Liberals should stop eulogising this reactionary Pope

Francis's popularity among progressives suggests that women and gay people are still viewed as appendages in the struggle for a better society.

Just as some atheists and agnostics long to believe in God, many are more than a little keen to see the best side of the pious, as the bizarre discussion over the Pope’s alleged 'Marxism' demonstrates. Even if they themselves don’t believe a word of scripture, many liberals wish to see something of their own politics reflected in the outlook of the Catholic Church – hence the repeated references in recent weeks to the 'progressive' Pope and the overrated idea of 'liberation theology'.

It is predictable that the reactionary politics of the new Pope should be played down by liberal Catholics in favour of his musings on social justice and global capitalism. What’s so depressing has been the extent to which liberal non-believers have fallen so hook, line and sinker for what is in reality nothing more than a clever repackaging exercise.

I say this because, apart from a few centrist musings about inequality, the Catholic Church - which Pope Francis heads and therefore has the power to change - stands on roughly the same political terrain as it did under the leadership of Pope Benedict. Pope Francis’s position on most issues should make the hair of every liberal curl. Instead we get article after article of saccharine from people who really should know better.

"Francis could replace Obama as the pin-up on every liberal and leftist wall," gushed Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian last month, while Time magazine has just bestowed Pope Francis with the honour of 'person of the year'. Writing about the magazine’s decision, editor Nancy Gibbs said the pontiff had "done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music". "This focus on compassion, along with a general aura of merriment not always associated with princes of the church, has made Francis something of a rock star," she added.

Time famously bestows its awards not according to the merit of the person in question (both Hitler and Stalin won the accolade), but based on who captures the (predominantly American) public imagination that year. And Pope Francis has done just that, largely because liberal non-believers have been so eager to elevate him to the status of progressive pin up.

Some of the material contained in Pope Francis’s first teaching document is rightly music to the left’s ears. When he asks his flock rhetorical questions such as "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?", he is undoubtedly onto something. But as is so often the case, the search for a hero has resulted in people switching off their critical faculties and overlooking inconvenient truths which don’t align with their worldview. How else could the Pope come out of 2013 a 'progressive' icon while at the same time holding views on women and abortion that make Jeremy Clarkson look like a radical socialist?

It is possible, of course, that we simply hold religious figures to a lower standard than we do secular ones. But the Pope’s popularity among the right-on surely has something to do with the fact that women and gay people are still viewed as appendages in the struggle for a better society. The new Pope has done nothing to fundamentally alter the Church’s bigoted stance on homosexuality. He has referred to gay marriage as "moral relativism". He presumably believes that men who sleep with men are going to hell. He views the all-male priesthood and the church’s prohibition of abortion as beyond debate. This would situate him to the right of UKIP even if he were advocating the nationalisation of the FTSE 100, which he isn’t.

Pope Benedict was a PR disaster for the church. Yet under Francis little of substance has actually changed. The Catholic Church continues to vehemently discriminate against gay people and women, it’s simply sugar-coated its message with fashionable sound bites about inequality. And depressingly this has worked. Many otherwise erstwhile progressives have fallen into line faster than Danny Alexander at a cabinet meeting.

We should, however, reject the notion that someone who can rescind the Church’s stance on gay sex, and chooses not to do so, is a figure worthy of admiration. Nor, if he won’t countenance women priests, is there a reason to suppose the Pope has anything of note to say about poverty. Why waste precious time worrying about anything such a person thinks?

Aside from the fact that we still hold religious figures to a lower standard than secular ones, the fawning over Pope Francis demonstrates something profoundly depressing: in the struggle for a better world, women’s and LGBT rights are still not taken seriously.   

Pope Francis holds his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on December 18, 2013 in the Vatican City. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad