Racism and the Vatican

Why that “third world country” comment was much worse than you think.

It might seem as if the Vatican has no moral authority left to lose, but with his description of Britain as a "third world country", Cardinal Walter Kasper has done his best.

In an interview with the German news magazine Focus, Kasper declared:

[Britain is] a secular and pluralist country. Sometimes, when you land at Heathrow, you think you have entered a third world country.

Some bloggers have interpreted Kasper's comments as an attack on the quality of Heathrow Airport. But they, along with much of the mainstream media, have obviously missed the "clarification" issued by the Vatican.

According to the Pope's spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, Kasper's comments actually referred to Britain's multi-ethnic composition. Is Kasper really suggesting that ethnic minorities have no place in a developed country like Britain?

Apparently so. One can only assume that the multi-ethnic nature of travellers (and staff) at Heathrow offended the cardinal's separatist sensibilities.

Kasper, who has withdrawn from the papal visit, has already come under pressure to apologise. Cardinal O'Brien, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, said:

That was unfortunate, and each and every person's aides sometimes do make awkward, difficult remarks. Sometimes we make awkward, difficult remarks ourselves. And simply, if we do that sort of thing, we apologise for it, and I'm sure Cardinal Kasper will apologise for any intemperate remarks which he made some time ago.

But these are weasel words compared to the scale of Kasper's offence. If the Vatican, many of whose followers live in the "third world", wishes to salvage some dignity, it could begin by ordering Kasper to apologise for his slur on the UK and its population.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.