Mad Comment

I’ve just written a rather mad comment over at the Fistful of Euros site I plugged a moment ago, but it’s long enough and self-contained enough to make a post of its own, so I’ll stick it here, too. It’s a comment on Iain Coleman’s comment on this Spectator article, with the typos lovingly corrected and some relevant hyperlinks to Papal encyclicals put in…

*** [Adrian] Hilton’s piece is a little overheated, but he isn’t entirely mad. Or, rather, he is entirely mad, but he’s also onto something which isn’t entirely trivial.

Article 14.3 of the European human rights charter [On reflection, I may be getting my Fundamental Charters and my European Conventions mixed up here, but the political point is the same], for example, insists that it is the right of parents to “ensure the education and teaching of their children in conformity with their religious, philosophical and pedagogical convictions”. That clause is widely taken (though it has not been conclusively demonstrated nor legally tested) to prevent an elected left-wing government in this country from abolishing the private schools — still an ambition of most members of the governing Labour party, unless I’m very much mistaken — and the reason it’s there in the human rights document is that, roughly speaking, the Catholics insisted on it.

The Popes were always terribly hostile to the Rights of Man through the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — and to liberalism, socialism, ordinary people having votes, etc: see Rerum Novarum (whose centenary was celebrated by the current Pope with a new encyclical, Centesimus Annus) and many other key Papal pronouncements — and the price for getting established Catholic Europe to agree to the Euro-human rights document was that the document should ensure the protection of Catholic schools — which had been controversial above all in France since the 18th century (think of the expulsion of the Jesuits and the educational debates that led to in the 1760s) and especially in the late 19th century (think of the titanic battles between the Third Republic and the Church over the schools).

So — and here’s a cheap point — anyone on the Right in the U.K. who thinks that the human rights charter is going to defend their private schools is hoping to be the beneficiary of Catholic social policy…

But, more interestingly, I think Hilton’s not wrong to detect a link between the organisation of Catholic hierarchy and the organisation of the EU through the subsidiarity discourse. The other group which talked in similar terms were the Marxists, for the model of democratic centralism which Marx set out in the pages of The Civil War in France (though he didn’t call it that) was of a centralised national structure which, nevertheless, let the local branches run their own affairs in their own way much of the time, but could always overrule them. And the point here is that not only were the Marxists on the one hand and the Catholics on the other hand the two most important genuinely internationalist movements of the nineteenth century, but that they also pissed off those in Britain who claimed to be the inheritors of local traditions, government by consent, organic community, the whole Burkean shebang, etc., and it’s this rhetoric which Hilton is inheriting and redeploying.

The trouble is — to make another cheap point — the British Right is far too content with the authoritarian structures of the centralised Jacobin (OK, let’s call it Hobbesian) state to make any attack on European top-downery in anything like the language of the Burkean shebang at all convincing. (Think of the Thatcher government’s onslaught against local government power, just for starters). So its political language gets pulled in two directions, first towards the language of market fundamentalism (centralised state power is OK insofar as the state takes itself to be preserving the workings of the free market), second towards crude populist nationalism (centralised state power is OK insofar as its the Brits governing themselves rather than anything to do with foreigners). But those aren’t two terribly happy directions to be pulled in, especially not these days, with the result (among other things), that the Conservative Party is now rather firmly wedged into the dustbin of history, and finding it almost impossible to clamber out.

It’s just such a shame that Mr Blair is the main beneficiary of all of this. ***

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