I should update my post from last year on the religious views of Britain’s political leaders. Nick Clegg, newly anointed as the head of the Liberal Democrats, is now the only admitted non-believer leading a major political party in England. He claims to be an agnostic rather than an atheist. His wife, however, is a committed Catholic. Clegg’s first significant act as leader was to break his party’s manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on the European Union’s rewritten constitution. However, I hesitate to suggest that some religious feeling might have translated into greater probity on Clegg’s part. The deeply devout Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has done exactly the same thing.
Which brings me to 2007’s highest profile conversion – Tony Blair’s reception by Rome. I have to admit to being singularly unmoved by this. Newspaper comment was confined to some bitchy remarks from columnists who have never forgiven him for the Iraq war. This led to inevitable non-sequiturs but told us very little of substance. I would only say that the Catholic Church allows confession to be heard in private and does not require a public mea culpa from its converts. For this reason, those wanting to hear Blair apologise, whether they were exercised by his support for George Bush or his supporting abortion, have no right to feel disappointed. It is striking that Blair has as many enemies on the red extreme of the political spectrum as on the blue. He has become almost as much a hate figure on the left as Mrs Thatcher was. I suppose she still is among those lefties who keep the socialist flame alive.
Blair’s conversion led to one columnist making a fool of himself. Matthew Parris, who is usually quite sensible, has a bad case of Russell’s syndrome. Regular readers will know that this condition afflicts men and women of high intelligence who are, in most respects, indistinguishable from their fellow members of the academic elite. However, the sufferer of Russell’s Syndrome (first identified in the third Earl [Bertrand] Russell), looses all his common sense, discrimination and reason when his mind turns to religion. Parris, who has long believed Blair to be insane, thought to prove that because British Prime Ministers tended towards agnosticism at best, religion was bunk. The trouble was, the historical record was unhelpful and he had to mould it to his prejudices. One example will suffice. He mentions that he "never sensed any abiding belief on Ted Heath's part". I found this an odd remark. It may well be that Sir Edward Heath chose to spend his retirement in a house situated on the close of Salisbury Cathedral for purely aesthetic reasons. It is, after all, one of the most beautiful places in the world, dominated by the architectural colossus of the great church itself. Still, it is hard to see why a man of no faith would wish to live in a spot dominated by a place of worship.
Furthermore, from personal experience, I can supply an anecdote even more fatal to Parris’s argument. When I was a pupil at Marlborough College, Edward Heath came and preached to us in the school chapel. As Marlborough is your archetypical minor public school and Sir Edward had no particular connection with it, I assume he must have been doing the rounds. To live in the shadow of a spire is one thing, but to spend ones days in a pulpit is quite another. At the time, teenage atheist that I was, I had the ill grace to demand of the chaplain why Sir Edward should want to talk about the boring subject of God when he could instead have enlightened us on the fine art of politics. Today, with a better grasp of history, I realise that Ted Heath would have been able to tell us very little of use about his inglorious career as Prime Minister. I only wish I’d listened to his thoughts on God.
Suffice to say, in the only case where I have some information to add to the case, I find Parris’s grasp of the facts seriously wanting. His other examples of non-religious Prime Ministers may be more accurate. But as he is clearly in the throes of Russell’s Syndrome, I doubt it.
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