Christina Patterson: Saints, sinners and cloud cuckoo land

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The Independent Online

On Sunday, the son of a banker was set on the path to sainthood. This is a very big deal. It's a big deal not just because Britain has, for the past few centuries, been seriously under-represented in the higher echelons of heaven, or because it would seem to indicate that even the spawn of Satan can be redeemed, or even because, although his predecessor (who is himself on the waiting list) catapulted Catholics to the corridors of celestial power pretty much every time he brushed his teeth, God's current representative on earth has, in matters of beatification, been rather slower. It's a big deal because it's a hassle. You've got to have committees, and documentation and declarations and exhumations and certificates and then, after all that, you've got to have a miracle. You'd love to slash the bureaucracy and cut straight to frontline services, but rules are rules and you can't.

It's a shame because, while it's clear that the 83-year-old German in the fancy red shoes doesn't seem to think that the godless inhabitants of Great Britain have an awful lot to teach him, we could certainly show him how to speed the process up. We could, for example, show him the shrine of St Diana, who achieved beatification by the shedding of puppy fat and the wearing of a meringue. The precise moment of her canonisation has not been documented, but by the time of her martyrdom in Paris it was clear that the virgin bride had become much, much more than a people's princess.

If the Pope thinks we can throw a party (and we can, even for those we don't much like) he should have seen the one we threw for her. He should have seen the tears and the photos and the mountains of flowers. He should have seen the politicians weeping, and the hacks weeping and (possibly for slightly less pure reasons) the newspaper editors weeping. He wouldn't have called us faithless then. And we kept the faith. Mostly, we kept the faith. Memories fade, of course, and time's winged chariot now has wi-fi, so our minds are distracted and our brains are atwitter, but if she's not quite the queen of heaven, she's still queen of a little corner of our hearts.

And if the Pope thinks that in order to become a British saint, you have to be slender and beautiful and mix with people who have given themselves Aids, we could show him that you don't. We could show him (in fact we did show him) that you can be plump, and not conventionally attractive, and not the sharpest of knives in the drawer, but if you've got a nice voice, and you take part in a TV show essentially designed to show that the working classes can be quite amusing, you can, with the help of a video-sharing website, be canonised in less time than it takes to exhume a Cardinal's grave.

You can also be not conventionally attractive, and not the sharpest of knives in the drawer, and not necessarily the most uxorious of husbands, but if you manage to kick a ball into a net at a moment which, according to the articles of the British catechism, is deemed to be significant, then you can skip beatification and go straight to the VIP lounge of All Saints United. In matters of saints, we Brits are catholic in our tastes. We don't care what you look like. We just care that you give us a glimpse of heaven.

What we perhaps shouldn't tell the Pope is that saints, like shares, like banks, like global economies, and like opinions of a Pope, can go down as well as up. Even the dead ones can go down as well as up, though they tend to be more stable than their live counterparts. In a time when the week-long manufacture of a planet and its people seems really rather slow, we can't hang around waiting for people to die. We'll venerate who we venerate, thanks. We'll feed our faith with pap snaps and tweets and video clips and TV appearances and sometimes even metaphysical experiments in which a choreographed cast of characters in a specially selected environment is presented as a kind of reality. Sometimes, the saints stumble at the first hurdle, or bug. Sometimes we pick them up, just to knock them down again. It's a national sport, and perhaps the one we're best at. You could call it "saints and sinners".

On Monday, the son of a banker risked being crucified. Like the other son of a banker, the one who will, bureaucracy allowing, become a kind of chief secretary to the celestial coffers, he's a man who has read a lot of books and has a pretty turn of phrase. He risked being crucified because many members of the political party of which he is leader, like many residents of the country he is helping to run, have been playing "saints and sinners" for so long that they don't know how to stop. Because they are members of a political party, they don't believe, as many people do, that while saints come and go, all politicians are sinners. But they do believe that politicians in other parties are sinners and that if their own politicians co-operate with those sinners they become tainted with their sin. They believe it's better to live in holy seclusion than to risk contamination.

The son of a banker is an irritatingly confident young man, who seems to be showing a distasteful lack of anxiety about the consequences of the policies that he and his chums are cooking up, and can't seem to decide whether to be Margaret Thatcher or Martin Luther King. If I were him, I'd go easy on the promises that Britain, after five years of devastating cuts, will be "strong", "fair" and "free". But he is right in this. He is right to say to "whoever is elected Labour leader", and to his party, which was the real target, and to the nation, that "you cannot duck difficult choices for ever".

You can jeer and lambast and pontificate and hector and lecture and strike, and you can argue about double dips and speed of cuts, and what is or isn't progressive, whatever that might mean, and you can wear badges with slogans like "I value the arts" (and maybe another one saying, "so if I get cancer feel free to not treat me"), and, like the ghastly Mark Serwotka, threaten to fight every single cut, and you can object to everything all the time, and know that you're pure and know that you're right. But the choice is not between heaven and hell. The choice is between different sets of agonising decisions that somebody has to make.

Our love of "saints and sinners" has made for a vigorously critical political culture, but it has also turned us into a bunch of screaming Popes, rather more keen on the mote in our brother's eye than the beam in our own. In one sense, the Coalition is right. We are all in this together. If you voted for the son of a banker, who always said he would go into partnership with whoever had the most votes (and who, by the way, emerged on Monday night unencumbered by a large wooden structure) you could spare us your surprise that you got what you voted for. If you didn't, you might, from time to time, remember the words of that other son of a banker, the one who's set to be a saint. "A man," he said, "would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault."