That memo against the Pope is no joke

Benedict XVI, his visit, and an aggressively secular mindset in Whitehall.

There is widespread confusion over the extraordinary Foreign Office "brainstorming" memo entitled "The ideal visit would see . . .", and it has caused huge diplomatic tensions between the UK and the Holy See, which have enjoyed unprecedentedly strong relations in recent years -- until now.

People think it is a joke. That is to say, that it was written as a joke. This is not surprising, given the range of suggestions, which include a form of contraception named after the Pope, the Pope opening an abortion clinic, and the Pope overseeing a homosexual wedding.

In fact, I am reliably told by a senior Whitehall source: "This was not written as a joke. It was meant to be a serious brainstorming by various people [and was] designed for a meeting. I know it is hard to believe, but it is serious."

In which case, the memo says more about the mindset of what one official calls the "aggressive secular fundamentalism" that is entrenched in the Foreign Office than it does about the papal visit, which, for all the Vatican's faults, remains a good thing.

Don't get me wrong. I deplore the sick culture of child abuse that has been unearthed in the Roman Catholic Church. And I will upset some Catholic friends by saying that I have some sympathy with the view that the Pope should show leadership, take overall responsibility and "resign" over the issue.

Even before that grotesque scandal was reported, I didn't have much time for a Pope who is into Gucci shoes and iPods.

However, much work has been put in by the British embassy in the Vatican -- and by ministers who should not be blamed -- to improve relations with the centre of a religion followed by millions. In an age when interfaith recognition is vital, that is very important work indeed.

That this memo has been setback, caused by the childish and frankly idiotic provocations of sniggering officials with too much time on their hands, is an embarrassment to Britain. Secularists should offer faiths the same freedom of thought that they hold so dear.

I will be returning to this subject.

UPDATE: A query I submitted to the Foreign Office about whether or not the document is a joke has not had a response (2 May).

 

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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