizarre foreign office "brainstorming session" in which suggestions for the trip included sending the pope to an abortion ward and getting him to perform a duet with the Queen.

The release of documents under the thirty year rule may be anachronistic, but it does offer us each December a window into past concerns that might otherwise be forgotten -- and a reminder that while history doesn't repeat itself, it certainly rhymes. 1981, a year notable for austerity, riots and a royal wedding, offers an especially fascinating point of comparison. The discussion around the proposed papal speech reveals a Britain that was not notably more religious than today but that did have a greater sense of itself as a Protestant nation with an established church, a nation in which (for example) the ban on Catholics marrying into the royal family was less controversial than it is now.

There was both less overt secularism and more reticence about public discussion of religion. The Pope's visit was assumed to be primarily of interest to Catholics and opposition to it concentrated in Protestant campaigners such as Paisley. The Pope remains a divisive figure. But the dividing lines are drawn differently today: not between Protestant and Catholic or even between Christians and followers of other faiths, but between the secular and the religious.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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If the left leaves it to David Cameron, we'll have Brexit for sure

Only an upbeat, leftwing case can keep Britain in the European Union.

After months flapping and hesitation, and with much of the reporting and detail so dull that it has barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who speak the language of ‘directives’ and treaty provisions, the EU referendum is upon us. With David Cameron signalling concrete outcomes for negotiations, we seem to be set for June, whatever the protests from opposition parties about the date being too close to local and national elections.  

Cameron’s deal, whose most substantive element consists of denying in-work benefits to European citizens, exemplifies the kind of debate that Conservative strategists want to create: a tedious, labyrinthine parochialism, blending the EU’s procedural dullness with an unquestioned mythology of the little Englander. Try actually reading the various letters, let alone the draft decisions, that Cameron extracted from Donald Tusk, and the agreement turns to putty in your head. But in summary, what Cameron is negotiating is designed to keep the EU debate as an in-house affair within the right, to continue and formalise the framing of the debate as between two strains of anti-migrant sentiment, both of them backed by big business.

The deal may be reactionary, but it is also mediocre in its scope and impact. The worries that many of us had in the leftwing pro-In camp, that Cameron’s deal would push back freedom of movement and working and environmental protections so far that we would be unable to mobilise for continued membership of the EU, can now be put to bed. Quite the opposite of allowing Cameron's narrative to demoralise us, the left must now seize an opportunity to put imagination and ideas back at the heart of the referendum debate.

The British political landscape in which that debate will play out is a deceptively volatile environment. Party allegiance is at a nearly all time low. Inequality is growing, and so is the gap between attitudes. The backbone of the UKIP vote – and much of the Out vote – will come from a demographic that, sometimes impoverished by the legacy of Thatcherite economic policy, sees itself as left behind by migration and change. On top of the class war, there is a kind of culture war underway in today’s Britain: on one side those who see LGBT rights, open borders and internationalism as the future; on the other side, those who are scared of the future. About the only thing these groups have in common with one another is their anti-establishment instincts, their total disdain and mistrust of politics as usual.

The only political movement to have broken through the fog of cynicism and disillusionment in British politics has come from the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour has unleashed something new - and while large parts of the press, and some Labour backbenchers, have portrayed this rise as a crusade of the “croissant eating” metropolitan elite, the reality is very different. The rise of the new Labour left has given voice to a renewed socialist and working class politics; its explicitly radical, outsider approach has given it traction across the social divides – among the young looking for a future, and among Labour’s old base. 

A politics of hope – however vague that term might sound – is the only real answer to the populist Euroscepticism that the Out campaign will seek to embody. Radical politics, that proposes an alternative narrative to the scapegoating of migrants, has to find voice in the course of this referendum campaign: put simply, we need to persuade a minimum wage worker that they have more in common with a fellow Polish migrant worker than they do with their employer; we need to persuade someone on a social housing waiting list should blame the privatisation of the housing market, not other homeless families. Fundamentally, the real debate to be had is about who the public blames for social injustice: that is a question which only the left can satisfactorily answer.

The outsider-led volatility of British politics gives the EU referendum a special kind of unpredictability. For voters who have lost faith in the political establishment – and who often have little materially to lose from Brexit – the opportunity to deliver a blow to David Cameron this summer will be tempting. The almost consciously boring, business-dominated Britain Stronger In Europe campaign makes a perfect target for disenfranchised public sentiment, its campaigning style less informed by a metropolitan elite than by the landed gentry. Its main weapons – fear, danger and uncertainty – will work on some parts of the electorate, but will backfire on others, much as the Better Together campaign did in the Scottish referendum.

Last night, Another Europe is Possible held a launch meeting of about a hundred people in central London - with the backing of dozens of MPs, campaigners and academics across the country. It will aim to provide a radical, left wing voice to keep Britain in the EU.

If Britain votes to leave the EU in June, it will give the Right a mandate for a renewed set of attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants and freedom of movement. But without an injection of idealism and radicalism,  an In vote will be a mandate for the status quo - at home and in Brussels. In order to seize the real potential of the referendum, the left has to approach the campaign with big ideas and demands. And we have to mobilise.