Forgive us our Protestant sins: This week a Duchess. So why not a nation? Purged of Puritanism, Britain could reap great benefits from a mass conversion to Rome, says David Starkey

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THE impossible has happened. A well-known public figure, and a member of the Royal Family to boot, has announced a major and arguably controversial event in her private life. And the press, instead of snooping and sneering, has fallen over itself to behave with decorum and restraint. (I thought the words had been eliminated from modern dictionaries because they were politically incorrect.)

I refer, of course, to the conversion of the Duchess of Kent to Roman Catholicism. News reports have described the seriousness of her religious convictions and emphasised that her move to Rome is a purely private act; while commentators, instead of predicting gloom and doom for the monarchy, have argued only that the rules, formulated in 1689 and tightened in 1701, which exclude a Roman Catholic from succeeding to the British Throne, are outmoded and offensive.

This is nothing short of a miracle. But let us suppose, to lighten the political and climatic gloom of this miserable winter, that another, bigger, miracle happened, and that we all followed the duchess on the road to Rome. The conversion of England, a prime goal of the papacy in the 19th century and the bugbear of British Protestants, has come to pass. What would we be like? How would things be different?

The first and most welcome change would be the final settlement of the Irish question. English answers to the Irish question, whether by peace or war, have all been predicated on the assimilation of the Irish into the English. Nine hundred years of failure should have shown that this approach is doomed. Instead, the English must become like the Irish - and with conversion they do.

Ian Paisley sees a vision of Our Lady of Sorrows in the Falls Road and is mercifully stricken dumb. Some days later, after prayer, fasting and plentiful supplies of Valium have restored his speech, he announces his conversion. He is received into the Church by a clutch of foxy-faced Maynooth bishops. They embrace, proclaim their blood-brotherhood (which has long been evident to the rest of us), and unite to fight their real enemy: President Mary Robinson and the modernisation of Ireland.

The consequences back home on the mainland are just as welcome. The Prime Minister, his hair turned to black after his first confession and absolution, holds an impromptu press conference on the steps of Westminster Cathedral and announces that he never knew what 'back to basics' meant and that it doesn't matter anyway. To spontaneous applause, he leaves (like a minister of defence in the Third Republic) in his car, bearing mistress and boyfriend to an unknown destination. Two cabinet ministers have their union blessed by a gay American priest. They issue a statement saying 'Honesty is the best policy'. Peter Tatchell proclaims that he has become Conservative as well as Catholic. The Tory party lead in the opinion polls rises to 85 per cent. The Sun prints the headline 'It's none of our business' after a prince undergoes a sex- change operation, and President Mitterrand says Britain has become a civilised country. Overcome with emotion, he resigns.

It's not only the pink pound that soars. Lord Justice Scott closes his inquiry, remarking: 'Who cares so long as British armaments exports do well?' British property firms announce increased investment in the French Riviera. 'Sure, the bribes are enormous,' an industry spokesman says at a press conference at which men in double-breasted suits with bulges in their pockets are rather prominent, 'but the profits are even bigger.' The Footsie (FT share index) overtakes the Hang Seng (its Hong Kong counterpart).

Over in Brussels, the British delegation takes the lead in the complete abolition of frontier controls and other obstacles to free movement within the European Union. A spokesman says: 'It's quite simple really. With free movement, our unemployed will go where the welfare benefits are highest, for example, to the Netherlands and Germany. We estimate a reduction in public spending of pounds 20bn a year and rising.' Jacques Delors announces that the British have become the best Europeans and resigns. He is replaced by Lord Tebbit SJ, the first Jesuit to hold the presidency of the commission.

There is, of course, a serious point to all this frothy nonsense. Up to the Second World War and even beyond, it seemed axiomatic that Protestantism and progress went hand in hand. This same assumption underlies two such different books as R H Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism and E M Forster's A Room with a View. Tawney thought that the individualism and calculating introspection of Puritanism provided the social and psychological basis for rapid economic growth; while in Forster's novel, which was based on his own travels in Italy, rich but repressed English confront poor but freely living and loving Italians.

All this is true, as far as it goes. There is no doubt Erastian, Protestant England, where the church was firmly under the thumb of the state, provided more scope for that creative individuality, which is the root of modernity, than priest-ridden Italy or Spain. But, as the Italian sorpasso (that is, the overtaking of the British by the Italian economy) has dramatically shown, the beginnings of capitalism are not the same as its successful continuation.

There seem to be two key points. The first is that Catholic clericalism created in opposition to itself a much more rigorous secularism than muddled old Anglicanism. John Patten is a Catholic already. But if he were education minister in a Catholic country such as France, there would be no question of his imposing his moral views on the national curriculum. For French state schools are strictly secular. They don't waste their time trying to inculcate morals; instead they teach academic subjects properly, to France's enormous economic gain.

The second point is that Catholics never forget that the Sabbath was made for man; Protestants too often behave as though man were made for the Sabbath. Our excessive respect for the letter of the law, whether in the wilful confusion of public and private morality in 'back to basics', or in the absurd scrupulousness of our administrative and business ethics, is now an actual obstacle to further modernisation. 'Corrupt' continental Europe and Japan all do far better than we, as did the supremely corrupt but effective oligarchy of Hanoverian England. 'Back to basics' is backwards indeed; let us go forward with the Duchess of Kent into a Catholic society, if not with her into a Catholic piety.

The author is lecturer in history at the London School of Economics.

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