Why going Catholic is a liberal act

In sending his son to the London Oratory, Nick Clegg has set aside own beliefs; plus,speaking ill of the dead, and Bieber's punctuality

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The Independent Online

The politician for whom I felt the most sympathy last week was Nick Clegg, whose agonisings over his 11-year-old son Antonio's choice of secondary school attracted almost as much press attention as the Duchess of Cambridge's bump. The sympathy sprang from the fact that Mr Clegg and his wife Miriam, squaring up to an obstacle faced by hundreds of thousands of parents the country over, were clearly going to be criticised whatever they did.

Were they to choose a fee-paying and selective establishment, a host of enraged egalitarians would instantly rise up to accuse them of "betraying" the state system. Were they, on the other hand, to grit their teeth and send their first-born to some seething blot on the local education authority's escutcheon for reasons of solidarity, an equally savage constituency would rise up to accuse them of employing their son as an ideological pawn. Now, having finessed their way into the London Oratory, a state school whose alumni include Euan and Nicky Blair, the Cleggs are getting it in the neck again. The Oratory is, you see, a good three miles from their Putney domicile, and is, in addition, run on Catholic lines.

And yet, as the commentariat continue to pass judgement on a couple whose private circumstances they know nothing about, one very salient opinion has gone unheard. What does young master Clegg think about it? Did he want to go to the Oratory? Might he not have liked – and might not his father have liked – the option of following Clegg senior to Westminster? I did not have the good fortune – if it is a good fortune – to attend a public school myself, but I always feel sorry for David Cameron who, as an Old Etonian, may very well have wanted to send his son there but is, of course, prevented from doing so by the thought of what The Guardian might say.

And then there is the question of the Oratory's Catholic slant, and the suggestion that Mr Clegg, as an atheist, merely wants to appease the religious sensibilities of his Catholic wife. In fact, by putting his personal beliefs to one side in the interests of familial unity, Mr Clegg has not only displayed an exemplary tolerance, but pulled off something not often associated with the modern Lib Dem politician: a genuinely liberal act.


Reading one or two of the early reviews of Eric Hobsbawm's posthumously published Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the 20th Century, I began to wonder whether we might be in for a sharp dose of Updike Syndrome. Updike Syndrome, you may remember, is the name given to the cultural winnowing process whereby a famous writer's death is followed by a host of articles lamenting the deficiencies of his work – this information having for some reason been kept from the public while he was alive.

The tributes to Professor Hobsbawm, who died last year at the ripe age of 95, could not of course ignore the fact that he never publicly recanted his Communism and reckoned the mass slaughter of the Soviet experiment morally equivalent to the casualties sustained in the 1939-45 fight against Fascism. We now learn, according to John Gray, writing in this month's Literary Review, that "the view of Russia that Hobsbawm presents in his writings is the dullest academic orthodoxy", while his habit of presenting 20th-century history as if it tells us nothing about the universal consequences of attempting to realise Marxian dreams "is an enormous evasion".

If Hobsbawm was so wrong about so many things, then why didn't more people say so when he was still with us? I once asked Martin Amis why he had waited until John Updike's death to point out the inadequacies of his later books and got the steely reply: "You don't shit on people who've given you pleasure." Perhaps you don't, but if contemporary literary criticism has a disabling flaw it is the extreme deference paid to one or two writers of established reputation irrespective of the kind of books they continue to write.


The row over Justin Bieber's late arrival on stage at a concert, to the serious inconvenience of his juvenile fans, has several points of vantage, but what it certainly proves is the increasing sanitisation of the 21st-century music business. His detractors say the star was two hours behind schedule. Mr Bieber alleges that he was a mere 35 minutes behind. It has been suggested that the hand of charity should be extended to him, not only because of his collapse on stage on Thursday, but on the grounds that, at 19, he is not much older than his audience. But then again, such charitableness was tested by his antics with a photographer on Friday.

It is all light years away from the concert protocols of 30 years ago, when bands would routinely stumble on stage in the small hours. At the same time, Bieber's late arrival raises an interesting aesthetic dilemma. Ideally, one wants pop stars to be free spirits, if not bona fide wild men and women of rock. On the other hand, it would be nice to be able to catch the last bus. Remembering the time when, skulking around near the mixing-desk at a Fall gig, I discovered that the hour-long wait for the main attraction was the result of Mark E Smith having gone down the pub, I decided that the saddened Bieberphiles had a case.