The Vatican is the world’s smallest sovereign State. It would fit easily into Hyde Park. Unlike all other States it has no military, economic or territorial interests to defend; but it does have the safety and wellbeing of 1.36 billion Roman Catholics to consider. The Vatican describes its foreign policy as ‘positive neutrality’.
As the largest non-governmental provider of health care and education around the world, despite being based in Rome, the Catholic Church’s vision today is global rather than a religious version of Western policies. As a journalist and contributor to Foreign Affairs, a respected analytical magazine on US foreign policy, Victor Gaetan describes in God’s Diplomats: Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy and America’s Armageddon (the Middle East) how unwanted tension with the USA comes with the Pope’s job.
The Pontifical Academy of Ecclesiastical Nobles – it sounds even grander in Italian – now called the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, was founded in 1701. It trains Vatican diplomats and is, of course, international. Priests in training have to become proficient in two languages other than their own and, thanks to the present Pope, must serve as a missionary for at least a year. From its alumni are drawn the staff of the Vatican Secretariat of State currently led by Cardinal Pietro Parolin with Liverpool-born Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with other States, having a hands-on role as interlocutor and trouble-shooter.
Peace-building is a longstanding priority for Catholic diplomacy and there have been important interventions and successes. Thanks to the Sant‘Egidio community based in Trastevere, Catholic leaders played a key role mediating an end to the civil war in Mozambique in 1992. Pope John Paul II himself was directly involved when Argentina nearly went to war with Chile in December 1978 over contested islands in the Beagle Channel. The papal envoy successfully urged restraint on the Argentine military junta. In his efforts to end the civil war in the Central African Republic, Francis himself has made numerous efforts to bring peace, not always successfully, and has taken considerable security risks even visiting in solidarity a mosque besieged by a Christian militia. He is personally involved in an ecumenical effort to mediate peace in South Sudan. In 2019, he invited South Sudan’s rival leaders for an Easter summit in the Vatican, kissing their feet in an extraordinary and dramatic plea for peace.
But the pursuit of positive neutrality has brought Pope Francis some bad Press over Ukraine. The Vatican as an important moral voice is expected to denounce Putin’s brutal aggression. Its diplomats, the papal nuncios (envoys) in different countries are perceived as no different from any other diplomats. But they are different. For a start their priorities, apart importantly from the welfare of local Churches, are focused on peace-making, human rights and more recently climate change. The language of their public pronouncements, framed to serve these longer term goals, is often cautious, sometimes opaque.
Criticisms of Pope Francis over Ukraine often omit inconvenient contradictory evidence or show ignorance of the communications culture of the Vatican. The Pope, for example hasn’t named Putin as the aggressor because the Vatican doesn’t name and shame. Nor has he condemned Russia but here is Archbishop Gallagher speaking in the name of the Holy See in Kyiv on 20 May this year: “My visit is intended to demonstrate the closeness of the Holy See and Pope Francis to the Ukrainian people, particularly in light of Russia's aggression against Ukraine”.
The Vatican’s approach to Russia is entangled with its long term goal of reconciliation with Orthodoxy, and an ending of the ‘Great Schism’ of 1054. This has resulted in an abortive attempt to influence the thoroughly compromised Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia, Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church. Francis met Kirill for the first time on 12 February 2016, a meeting which had taken two years to set up. In the unusual venue of Havana International Airport, they co-signed a bland declaration covering a range of topics. But by March 2022, exasperated at Kirill’s long justification for Russia’s actions on a Zoom call, the tone changed; Francis warned against becoming ‘state clerics’. A month and a half later in an interview with Corriere della Sera, off-guard he forgot protocol saying ‘the Patriarch cannot transform himself into Putin’s altar-boy’. In a 2 April speech in Valetta, Malta he returned to Vatican ways: “Once again” he said, “some potentate sadly caught up in anachronistic claims of nationalist interests is provoking and fomenting conflicts”. Back in Rome on 6 April Francis kissed a worn Ukrainian flag from Bucha – site of multiple Russian war crimes. Certainly stretching to its limits his Secretary of State’s, Cardinal Pietro Parolin’s, policy of positive neutrality in wars, put before the UN General Assembly on 25 September 2015.
Rome has no leverage in Moscow where catholicism appears as an intruder in the land of Orthodoxy. By way of comparison, the success of António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, in opening Odessa to grain ships is attributed in part to the considerable number of African and other countries whose support for Russia at the UN was at risk as Putin seemed set on starving their populations.
For diplomacy to work there has to be some leverage other than moral, some confluence of interests between the belligerents. Popes and God’s diplomats have faith but they have no formula for moving mountains. They can and do make mistakes in balancing hope with realism, a radical ‘prophetic voice’ with care for local Churches. And there is always the shadow of Pius XII’s gravely inadequate public response to the Holocaust. When it finally comes, mediation bringing an end to Putin’s war will most likely be in secular hands and, perhaps, led by the Secretary-General of the UN. Meanwhile Press coverage of the Vatican and Putin’s war could do with a little rebalancing and greater understanding.
See TheArticle 25/08/2022
Economic slump, strikes, corruption and sale of honours, trouble in Northern Ireland, Government in a mess, big political changes in the offing. Britain in election year 1922. In April 1923 newly elected Tory MPs, members of a dining group, formed an association – the Conservative Private Members Committee - soon known as the 1922 Committee. It was open to all Tory backbenchers, its purpose to convey rank and file views to the (short-lived) Prime Minister, Bonar Law.
The 1922 Committee organise the ‘men in grey suits’ who visit Tory Prime Ministers signalling that their end is nigh. It is in charge of the Conservative Party’s process for selecting the Party leader and therefore, when in power, Prime Minister. The amiable Salford-born Sir Graham Brady, its chairman, appears from the shadows, reminiscent of a kindly old-fashioned Grammar school headmaster announcing the exam results. Possibly the comparison is deceptive. Here is a man holding a treasure trove of Tory secrets, with authority over a body with unspecified powers.
According to a House of Commons Library briefing paper, there are two stages in the process of selecting a Conservative Party leader. First the 1922 Committee specifies the number of nominations required of candidates, sets the overall timetable, and the Parliamentary Labour Party votes to determine the two finalists. Then a period in which candidates battle it out for votes and lastly a ballot of Conservative Party members who choose between the two.
Boris Johnson resigned on 7 July. Nominations for his successor closed at 18:00 on Tuesday 12 July with candidates needing support from 20 fellow MPs. Eight made the first ballot. The Parliamentary Party finally placed Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary and Rishi Sunak, formerly Chancellor of the Exchequer on the shortlist. The choice now rests with Party members and will be announced on 5 September in time for the new Prime Minister to prepare for Party Conference.
Given the overlapping crises and catastrophic shambles Johnson was bequeathing to his successor, why didn’t the Committee appoint a competent caretaker and institute a selection procedure that got a new Prime Minister in place as fast as possible? We were, and are, facing a cost of living national emergency. These are experienced politicians who should have had the country’s interest at heart.
The potential effect this winter of soaring energy costs on the poor is such that the Minister of State for Work and Pensions (DWP), Thérèse Coffey, is preventing publication of research on the impact of the benefit cap (£13,400 outside London) and other DWP measures which affect the poorest including 1.3 million children in families already unable to afford basic necessities. Protests from the Labour MP Sir Stephen Timms who chairs the Parliamentary Select Committee on Work and Pensions are ignored. As Gordon Brown pointed out in The Guardian on August 11th, universal credit and benefits have to be reprogrammed on the DWP’s computers in the next few days (an 80% increase in energy bills is expected to be announced on 26 August) if help is to reach all who need it when energy prices shoot up again in October.
Thanks to decisions taken by the 1922 Committee, or lack of them, we have what the New York Times calls a ‘power vacuum’ and the Labour Party a ‘Zombie Government’. Cameron, who in his arrogance could not believe he would lose the BREXIT vote, resigned on 24 June 2016 and stepped down on 13 July. Theresa May at a BREXIT impasse, sabotaged by the Ulster Unionists and undermined by disappointing election results as well as Boris Johnson himself, resigned on 7 June 2019 and stepped down on 24 July after a scheduled visit from Donald Trump. Both Cameron and May continued briefly and responsibly in office until a new Prime Minister was appointed.
Boris Johnson agreed to resign after a two day avalanche of resignations by his ministers set off by his repeated lying to Parliament. Now on his second holiday, thanks to the 1922 Committee’s timetable he is taking almost two leisurely months to step down. It took him a month after resigning to focus on the energy crisis and talk to leaders of the sector. Several prominent MPs and former Conservative Ministers called for him to go immediately. And they were quite right.
My suspicion is that the only way the men in grey suits got him to resign at all was by agreeing to his swanning around for a further eight weeks and not suffering the ignominy of being thrown out overnight. It is not hard to imagine the kind of damage he could cause if they had insisted on an immediate departure. Johnson clearly still had a parliamentary following and significant residual support in the Party and the country that could be activated (and is now rearing its head). But a tough stance was the lesser of two evils. Sir Graham Brady, whether considering consequences for Party or country, made a big mistake.
Quite apart from the damage to the nation of eight weeks’ time-out from urgent decisions while crises became worse, the long march through the hustings by Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak was, and is, politically an own goal. Candidates believe they have to say what they think their members want to hear regardless of what even Conservative voters may think. Polls suggest the Tory membership is worried about the little dinghies crossing the Channel so each contestant wants a flight full of migrants to get off the ground soonest to Rwanda. Thank heavens the shires don’t want to bring back hanging. Truss will say anything. From her past record she can blithely reverse a policy or position even if very little time has passed since she announced it. Sunak, beginning to regret his theme song of fiscal responsibility, seems frantic as key Tory backers decide their best chance of a front-bench job lies with Truss. The Labour Party and Sir Keir Starmer finally got lucky after twelve years in the wilderness as a degrading and revealing piece of political theatre tours Britain courtesy of the 1922 Committee.
Poor Sir Graham. It could have been different. Headteachers need to be tough and decisive as well as discreet and kindly. He might have noticed that Johnson’s misdemeanours were a little more serious than smoking behind the bicycle sheds and decided that the gravity of the situation, the damage Johnson had done to this country called for prompt as well as drastic action: immediate and permanent exclusion.
See TheArticle 18/08/2022
On Saturday 17 July between 8pm and 9pm the ‘Dunwich Dynamos’ cycled away from their London Fields assembly point. The fastest would reach Dunwich beach on the Suffolk coast at around 5 the next morning. Three friends in their early-20s made good time that night reaching Sudbury and the Suffolk border by 3am. Accelerating down a hill, one hit a pot-hole and was thrown onto the road, badly cut and shaken up. The bike itself was a complete write-off.
Their first call for help was to the ambulance service. There was plenty of blood but it wasn’t spurting. It would be an estimated eleven hours wait for assistance. Their second call was to a taxi company who clearly weren’t interested in picking up three young men by the roadside at that time of night. No turning out if you hadn’t got an address. Things did not look promising.
Then out of the darkness came a homeward-walking party-goer, much the same age as them, definitely the worse for wear. Hearing that their only chance to get some transport to A&E was to be at an address, he phoned his mother: what parents have to put up with! She got out of bed, got in the car, found them in the dark, picked them up and took them all back to her home. A taxi then consented to take them to A&E in Bury St. Edmunds.
A modern day version of the parable of the Good Samaritan? Two services to the public passed by on the other side before an exemplary stranger helped them. There is an important difference. The startling point of the parable was that the Samaritan rescuer was for listeners the ‘enemy’, the despised ‘other’, a member of a neighbouring cult rivalling the Temple in Jerusalem. A contemporary version would perhaps be a kindly Protestant on the Falls Road during the Troubles helping a bleeding Catholic, or a Muslim with ultra-conservative views aiding an unveiled Muslim woman. No, the cyclist who fell by the Suffolk wayside is just a story – a true one involving a family member – about sympathy and kindness.
We are surprised and delighted by personal kindness especially from young people. Yet on public transport far more often than not the young are on their feet, matter-of-factly and immediately, for an elderly person or pregnant women. And they are accepting of difference whatever it is, willing to respect others and include them in their activities. Though it does tend to be older people, not exclusively, who visit the sick and imprisoned, care for the frail and feed the hungry by replenishing food banks.
Actions to further social justice – fairness as it has become known politically – are rarer. Giving to food banks is more common than campaigning to make them redundant by ensuring that wages and benefits cover the costs of nutritious meals. Anyone who has ever fundraised will know how difficult it is to persuade donors to support work upstream to bring about change that will reduce the need for personal charity. This kind of work is so easily seen as ‘politics’, the domain of government while person to person charitable giving, in one form or another, is seen as the true domain of civil society, NGOs and Churches.
The problem with this division of labour is that political parties which believe in small government have of necessity to believe in the ‘big society’. More and more preventable misery and misfortune can then become the responsibility of the personalised domain of charity, the domain that is least equipped to prevent poverty and increasingly unable to act as a government-substitute in dealing with the consequences of poverty.
Our present overlapping crises are destined to remain our reality for the foreseeable future: climate change, inflation in food and energy costs, growing social divisions, mass migration, war in Ukraine, pandemics. In this context a drive for small ‘lean’ government becomes acutely dysfunctional, leaving government unable to respond effectively to the magnitude and urgency of the present need for action.
Once progressive taxation and ‘redistribution’ become toxic ideas liable to damage the electoral chances of political Parties, we begin to give up on the idea that politics is about the advocacy of social justice and the implementation of policies that bring it about. Going back to the story of the cyclist hitting a pothole in the dark, we end up relying on spontaneous acts of kindness to make up for the impossibly overworked public services, including the NHS, when we should be demanding that Government also provide Local Authorities with enough money for all their services, including filling in the potholes.
Politics is not, of course, the domain of personal kindness as those appealing for kinder, gentler politics acknowledge. It should be about working for social justice and fairness. The role of civil society is to exert the kinds of pressure on politicians that oblige government to implement legislation that fulfils this defining purpose. And, pace Mrs. Thatcher, the Samaritan story is not about the Good Samaritan having enough money to pay for lodging and care for the man who had fallen amongst thieves. It is about a politics at ease with difference that strives for a just society, not a them-and-us society that relies on exclusion.