Thoughts on THAT Pope memo – authenticity in politics
Several years ago I spoke at a conference where Stephen Coleman gave the keynote speech. My presentation (on I'm a Councillor) included what I thought was a very graceful compliment to his paper A Tale of Two Houses, on Big Brother and politics. Unfortunately Professor Coleman felt somebody else's session would be more gripping, so he never got to hear it, but I'm happy to repeat the compliment now. IMHO, anyone who is interested in public engagement and popular culture should read it.
In the paper, Prof Coleman contrasts 'Big Brother fans' who were avid watchers of the show, with 'Politics Junkies', who saw themselves as rather more high-minded. He makes some excellent points about the sense of superiority of the politics junkies and their lack of regard for consumers of popular culture, while the Big Brother fans respected the politics junkies, but just found politics forbidding and impenetrable.
One fascinating point he raises is that what many of the Big Brother fans appreciated about the show was the authenticity of it. That people might be able to put up a front for a bit, but eventually it would slip, so you were seeing other, real human beings, warts and all. Part of what they found unintelligible about politics was the sense that people weren't directly saying what they meant and everything had to be decoded like a cryptic crossword. They wanted more authenticity.
By now, everyone must have seen the Foreign Office memo about the Pope's forthcoming visit
. Suggested activities included blessing a gay marriage, opening an abortion clinic and sacking dodgy Bishops. Apparently David Miliband was 'appalled' to read the memo. I think we can all agree these things probably aren't at the top of Benedict's wishlist for the visit. But 'appalled', really?
Now I have no wish to offend Catholics. To employ a cliche, some of my best friends are Catholics. As someone who was brought up an atheist, I find it difficult to understand their belief in god, but I can see that for them it has an important place in their lives. I remember reading a thoughtful piece by Roy Hattersley
a few years ago, where he argued that, despite his own rationalism, he recognised that often the people who are prepared to get their hands dirty actually helping the people who need it most are motivated by religious conviction. I respect the power of that.
However, the press coverage of the Pope memo has been full of people being 'appalled', 'horrified', 'outraged'. I'm asking myself who actually felt those emotions when they read it? Frankly, I thought it was hilarious. I haven't spoken to a single person who didn't. I can't imagine any of my Catholic friends being affronted or appalled. Believing in transubstantiation doesn't stop you having a sense of humour.
The list read like nothing so much as what a group of friends might come up with in the pub, riffing on a dream papal visit. You know, things that normal people might say. I think it pretty likely that Miliband et al laughed when they read it, just like everyone else. So why do we have a political culture where they all have to pretend they didn't?
Now maybe the Pope and his mates genuinely were affronted and all that. Presumably they take the dignity of the church very seriously, and that's why the Foreign Office has been cracking out the smelling salts. But if the cost of this insincere outrage from politicians is widespread disengagement from politics, then maybe the price is too high. Imagine if the Foreign Office had said, "Well, it was a bit unwise of [unnamed civil servant] to commit all this to paper, but it is kind of funny. We all have to be the butt of the joke sometimes. You're grown ups, take it on the chin."