How can it be that, while the prospect of a general election campaign is greeted with a collective public yawn, the death of an 84-year-old Pole grips the country's attention and imagination? Why would a nation founded on rebellion against the Roman Catholic Church postpone a wedding and an election announcement so as not to clash with the Church leader's funeral? Why do our own political, religious and state leaders flock to Rome for that event? Why would anyone care what a collection of elderly bachelors in drag decide about a new pope? What does this tell us about our political leaders and about ourselves?
It is hard to imagine an institution more out of tune with the times than the Roman Church: authoritarian, centralised, dogmatic, superstitious, prudish. Moreover, John Paul II explicitly rejected the fashionable nostrums of liberal capitalism. Yet, as Michela Wrong argues in our cover story, he also caused untold misery by his insistence on the wickedness of birth control and his indifference to how these teachings helped the spread of Aids. He denounced the Iraq war, a subject on which nobody of importance was ever likely to pay the slightest heed to him. On issues where he did have influence, he used his authority almost entirely to the bad. "How many divisions has the Pope?" asked Stalin. As Poland showed in the 1980s, he had more than the tyrant thought. But most of the time, he marched them in the wrong direction or, in the case of priestly child abuse, kept them in barracks.
Nor need we be overly impressed by his personal popularity with the public. Blue eyes, strong features and a powerful physique always help and, as a former actor, Karol Wojtyla cleverly manipulated the modern mass-communications industry. We are all too familiar, from the precedents of Diana, Princess of Wales, and various pop stars, with the ersatz emotions and banal sentimentalities unleashed by his death. So fixated is our society with fame and celebrity that people who wouldn't give a second thought to an ailing octogenarian across their own street want to feel part of what they have been told is a historic event, end of an era, etc, etc.
But there is surely more to it than that. In the coming general election, we can be certain of several things. First, a whole variety of issues will never reach the agenda. These include arms sales, social equality, excessive wealth, intrusive advertising, workers' rights, the powers of big capital, the plight of Africa, genetic engineering, global warming, abortion and euthanasia. Some are ruled out because agreement between the main parties - usually to the effect that nothing should or can be done to detract from the accumulation of wealth within a market economy - is so great as to make discussion pointless. Others, such as abortion, are ruled out because neither party has an opinion and votes are left to MPs' consciences. Second, the party leaders will conduct themselves as rival salesmen, trying to outdo each other's offers, rather than trying to articulate their own ideas more effectively. Third, nobody will propose anything more uplifting than discounts on council tax bills, several thousand extra police, and free bus passes. Politicians have so narrowed debate, so stripped it of wider meanings and values, that they have made elections about as exciting as the weekly trip to the supermarket.
Shopping is indeed the characteristic modern pastime and it may be true that most people, most of the time, are content with it. Certainly, there is no evidence in the west of a large-scale return to the Christian churches, least of all to the Catholic Church. And as Nick Cohen argues (page 28), the Vatican may soon, like the British monarchy, face growing ridicule. Yet the response to John Paul II's death suggests respect and admiration for a man and an institution that eschewed triangulation, stood on principle, and took on issues others won't touch. If the Pope and his church were alone among world leaders in their rigid views on birth control, they were also alone in their belief that every individual matters, regardless of his or her contribution to GDP; that selfish materialism is destroying the planet; and that a globalised economic system demands globalised compassion. John Paul II was just about the only public figure left who could talk unashamedly about equality and social justice.
Alas, Catholicism, resting on dogmas about virgin births and other miracles that strain 21st-century belief - to say nothing of its curious attitudes to sex - provides no basis for a more humane and visionary public discourse. But John Paul II at least found a language to say what, for many politicians, has become unsayable. Politics now lacks any such language, and it has never been more badly needed.
We're going broke for Gordon
The late David Astor, the patrician editor of the Observer in its heyday, once confessed that he was unfamiliar with the concept of a mortgage. When it was explained to him, he asked "what kind of people" bought houses on this basis. "People like Observer journalists," he was told. "You mean that most of my staff are in debt?" he replied. Times have moved on, and the arts editor of the New Statesman, according to press reports, has five mortgages (or thereabouts) as well as some £40,000 in credit-card debt. This, we can reveal, is part of a carefully laid socialist plot. NS staff are instructed to spend and borrow recklessly while Gordon Brown is at the Treasury, thus shoring up the economy. If a Tory government is returned, or if Mr Brown is sacked by Tony Blair, they will all stop spending and declare themselves bankrupt, confronting his successor with an immediate crisis. It is surprising that the Daily Mail has not rumbled this.