Pope Francis. Photo: Associated Press
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Beloved of the people: how the Pope has again become a leader for our times

At a time when career politicians are held in such contempt, Pope Francis is offering a masterclass in leadership.

When Cardinal Bergoglio was elected Pope two years ago hardly anyone knew who he was. He had a number of firsts to his name: the first Jesuit pope, the first from the Americas, the first from the southern hemisphere. But beyond that there was only a sense of gentle bafflement and an awkwardness in the wake of Pope Benedict’s retirement: for popes, unlike bishops, life means life, so to replace a living pope was almost unseemly.

Since then, Pope Francis has succeeded in cutting through the language of Italian scholasticism, the constraints of Vatican tradition and the consistent wail of ration­alist denunciation to become the most popular public figure in Europe. In contrast to his predecessor he has established a Catholic populism around a critique of capitalism and a concern for the poor while embarking upon an unprecedented reform of the Vatican itself, most particularly its finances. Taken as a whole, this has led to a misunderstanding that he is a progressive, liberal or “left-wing” pope. It should come as no surprise that the Pope is deeply and traditionally Catholic. What is clear is that his modesty, his continued emphasis on being a sinner himself, and his criticism of himself and his Church have endeared him to people who have not been listening to the Church for a very long time, if ever. Whereas Pope Benedict missed few opportunities to point out the moral nihilism of modernity and its tendency to violence and self-gratification at the expense of love and faithfulness, Pope Francis seems more at ease with temptation and less comfortable with the domination of corporate capitalism and its effects on the lives of the poor.

This can be explained by the times and places in which the two men emerged. Cardinal Ratzinger came of age as a theologian and bishop in West Germany in the 1960s and had previously been seen as a radical. He perceived a tendency in the 1960s generation towards a revolutionary hedonism that could only end in systematic human degradation. In response, he asserted the authority and majesty of the Catholic Church and its traditions, and took a particularly hard line on Marxism and liberation theology. His alliance with Pope John Paul II, who had been a bishop in communist Poland, was resolute.

Bishop Bergoglio, by contrast, came of age as a priest in Argentina under its particularly ugly military dictatorship, and became bishop of Buenos Aires in the 1990s during a period of Washington-led free-market economics that ended in a spectacular and devastating crisis. Argentina experienced austerity and a financial crash nearly two decades before the rest of us, and the bishop was witness to the destitution and institutional breakdown involved.

Pope Francis is the first pope in a century for whom communism is not the main threat to morality and the Church. For him it is of very little consequence. Instead, the main threat to the dignity of the person, their families and work is a capitalism which gives incentives to sin. Growing inequality, the domination of the poor by the rich, the favour shown to the banks, and the costs carried by workers in “restructuring programmes” are things he has witnessed and gives witness about. Pope John Paul came of age resisting communism; for Pope Francis that was not the problem.

I saw this first-hand when I was invited to the Vatican to give a talk on Catholic social thought. I outlined what I saw as the central features of Catholic teaching on capitalism, which provides the political economy for Blue Labour, and its stress on regional banks, a vocational economy, incentives to virtue over vice, and the representation of the workforce in corporate governance. There were audible rumblings of discontent in the audience, and a visiting American put the view plainly that my argument, with its implied interference in managerial prerogative and the sovereignty of capital, was “communist”. There was no one there from the Labour Party to find that funny, and it all felt a bit uncomfortable. But Pope Francis interjected with a question. He asked my interrogators – for there was more than one – “What is your idea? That the banks should fail and that is the end of the world, but the workers starve and that is the price you have to pay?” Things went much better for me from that point – so in telling this anecdote I am also declaring an interest.

His reference to workers was not accidental but central to his argument. For he still maintains a theory of labour value, that workers have value and generate value, and that one of the fundamental problems with the present system is that they are denied recognition as creators and partners in the economic system.

Pope Francis does not fear the poor, but prefers “to weep when they weep and rejoice when they rejoice”. He watches football, he drinks maté, the Argentinian herbal tea, and he delights in the company of children. He could not wait to leave the formal event at which we met to embrace the visiting children who had made the journey to Rome for Argentina’s national day. In Italy, when he visits a place he is followed by people who make presentations of their working lives – they give him their fireman’s helmet, or their wooden spoon – and his popularity exceeds that of any politician. They swarm around him; he feels safe with them and they give him protection.

At one of these walkabouts I asked a woman why she had come to see Pope Francis. “Like me, he loves the Church but doesn’t trust the Vatican,” she said. “He needs to know that we are with him.” I found this view widespread, including among those who are proud to call themselves socialists.

In a Europe that has been dominated by the free movement of money and labour, and that has been unable to break the intellectual and political domination of neoliberalism, the Pope is unusual because he articulates a constructive alternative that is for private property but against financial centralisation, and stills holds on to certain concepts, such as vocation, virtue and value, a century after they have fallen out of fashion with monetarists, Keynesians and Marxists alike.

The crash of 2008 spoke to the Catholic idea that there was a “structure of sin” in the economic system which gave incentives to vice. In this sense, vice is understood as greed, selfishness, immediate gratification and a lack of regard for the inheritance of creation, the humanity of the person or the common good. This led to cheating, exploitation and avarice, complemented by a political system that did not promote responsibility, participation and relationships.

It turned out that Catholic social thought, a tradition initiated by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, contained a more rational and apposite political economy than that of its secular rivals. In this, the Pope is as conservative as he is radical. He said that there was a lack of love in the system, and his words resonated.

The word has spread. In February 2015 the bishops of the Church of England issued a pastoral letter concerning guidance for Christians on the election in May. The extent to which the Protestant church has embraced the lead taken by Pope Francis and engaged with ideas of subsidiarity, vocation, virtue and the tendency of capitalism to commodify human beings and their natural environment is remarkable. Catholic thought has come to England, a place where it has played little part in mainstream political life since Thomas Cromwell was chancellor.

There is a good reason for this. We know that neither 1945 nor 1979, neither the state nor the market, generates prosperity, civic peace and participation. We know that 1997 – an attempt to combine a strong welfare state with robust financial markets – did not work either. We are left with debt, deficit and demoralisation. There is an absence of a constructive alternative to put in their place that can explain the problems of the past and chart a course to a better future. No one was expecting the Catholic Church to have that vision.

This incursion is partly supported by the successes of the German social-market economy, which was stitched together between Christian and Social Democrats after the war. Workers are represented on boards, and there is a robust vocational system that regulates market entry. There are strong regional banks that cannot lend outside their geographical area, as well as specific sectoral banks, all within a decentralised federal political system. Our centralised capital and state model did not emerge from the financial crash in robust shape. It was vulnerable to systemic shocks. The German model has looked altogether more robust.

It is not just that many people like the look of Pope Francis; it is also that what he says is popular. It is not articulated by any mainstream political party in Europe, let alone Britain. The EU, with its free movement and centralised bureaucracies, is as far from his teaching as it could be.

Catholic social thought is pro family, responsibility and contribution, and places a great stress on subsidiarity and relationships so that there can be “more love in the
system”. There is little here to comfort the Fabian wing within Labour that stresses uniformity and universality as the prime aims of a welfare administration. Indeed, that is
one of the reasons he is so popular. He defies the orthodoxies of left and right in the name of a common-good politics in which there is an active reconciliation between estranged interests, including class interests.

Part of the appeal of Pope Francis is that he articulates a generous vision of human society and flourishing that recognises the contribution of workers and the poor to the common good. The other is his remorseless reform of the Curia, the Vatican civil service, and his relentless challenge to a conception of the priesthood as managerial, administrative, bureaucratic or – worst of all – corrupt.

A person appointed by Pope Francis to help reform the finance committee told me that he was devoted to the task. He encountered great resistance and there was denunciation of the idea that a group of lay businessmen should oversee the finances in the place of priests and Vatican officers. There was outrage when the beatification accounts were frozen due to a lack of accountability. This turned to rage when an entirely new staff was appointed to the finance office. The Pope had one word for our besieged reformer: fretta. It means faster, stronger, more.

His address, made just before Christmas, to the Curia – in many ways the heirs to the glories of the Roman empire – as “co-workers, brothers and sisters” was a masterpiece of the form. He started with an evocation of Jesus, “who is born in the poverty of the stable of Bethlehem in order to teach us the power of humility” and whose light was received by “the poor and simple”.

And then he began his reflection on the theme of forgiveness for the Church, for its failings as a body which cannot live without nourishment and care. Like any body, it is prey to disease. At this point, he introduced the concept of “curial diseases” to which the officials of the Church were prone. He spoke of an assumed superiority over others and a refusal to recognise their own sin; of an excessive busyness that neglects rest and the needs of other people. He spoke of a “mental and spiritual petrification” that separates them from the lives of people and of an “excessive planning and functionalism” that was hostile to the power of people coming together and doing something better than they had planned. He spoke of poor communication between different parts of the organisation, of a loss of memory and first love, of a culture of gossiping, grumbling and backbiting, of idolising superiors, of an indifference to others, and a miserable face.

As a member of the Labour Party – indeed, of the Parliamentary Labour Party – I could not do other than reflect on the lessons for my party and movement in this speech, and on how we do not have a culture of reflection and evaluation, of disagreement and challenge. I thought we had a lot to learn from the Church, but I also winced at how hard it was to say that.

Pope Francis has turned the attention of the Church away from sex and towards the economy. He thinks of himself as a sinner and sees God in the eyes of the poor. He is prepared to say hard things to powerful people, and shines a light into the darkened corridors of his own institution. He is beloved of the people. In short, the most important thing about Pope Francis is that he is giving a masterclass in political leadership.

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and is working on the party’s policy review. This essay is published in the spring issue of Juncture, IPPR’s journal of politics and ideas: ippr.org/juncture

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and director of the faith and citizenship programme at London Metropolitan University

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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