Chris Whitehouse is a member of the Isle of Wight Council, Secretary of the Catholic Legislators’ Network and a Papal Knight.
One under-reported but quite remarkable recent political development was the unprecedented tone in which the leader of the Catholic community in England and Wales, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, wrote promptly to Theresa May to record his “delight” at her appointment as Prime Minister.
Traditionally, the Catholic Bishops in England and Wales have been viewed with suspicion by Conservatives as having a pro-Labour agenda. (And the Scottish bishops, even worse, as having a pro-Independence agenda with overt support for the Scottish National Party.) The Cardinal’s letter was, therefore, surprising to many observers in its warmth and its enthusiasm.
But this was no simple, cynical ploy to ingratiate the Catholic church with the new Government. On the contrary, it was the product of a change in the relationship between the agencies of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and the institutions of government. This change is one of substance not just presentation, and has been brought about through evolution, rather than revolution.
The letter was also based upon the practical, personal experience that the Cardinal has had in working with May, who invested considerable personal and political capital in travelling to the Vatican in 2014 to help launch the Santa Marta Group set up by Pope Francis to help victims of human trafficking, and in her piloting through Parliament of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The Cardinal specifically acknowledged in his letter to the new Prime Minister “not only [her] determination to use high political office for the protection of some of the world’s most vulnerable people but also of [her] willingness to work with the Catholic Church at its highest levels”. This was not a partisan statement; he simply spoke the truth.
Since his enthronement as Archbishop of Westminster and subsequent reception of his “red hat” as a cardinal, Vincent Nichols has nurtured a new climate among the agencies of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. In the past, a press release could be written before every Conservative Budget denouncing its impact upon the poor. Today, Caritas Social Action Network, the Catholic social action wing, takes a more measured approach, looking to welcome what might work and is well intentioned, whilst still highlighting those points that cause concern and might be better approached in a different way.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Education Service has ceased its historic confrontation and opposition to the direction of travel for education policy (opposing initially free schools and academies) and has now repositioned itself as a partner with government in providing ten per cent of school places. This dialogue with successive schools ministers has been constructive and productive, though there remains the outstanding great injustice in which the Catholic community is prohibited from setting up free schools for its children unless it then gives 50 per cent of those places to non-Catholics. That simply will not work in practice and, ironically ,is an injustice railed against by Theresa May’s now Joint Chief of Staff, Nick Timothy, in an article on this site in January this year. This is unfinished work for the new Education Secretary, Justine Greening, who should move swiftly to remove the requirement.
The commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on overseas aid was warmly welcomed by the Catholic international aid agency, CAFOD, as has been the Government’s attention to the issue of climate change which CAFOD rightly identifies as a real and present danger for many of the World’s poorest communities. These are just a few examples of the way in which the Catholic Church has moved from hectoring to genuine dialogue with Conservatives.
Of course, with fixed term parliaments and Labour in complete meltdown, the Church also pragmatically realises that it has just under four more years of Conservative government (and possibly many, many more if Labour doesn’t reverse its headlong rush to political irrelevance) in which to move forward on a whole range of national and international issues. Your author meets regularly with Catholic organisations in his capacity as Secretary to the Catholic Legislators’ Network, and always has one question to ask of them at the end of every meeting with Parliamentarians. What are you going to achieve from the public policy environment by the end of this Parliament and how are you going to achieve it?
For many years, that question flummoxed far too many directors of those Catholic organisations who had clearly never thought about the possibility of working constructively with Conservatives. With its ear to the ground both within the Catholic community and within the Conservative Party, this column can authoritatively say that such an attitude has gone, hopefully for good, with some of the changes of personnel in key positions and in the ways of working adopted by the Catholic Bishops.
Ironically, it was the appointment of a former Labour Member of Parliament, the appropriately named Greg Pope, (Hyndburn 1992-2010) to add his practical experience to the Bishops’ political team that accelerated the changes that had already begun and whose pragmatism helped bring the Conservatives in to the Catholic community from the political cold. Your author likes to think he had a bit of hand in that change as well!