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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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