John Rentoul: The mystery of Blair the convert

As his biographer, I failed to grasp the full extent of his Catholicism, but I don't believe it sheds any light on his actions

Share
Related Topics

If this is the season for confession in the field of religion and politics, I have a confession to make. As a biographer, I did not get Tony Blair's Roman Catholicism. Like many other people, I made the mistake of assuming that he was like me. Not that I am a Christian; but I am, as they say in Northern Ireland, a Protestant atheist. The God I don't believe in is a New Testament God who has little time for the Pope.

I remember one meeting I had with Blair when I asked about the speculation that he would convert to Catholicism when he stopped being prime minister. He said something dismissive, which I took to mean that the speculation was wrong. I tried to define the nature of his faith by describing him as an ecumenical Christian. He agreed and smiled sweetly.

So when, a few months before he stood down from office, I learnt from a reliable source that he did indeed intend to convert, I felt a familiar sense of disappointment. It was a feeling I had when we got to 1685 in A-level History, and Charles II, a clever and subtle politician, converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. After all that! The English Reformation; the Civil War; the attempt to exclude Catholics from the succession. After everything, it turned out that he was working for the other side all along.

The disappointment is not, in Blair's case, because I think that Papism is a foreign plot to rob this country of its national identity, but because I do not understand it.

Nor did the mostly "godless lot" who worked for him as prime minister, although it did not bother them. Once, I was talking about his religion to one of them, who said, "Oh, you mean all that stuff?" and mimed prayer out of his eye-line, with him in the room. The implication was that it was one of those foibles up with which they simply had to put. Alastair Campbell took a similar view, which led to one of his most famously misunderstood statements.

"Is he on God?" he asked, overhearing an American journalist ask about religion in the middle of a long interview. "We don't do God," he said, lightly, allowing his boss to deflect a line of inquiry that had proved unhelpful in the past.

It had been unhelpful a spin doctor's favourite word at Easter 1996, when Blair was persuaded by Matthew d'Ancona to write an article for The Sunday Telegraph that said, in effect, that Conservatives are unChristian.

Two other pronouncements on his faith got Blair into trouble. The first, which I reported in my biography, was his letter to the late Basil Hume, in which he accepted the Cardinal's ruling that he should not take Catholic communion but added: "I wonder what Jesus would have made of it." There was a cosmic arrogance to it, but especially for Protestant atheists there was much in his spirit to admire.

The second was his aside to d'Ancona in 1996, as they were discussing the Sunday Telegraph article. "Jesus was a moderniser," he said. Factually, it was an uncontroversial statement, and this time the cosmic arrogance appeared to be more accidental.

Nor did I find it hard to understand his wife's Catholicism. She is a Catholic by upbringing rather than a convert. She has no time for the Pope's teaching on birth control or women priests, and like her moderniser husband regards the Church and the Labour Party as comparable organisations.

In her contribution to a book called Why I am Still a Catholic two years ago, she wrote: "I have been taught that you should stay and try to change things. It's like the Labour Party in the early 1980s. I wasn't happy with the way it was going so I tried to help change it from within."

Now, however, Blair has been received into the Roman Catholic Church by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor. Well, I can see why he wants to take part fully in the services attended by Cherie and seven-year-old Leo. And I can see why he, and the rest of us, would enjoy the offence given to the fundamentalists within.

Most notable was the warm and welcoming embrace offered by John Smeaton, the director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children: "We need to hear a full repudiation from him. Without one, having Blair as a Catholic is like having a vegetarian in a meat-eating club." (Surely he meant a meat-eater in a vegetarian club?)

However, there is a serious end-user licence to joining the Catholic Church. It is not like clicking Accept on a software download; Blair had to read all the terms and conditions and mean it when he said, "I Agree".

I know Cherie does not agree with the Pope, but it is different when you choose to switch your religious affiliation. This is a Pope, we should remember, who earlier this month offered indulgences a discount on time spent in Purgatory for pilgrims visiting the shrine at Lourdes. A special limited offer, available for only 12 months from 8 December this year.

Not that the Church of England is theologically straightforward, as anyone will know who heard the Archbishop of Canterbury trying to explain on the radio why the three kings are a "legend" but the Virgin Birth is true in a "deeper sense".

But what I cannot understand is how subscribing to one sect with a claim to absolute truth can help to bring religions together. Yet that is the mission of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, to be launched in the new year. Many of its staff, including Ruth Turner, who was Blair's minder at No 10, are Catholics.

The question for a biographer, though, is whether, retrospectively, any of this matters. Blair's government, as Smeaton testifies, was liberal on abortion. The two Catholic fusses of Blair's final months in office were mere politics: Alan Johnson made an error in trying to change Catholic schools' admissions policies without first preparing the ground; and Blair brokered a compromise with the Catholic agencies on gay adoption that was simply pragmatic.

It remains true that, at no point in his time as Prime Minister, does one need to refer to Blair's religion in order to explain his motives and actions.

There are, also, always realms of the inaccessible in the mind of the subject of any biography. Anyone trying to understand Gordon Brown comes across similar unknowability, albeit of a rather different kind. Tom Bower, Brown's hostile biographer, wrote earlier this month that, "on arriving at Edinburgh University, Brown described himself as an atheist". In 1994, Brown joined the Christian Socialist Movement, of which the then leader of the Labour Party, John Smith, was the leading member. Whether this was a spiritual journey or an electoral one is as obscure as Blair's view of transubstantiation.

At least Nick Clegg, the new Liberal Democrat leader, gave a straight answer that, whatever you think of it, poses no obstacle to understanding. Do you believe in God, he was asked in a rapid-fire radio interview. "No." Perhaps I should write a biography of him.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Workers clean the area in front of the new Turkish Presidential Palace prior to an official reception for Republic day in Ankara  

Up Ankara, for a tour of great crapital cities

Dom Joly
Rebekah Brooks after her acquittal at the Old Bailey in June  

Rebekah Brooks to return? We all get those new-job jitters

John Mullin
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future