Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Pope's legacy

I'm nearly two weeks into my chocolate and biscuit free Lent. So far so good, with the occasional slice of Victoria Sponge to help me through. But my sugar-related abstinence is not the story of this pre-Easter period. Instead it is the abdication- I prefer this word as it gives it the historical significance it deserves- of the Pope. The Holy Father. The leader of over 1 billion Catholics around the world.

The is not an analysis of his Papacy or a discussion about where the church needs to go from here- although an end to celibacy, allowing Priests to marry and ending the sickening discrimination against our gay brothers and sisters would be a start- this is a brief reflection on his decision to stand down. A decision that I believe will be his lasting legacy to the Church.

I declare an interest first. I like Pope Benedict (not just because we sort of share a name). I have always viewed him as a quiet, humble and thoughtful man. No, I don't agree with every one of his thoughts but I respect him. He showed on his visit to Auschwitz and to the UK a gentle kindness which runs country to his cartoon-like media image. He seems to me like a man who cares about others' feelings.

Looking at his recent decision, it is surely inconceivable that watching the last Pope fading before his eyes didn't leave a deep mark on Benedict. To see the most active, well-travelled and charismatic Pope of all time reduced to a frail figurehead damaged the church and left it looking cruel. Making him endure the suffering of his illness in public with little dignity was an awful spectacle. The job- for that what's it is- of Pope is so demanding and requires amazing reserves of health, strength and stamina. I would argue that it has become even more the role of a major world as well as spiritual leader, with a constant need to show leadership and respond to social, economic and political challenges, let alone provide the spiritual leadership which the role demands. To do this in your eighties, with the inevitable fading of strength and health, is nearly impossible.

By stepping down this Pope has said loud and clear that the job of Holy Father needs to be done not just by someone chosen by God but someone who can work for more than a few hours a day. Someone who can fly around the world and not take a week to recover. Someone who can stand up and speak for more than a few minutes at a time. And someone who can provide the visible leadership and connect with people on issues such as child abuse, gay marriage and AIDS. Pope Benedict has said, I am not that person. He is also saying that whoever gets this job next, it is not their for life. He has enacted a major reform leading inevitably to informal term limits on Popes and a focus on his ability to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. It is not the big social reform of the Church many of us want. It is not an end to some of the worse attitudes of intolerance towards others we crave but it will prove to be a legacy that will make every Pope from here on it younger, fitter, more in touch with modern life, and more able to tackle those big issues that remain a millstone around the Church's neck.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Tory rebellions; time for some home truths

The last two Sunday Times have carried stories suggesting members of my Party have taken leave of their senses.

Talk of rebellions, stalking horses and votes of no confidence fill the air. Sadly, this is not the first time this has happened and it appears that some colleagues have not learnt the lessons of the past; divisions and infighting do not pay. Voters don't vote for divided parties.

I know that there are many people- impressive, sensible people- within the Parliamentary and voluntary Party who have strong reasons to feel disenchanted. They point to the so-called Notting Hill set running the Party at the exclusion of other voices (and accents); the lack of diversity at the top of the Party (not enough northerners, state school educated folk etc); the supposed aloofness of the Leader and his closest allies; and the apparent comfort the PM has for coalition over Tory rule. There is no doubt that from time to time these sensitivities could have better managed and one or two MPs/Ministers could and should have been treated better and there is room for improvement in how power in wielded in the party. But it feels like it's time for a dose of realism and some home truths.

- We did not win the 2010 General Election.
- We had no practical option but to go into coalition; not if we wanted, as we rightly pride ourselves on, to put our country before our Party. We did what was needed in forming a coalition.
- David Cameron is more popular than our Party. He remains a major asset to us in electoral terms. Despite the worst financial crisis in history and the constraining factor of being in coalition, limiting occasionally our policy ambition, Labour remain only around 8 or 10 points ahead in the polls. At this stage of the electoral cycle and with all the bad news around, they should be 20 points in front.
- Ed Milliband is untested as opposition leader and he remains best known for knifing his brother to get the leadership as opposed to anything he has done since claiming the labour crown. He is very, very beatable in 2015.
- Plotting against David Cameron, undermining him and the government and publicly exposing our disagreements will not help us.

Parties who deserve to win elections do their internal debating in private. They put their country before any party bickering and they keep their eyes on the big prize.

The 2015 election is in the balance. It can be won but what we need to do now is to hold our nerve. Stay the course. And stick together.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Gay marriage; a no brainer

This week could be one of the most significant in deciding the outcome of the next general election. The pivotal issue is not the economy, the NHS or Europe. The issue is gay marriage.

I am not going to set out here why I support gay marriage (although I do) or explain why the legislation deserves the support of all MPs and Peers, (although I believe it does) but instead to say what I think this issue says about our country and how the political case for reform is a no brainer.

I believe as strongly as I believe anything that the country of my birth is the greatest on earth and the best place to live and work. Despite the efforts of a few, this is a wonderfully open, free, fair and liberal country with fabulous, rich diversity; all different kinds of people, living all kinds of different lives. I love that about the United Kingdom; we unite around common values, a sense of fair play, a respect for each other.

If this Bill is defeated- which I don't believe it will be- it will undermine those things that make me proud of this country. Politically, those who vote no this week, will rue the day. They may not realise it as they cast their vote, but that decision will hang around their necks like a millstone. It will say that they believe the values of this country do not apply to all. It will say something about how fairly they think people should be treated. It will not be remembered as a vote of conscience but as a vote of injustice.

This vote is another milestone on our journey as a country to further social change and inclusion. In five or ten years, those no voters will look so out of touch with their fellow citizens they will not be recognisbale as representing them. It may not take five or ten years. Every candidate or MP who voted no, or would have voted no, will find that vote mentioned in every leaflet, attack advert and public meeting at the next election. They will be asked why their neighbour, their party's traditional supporter, or their campaign helper shouldn't be allowed to marry the person they love just because they are the same sex. The voters will just not buy it because this issue is about people and fairness and that is something the british people get. Given the choice, they will vote for fairness because they too have gay neighbours, relatives, friends and workmates and they want them to live in a country where they are treated fairly.

Forget the moral case for a yes vote for a moment- hard though that is. The political case speaks for itself.