Pope’s visit and “historical ignorance—that great anaesthetic of all debate in England”

We’ve had a few emotive posts on the Pope’s – in the end – fairly quiet and unobtrusive visit to Britain. Ironically, his visit to the British parliament was shunned by both First and deputy First Ministers for different reasons. Brian says it’s because Britain is a civil nation. Well that depends on which way you look at things.

Bagehot’s Notes gets closest to contextualising the terse and downright rude reception given the Pope by some of Britain’s foremost public commentators:

In short, I think Catholicism gets it in the neck in Britain because it is a socially conservative, stern form of religious faith, which believes in sacred mysteries.

He goes on:

Today, I am pretty sure, most English people under 40 simply cannot remember why their grandparents were fussed about Catholicism.

The reasons why are various. My interviewees suggested that a lot of sectarian prejudice was actually snobbery against Irish working class immigrants, who had made up the bulk of England’s Roman Catholic population in the 20th century. Once Britain’s Irish immigrants started going to mainstream schools, became more middle class and even stopped sounding foreign, I was told, English tolerance of Catholics grew. (Scotland and Northern Ireland are slightly different cases).

It mattered that from 1914 onwards, Catholic France was firmly replaced by Prussian-dominated Germany as the major threat to British security, another professor suggested. The Roman Catholic church in England also became less hardline in its own opposition to mixed marriages: until the 1960s, these were condemned as a threat to the faith and outsiders who married Catholics had to sign a pledge to raise their children in the Church of Rome.

Above all, historical ignorance—that great anaesthetic of all debate in England—began to work its magic from the 1960s and 1970s onwards.

It’s worth reading his whole column in this week’s Economist:

Jonathan Powell, a former chief of staff to Tony Blair and prime ministerial envoy to the Northern Ireland peace process, has written that Mr Blair’s “relative ignorance” of Irish history was a peacemaking advantage: his boss had no “historical baggage”. You can take the thought further: a settlement in Northern Ireland was arguably possible only once most English voters ceased to comprehend sectarian hatreds in that province.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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