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On a private odyssey in No. 10

02 June 2009

Is this the full story of Blair’s path to Rome, asks Anthony Howard

Doing God: Tony Blair, when Prime Minister, sings from a hymn book at St Saviour’s and St Olave’s School, Bermondsey, in London, in May 2001. On that visit, he announced the date of the following month’s General Election PA

Doing God: Tony Blair, when Prime Minister, sings from a hymn book at St Saviour’s and St Olave’s School, Bermondsey, in London, in May 2001. On that ...

We Don’t Do God: Blair’s religious belief and its consequences
John Burton and Eileen McCabe

THE catchy title of this book — borrowed from one of Alastair Campbell’s more notorious utter­ances — is a bit misleading, even when accompanied by its explanat­ory subtitle; for the text is by no means solely about religion. Instead, as its various chapter headings make clear, it is a potted history of the personal and political odyssey of Britain’s last Prime Minister.

Thus the first chapter is “Oxford to Sedgefield”, and the second is “Sedgefield to Westminster”, before we plunge inevitably into “MP to Leader of the Labour Party”. It is all quite economically done. For those deterred, say, by the length of such tomes as Dr Anthony Seldon’s Blair Unbound, this paper­back can be safely recommended as a useful précis of one of the more colourful political careers of modern times.

Its methodology is, admittedly, a bit odd. The two authors seem to have divided their work between them along straight lines: Eileen McCabe, a television journalist from the north-east, supplies the main narrative, and John Burton, Blair’s constituency agent, breaks in every now and again with his comment­ary on the events being described. Necessarily, since he was Blair’s closest local associate for more than 20 years, his contributions tend to have the greater originality; and, as he also happens to be a Christian socialist of many years’ standing, he also supplies most of the spiritual input.

The book goes up to, and in­cludes, the former Prime Minister’s reception into the Roman Catholic Church in December 2007. In his interpretation of the motives for that, Burton will probably not succeed in satisfying everyone. According to the account given here, Blair went over “for the sake of the family and not for theological reasons”. Burton, who, while not being a Roman Catholic, used to accompany the former Prime Minister sometimes to church, maintains that Blair simply grew fed up with having to loiter in his pew while his wife and children went up to receive communion.

It is certainly true that on the one occasion when he took matters into his own hands, and in Islington impulsively went up to the altar rail himself, all he succeeded in doing was earning a formal rebuke from Cardinal Basil Hume.

As an explanation of Blair’s eventual decision to abandon his Anglican faith, Burton’s rationale will not, I suspect, be found wholly convincing. Blair’s parish priest in Sedgefield — Fr John Caden, who was also his regular tennis partner — could, no doubt, have had more to say on the subject, but, unlike his initial opposite number in London, the ubiquitous Fr Michael Seed, Fr Caden appears to have been deter­mined to observe a certain reticence.

He comes across, however, as a thoroughly decent man more than ready to defend his most illustrious parishioner against the attacks of those, such as the Tory MP Ann Widdecombe, who wanted the former Labour leader to make some public act of contrition for his own previous public stand on abortion before being received.

Despite the drama of the visit to the Vatican followed by the private mass celebrated by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor in Archbishop’s House, most readers will, I suspect, be more interested in the effect that Blair’s religious beliefs had on his actions while he was still Prime Minister.

For my own part, I confess to sharing some of the reservations felt by the late Roy Jenkins, focusing on his fear that, in his latter days in office, Blair became altogether too much of a Manichaean, determined to see international politics in terms of light and darkness. It was, I think, President Woodrow Wilson who once loftily announced: “I am going to teach the peoples of Latin America to elect good men.” If only the world were that simple, or the choices facing political leaders were that stark and direct.

Anthony Howard is the official biographer of the late Cardinal Hume.

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