Greasy Pole: Blair’s a Catholic – it’s official. But who cares?

If Blair had read Labour Party history, would he have been put off a
political career for life?

Soon after Tony Blair’s costive farewell to Number Ten, anyone who fretted about the chances of him joining the ranks of the impoverished – which his government promised to abolish – would have been reassured by the carefully crafted plans of this reluctantly-disciplined ex-public schoolboy who grew up into the ambitiously manipulative barrister on the look-out for an easy way into Parliament. All will be well for the Blair family budget. There will be the “lecture” tours during which each speech will attract fees running into tens of thousands of pounds. A lavish advance of payment will lubricate the writing of his memoirs (we all wait with tightly bated breath to find out how much he reveals and how much hides, of what went on). With staggering, if predictable, audacity he accepted the job of a Middle East Peace Envoy charged with repairing some of the damage wreaked on that unhappy place by military decisions in which his government was heavily implicated. Any spare time will be absorbed by the “consultancy” jobs which, for a few hours a month, promise to richly reward the advice he will give to commercial and banking interests about how to inflate their profits through prudent contracts. But apart from all that – after all, a poor boy from a multi-million pound home in Connaught Square has to scrape a living somehow – there are the spiritual riches Blair expects to spume out of his formally declared conversion to the Catholic Church.

The announcement of Blair’s change to the Roman Catholic church was “formal” in the sense of his long-standing contact with that church while he was a practising Anglo Catholic. His biographer, Anthony Selsdon, described him as “a profoundly religious figure” and says that it was religion and not “…reading Labour Party history” which brought him into politics in the first place. (It will be a matter for Blair to discuss in the confessional whether, if he had read Labour Party history, he would have been put off a political career for life). But for some time there has been little doubt about where, in terms of his allegiance to a church, he would end up. Although an Anglo-Catholic he took communion at Westminster Cathedral which, as it is not permitted for non-Roman Catholics, brought down a stern rebuke from the late Archbishop Basil Hume. For Blair, it must have all been reminiscent of time up before the head of Fettes. That his present situation continues to be confused was quickly pointed out by Ann Widdecombe (herself a convert): “he’s gone against Church teaching on more than one occasion”. On the Michael Parkinson chat show in 2006 Blair offered a rather different version, saying that he had prayed while deciding whether to order British troops into Iraq “I think if you have faith about these things, you realise the judgement is made by other people…and if you believe in god, it’s made by god as well”. Which conveniently passed off the blame for the slaughter onto someone who, as they don’t exist, could not have a say in the matter.

But Tony Blair cannot argue that his conversion was an attempt to understand, and unravel, a history of confusion about his political aims. Any reading of his rise through the Labour Party must bring a chilling sense of his single-minded ambition. His first attempt to get into Parliament was in May 1982, in Beaconsfield. A less likely opportunity for an aspiring Labour candidate would be hard to imagine, for Beaconsfield is one of the most arborescent and moneyed towns in the Chiltern Hills. Blair agreed to stand there on the advice of a more seasoned party member, on the grounds that making his mark there would help him in applying for other seats. Perhaps that, as well as the rock-solid Tory vote, gave him some scope in how he presented himself politically; he had no qualms about describing himself as “a socialist”(either without defining the word or offering a definition which was a nonsense) and to admitting to support for CND. Of course he lost his deposit, reducing the Labour vote by 10 percent in the process. But he did indeed make his mark and, buoyed up with approval from local Labour stalwarts, he moved thankfully in search of a more possible seat.

This came in 1983, in Sedgefield, where the local man Les Huckfield was expected to win the Labour nomination. Conscious that the people had their differences from the bankers and chief executives of Beaconsfield, Blair was careful that his address for the adoption meeting did not mention that he had been to public school nor that as a barrister he had represented big corporations in court. He presented a letter of support from the then Labour leader, ex-left-wing-firebrand Michael Foot and it was arranged to unsettle Huckfield by hostile questions fed to Blair’s supporters in the audience. It was all tightly organised and very effective, giving Blair the nomination in a safe Labour seat. It was also – although none of the party members there probably realised it – a foretaste of how he would behave when he got into Parliament and later into Number Ten.

We may ask, for example, how those Sedgefield members would have voted had they heard him say, as he subsequently did: “I believe Margaret Thatcher’s emphasis on enterprise was right” or that “Britain needs more successful people who can become rich by success through the money they earn”. Would those members have sat on their hands knowing that Blair was to justify the invasion of Iraq, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, by lies about weapons of mass destruction the existence of which, he said, was “beyond doubt” and the defiant declaration “I am absolutely convinced and confident about the case on weapons of mass destruction-critics will be eating some of their words”? And would they have approved him sucking up to the rich and powerful while 13 million – that’s one in five – of the population of the country he was supposed to be leading to the promised land of plenty and safety are officially classed as suffering poverty?

If Blair is to be a proper Catholic he will have to attend confession – get down on his knees behind the curtain in one of those small boxes in a church while some robed hypocrite who rivals him in disseminating falsehood sits on the other side of the grille trying not to yawn while listening to him unburdening his mind before telling him how he can make himself feel a bit less guilty, perhaps by reciting some meaningless incantation or other. The question is, can Blair be trusted to come clean about his sins? After all what he has to confess will be the most serious for a catholic – the mortal sins which have speckled his time in politics. This may take him some time while others – politicians, media people, bankers and the like – wait their turn. It is all a part of the great deception which keeps this unbearable society in being.


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