Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Standard silliness

Sam Leith in the Evening Standard thinks the papal visit is "hardly in the national interest".

His first case is based on the idea that people aren't very interested in it, which is to confuse the national interest with what people are interested in -- not the same thing at all. (Some journalists, of course, make a living out of mixing up "public interest" with "what people are interested in", which may explain the confusion.) But even so, according to last week's Tablet, one in five Britons will be following the visit with interest; can that be said of any previous state visit?

His second case is that the Vatican is a "pretend nation" because -- wait for it -- it was created as a state by the 1929 Lateran Pact with Mussolini. Actually, the Vatican is not a nation at all; it doesn't claim to be. And its statehood is irrelevant to the UK's diplomatic relationship, which is with the Holy See. And the Holy See is an ancient sovereign entity recognised as such in international law since before the age of the nation-state. Britain's relationship with it goes back to 1479. After a 415-year hiatus, relations were formally re-established in 1914, 15 years before the Lateran Pact. So it's not a pretend nation; and its status as a state is irrelevant to the FCO. It's a global Church with its seat of governance recognised as sovereign in international law.

His third case is that Britain has no self-interest in this relationship. "What are our commercial interests in trading with the Vatican? What are our strategic interests in relation to its military might? What cultural and scientific commonalities can be explored?"

Answer: no trading or strategic interests at all, which is why, according to the Foreign Office, it's such a valuable relationship. The Holy See is the seat of governance of the worldwide Catholic Church, the world's largest civil society actor; HMG and Holy See partner on all kinds of issues: climate change, poverty, development, disarmament, conflict negotiations. And the Holy See's diplomatic relationship with 200 states -- many of which the UK does not have relationships with -- proves invaluable, at times, for furthering the FCO's interests.

Leith should have stuck to what he knows. "Personally, I'd rather have an ear infection than a visit from the Pope", he says. That's the kind of thing. Safer territory all round.