A curious tale of two embassies

At Westminster Hall in London, on the very spot where England's last absolute monarch was convicted of torture and tyranny, the world's most absolute dictator presumes to lecture our present leaders on the sins of the democratic society that has evolved in the centuries since the overthrow of Charles I. We are paying for this privilege, because the monarch of the Holy See is here on a state visit from 16-19 September. But the Holy See is a "Santa Claus" state - no matter how many believe in it, it does not exist.

The Vatican, as any tourist can tell, is not a state at all: it is a palace, surrounded by gardens, about the size of a large golf course. In law (the 1933 Montevideo Convention), a state must have a people - and there are no Vaticanians. In this Roman enclave of celibates, no citizen is born other than by accident. It has no "territory" - another statehood requirement - other than the 108 acres conveyed inviolably to it by Mussolini in 1929 as part of a sordid deal with the pro-fascist Pius XI to destroy democracy in Italy. This is described as the "Lateran Treaty" although it is not, as a matter of law, a treaty (an agreement between sovereign states) at all. It is a deal between Italy and its Church, and obviously has no legal effect on the UK, which has never been a party to it. Nonetheless, it is on this dubious document that the Vatican today pins its claim to statehood. Its most recent sovereignty statement to the United Nations reads:

"The Holy See exercises its sovereignty over the territory of the Vatican City State, established in 1929 to ensure the Holy See's absolute and evident independence and sovereignty for the accomplishment of its worldwide mission, including all actions relating to international relations, cf: Lateran treaty, preamble and articles 2-3."

Separate powers

So when Henry Bellingham MP, a junior minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), stated in a letter to the New Statesman last week: "It is not the case that Britain recognises the Vatican because of the Lateran Treaty, nor could it be," he spoke with forked tongue. The UK resumed diplomatic relations in 1914 with the Holy See as an international entity, but not as a state. It then had no territory because the Risorgimento had extinguished the papal states in 1870, and even the Italian courts have recognised that the Vatican could make no claim again to statehood until its deal with Mussolini in 1929, because until then it possessed not a square inch of land.

So Bellingham is playing with words: the Lateran "treaty" is crucial to recognition of the Holy See as a state, and to the government's invitation to the Pope as a head of state, for the simple reason that it is the only basis on which the Holy See claims to be a state. But the Foreign Office appears unaware, either of its history or of its terms. When I made a Freedom of Information (FoI) request for documents relating to the expensive decision to keep separate UK embassies for the Vatican and for Italy, a Foreign Office official wrote:

"the Lateran pact guaranteed the full sovereign independence of the Vatican City in international law . . . under the terms of this treaty, it is not possible for ambassadors to Italy to be representative simultaneously to the Holy See - hence the need to maintain two separate embassies in Rome . . . under the Lateran pact it is impossible for any state to merge its embassies to Italy and the Holy See . . . they are in separate buildings . . . in accordance with the Lateran Pacts, the two ambassadors' residences remain located in separate parts of Rome."

This is all nonsense - there is nothing at all in the Lateran Treaty that requires this separation. Importantly, Bellingham now admits that this confident assertion by the Foreign Office was "a mistake". Instead, he tells us that the FCO deferred to "the practice of the Holy See". Vatican "practice" has no meaning or effect in law, and by kowtowing to it, the FCO has caused the taxpayer to fund an entirely unnecessary embassy and ambassadorial residence in Rome.

Curious bluff

The matter was raised in 2004, after the UK relinquished its luxurious villa near the Appian Way which had served as its embassy to the Holy See. It proposed to save money on rent, security, gardeners and assorted flunkies by relocating it to our embassy in Italy. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, then secretary of state to Pope John Paul II, protested that this would be a breach of the Lateran Treaty. Incredibly, the UK capitulated. It is astonishing that the FCO should have been such a pushover on this matter, conceding a claim that was wrong in law and based on a treaty to which the UK was not a party.

Although the Foreign Office website claims that the embassy to the Vatican conducts a valuable "dialogue" on human rights, it refuses to divulge what is said. Another FoI request has been refused, on the grounds that disclosure "would be likely to prejudice effective relations between the UK and the Holy See". Decoded, this probably means that exposure would cause embarrassment to the FCO - perhaps by revealing that there has been no dialogue at all on such important issues as Vatican responsibility for the rape of thousands of children, or for promoting homophobia by denouncing gay people as "evil", or for objecting to condom use to prevent HIV/Aids in Latin America and Africa.

If there is to be such dialogue - and for any western government that takes human rights seriously, there certainly should be - there is no reason why it cannot go on within the concrete walls of the UK embassy to Italy. William Hague should call the Curia's bluff and merge the two UK embassies in Rome.

Geoffrey Robertson, QC is the author of “The Case of the Pope" (Penguin Special, £5.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.