Pope snubbed by Scottish Catholics

Thousands turn down the chance to see the Pope in person, and controversy over costs continues.

Controversy has broken out over the Pope's planned open-air Mass at Bellahouston Park, near Glasgow, with many parishes returning more than half of their allocated tickets for the event.

The organisers now reportedly fear that attendance will fall short of the 100,000 they expected to come to the Mass, which will cost £1.5m to stage. Each of Scotland's 450 Catholic parishes received a pro-rata ticket allocation based on the size of its regular congregation, but the Herald reports that, in some cases, only one-sixth of the parishioners are planning to take up their places at the papal event.

In 1982, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass at the same site on a sunny afternoon, with 300,000 people in attendance. The choice of this site has been interpreted as an attempt to re-create the success and popularity of that service for a pope who has been under siege in recent months.

The open-air Mass requires participants to be in their places hours before the two-hour service begins, and it is thought that fears about the weather and long travel times are putting people off. Distant parishes are also planning to watch the service via video link, rather than travel to the other side of the country to attend in person.

The service, which will take place on 19 September during the Pope's state visit to Britain, has also reopened the debate over the cost of the papal trip to Britain. Although it insists that pilgrims will not have to pay to attend the Mass at Bellahouston, the Catholic Church has asked each parish to make a donation of £20 per attendee -- an obligation that many parishes have passed on to their parishioners.

The total cost of the visit, which will be borne by Britain, as the host nation, provoked outrage in some quarters when it was revealed that it could exceed £20m. As well as asking for "voluntary donations" from the public to cover the cost of specific events, the Catholic Church is also asking members to donate towards the overall cost of the visit, which it currently estimates at £7m.

The Church is also selling merchandise to coincide with the trip. T-shirts, fridge magnets and mugs are available, as well as more conventional religious artefacts.

Besides being hit by low attendance figures, the Pope's visit could suffer from a lack of television exposure, after BBC workers threatened to strike during that period (which will coincide with other major events such as the Last Night of the Proms) over pension disputes. Workers are being balloted on the issue; a result is expected in the week before the Pope is due to arrive in Britain.

Add to this the stated intention of Richard Dawkins and others to attempt to arrest the Pope for his alleged complicity in the child abuse scandal while he is on British soil, and we could be in for an eventful visit come September.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Theresa May defies the right by maintaining 0.7% aid pledge

The Prime Minister offers rare continuity with David Cameron but vows to re-examine how the money is spent. 

From the moment Theresa May became Prime Minister, there was speculation that she would abandon the UK's 0.7 per cent aid pledge. She appointed Priti Patel, a previous opponent of the target, as International Development Secretary and repeatedly refused to extend the commitment beyond this parliament. When an early general election was called, the assumption was that 0.7 per cent would not make the manifesto.

But at a campaign event in her Maidenhead constituency, May announced that it would. "Let’s be clear – the 0.7 per cent commitment remains, and will remain," she said in response to a question from the Daily Telegraph's Kate McCann. But she added: "What we need to do, though, is to look at how that money will be spent, and make sure that we are able to spend that money in the most effective way." May has left open the possibility that the UK could abandon the OECD definition of aid and potentially reclassify defence spending for this purpose.

Yet by maintaining the 0.7 per cent pledge, May has faced down her party's right and title such as the Sun and the Daily Mail. On grammar schools, climate change and Brexit, Tory MPs have cheered the Prime Minister's stances but she has now upheld a key component of David Cameron's legacy. George Osborne was one of the first to praise May's decision, tweeting: "Recommitment to 0.7% aid target very welcome. Morally right, strengthens UK influence & was key to creating modern compassionate Conservatives".

A Conservative aide told me that the announcement reflected May's personal commitment to international development, pointing to her recent speech to International Development staff. 

But another Cameron-era target - the state pension "triple lock" - appears less secure. Asked whether the government would continue to raise pensions every year, May pointed to the Tories' record, rather than making any future commitment. The triple lock, which ensures pensions rise in line with average earnings, CPI inflation or by 2.5 per cent (whichever is highest), has long been regarded by some Conservatives as unaffordable. 

Meanwhile, Philip Hammond has hinted that the Tories' "tax lock", which bars increases in income tax, VAT and National Insurance, could be similarly dropped. He said: "I’m a Conservative. I have no ideological desire to to raise taxes. But we need to manage the economy sensibly and sustainably. We need to get the fiscal accounts back into shape.

"It was self evidently clear that the commitments that were made in the 2015 manifesto did and do today constrain the ability to manage the economy flexibly."

May's short speech to workers at a GlaxoSmithKline factory was most notable for her emphasis that "the result is not certain" (the same message delivered by Jeremy Corbyn yesterday). As I reported on Wednesday, the Tories fear that the belief that Labour cannot win could reduce their lead as voters conclude there is no need to turn out. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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