Clare Short talks to Laurie Taylor about faith, doubt, and her decision to resign over Iraq.
Your father was born in Crossmaglen, a republican Catholic area of Ireland. Was your own childhood in Birmingham, a traditional Catholic one?
Yes. My mum is a committed Catholic and my Dad was a Head of a Catholic school. He was a practicing Catholic, but his religion was also part of his Irishness. History had tried to beat Catholicism out of the Irish so for him the fight for the faith and the fight for personal freedom were always intermingled. So even if he’d stopped believing in God he would have carried on being a Catholic.
You went to a Catholic school?
Oh yes. And it’s still with me. At my school if you were good the teacher would give you a holy picture and you would put it in your prayer book. It seemed so natural. After all, a nice picture is a nice picture. And even these days when I am by the sea and there are vents of light coming down from the sky, I always think it’s just one of those holy pictures. I still expect to see Jesus standing on top of it all. And there was a good side to that religion. And that part stays with me as well. The part that says you ought to try and be good . And if you have been bad you should be sorry. And you should mean it. And you can only be forgiven if you genuinely are sorry. That’s a very good tradition, a basic tradition in Christianity and in other world religions. The idea that we all ought to try to be good but also the idea that we will fail and that only if we are sincere in our regret for that failure can we be forgiven and try again. The human spirit needs that belief.
When did you first begin to have doubts about the literal truths of your religion?
I can remember being at school when I was about thirteen and hearing that there were these proofs about the existence of God. So I thought why haven’t I heard about these before. For goodness sake, what have we all been messing about for if there are these proofs. Can I have them please? And the teacher said all right. She would bring them with her when she came back. And I can remember her coming back with them and being excited about reading them. But they were terribly disappointing. I can’t even remember them now. But I do remember that they were terribly disappointing. They just weren’t convincing.
And did anything else arouse your doubts?
Oh yes. Even before I was sexually active I had this thing about contraception in my mind. About contraception and India. I had this picture in my mind of India, of a country constantly filling up with people. I knew that the whole world was soon going to be full and yet the Pope was saying that you can’t have contraception. I can remember objecting to that and saying it was ridiculous. I would have been about fourteen then. And, of course, if you start thinking that the Pope is wrong about that then the Pope can’t be infallible. And if he isn’t infallible about that, what else isn’t he infallible about. And after a couple of years with those sort of thoughts going around your brain, you suddenly start wondering whether or not you even believe in God.
You gave up Catholicism?
I stopped being a Catholic. But I still believe in the idea of moral order. Many things in Christianity were about social justice. Statements like “Whatsoever you do to the least of my little ones you do it unto me”. There’s a lot of that still in me. It helped to shape me. When I gave up on my church, my church became the Labour party. That makes it difficult not to carry on. When the Labour party disappoints me, I think to myself, “Oh God, I can’t lapse twice.”
I think you said somewhere that you believe there is as much a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ in politics as there is in religion.
That’s right. Although I’m not saying that I personally always know what is right. “I am right and everyone must follow me.” We must all quest in our own way for the truth, for a just order, for fairness for everyone. When I told my dad once that I thought that the Pope was wrong about contraception and that I thought that maybe God doesn’t exist, he sat me down and said, “Clare, after Jesus was on the earth, do you know who it was who became Christians in the Roman Empire?”And I said no. And he said, “It was the slaves. You might not realise it now but at that time it was very radical to say that everyone was equal in the sight of God. It was a fantastically revolutionary thing to say.” My dad was a very clever guy, and I still remember that. Once you say that all people are equal in the sight of God, how can you possibly say that anyone should be a slave.
You described yourself recently as an ethnic Catholic.
A Yes, I began to talk about myself as an ethnic Catholic in Bosnia where I found our failure to stand against ethnic cleansing and mass rape to be utterly shameful. Britain had a major responsibility for not making that stand. People talked about ethnic Muslims, as a way of saying that they weren’t practicing Muslims, but simply part of the Muslim community. I thought if they are ethnic Muslims then I am an ethnic Catholic.
If you’re an ‘ethnic Catholic’, do you still have to believe in some sort of god, Catholic or otherwise?
I’m an ethnic catholic because I don’t really believe in a personal god, and I don’t believe in life after death, but I do believe that God is the encapsulation of an idea. The fact that people have to think of God as an old man with a beard and that they have to believe in life after death is a sort of simplification of the belief that the highest meaning of life is to try to be a good and just and truthful person. Some people find it easier to say that there is a real god, that there is this lovely father who loves us all. When you say instead that love is good, it is far more abstract and complicated. Even though I think religion has been greatly misused I am not hostile to God. I think that the highest thing we can do is to be good and love beauty, justice and truth.
But what is the basis for that belief? Do human beings naturally strive to be good?
I think it’s natural in the human spirit to be loving and kind but clearly humans can easily be incited to be evil and cruel. But, yes, I do believe in the fundamental goodness of humanity. I don’t believe the Rousseau argument that if you leave everything in a state of nature, then everything will be peaceful and loving. I believe you have to go out and create an order that is just, an order that enables everyone to be fairly treated. And that universalising of the possibility of justice for all requires rationality. It can’t rely upon some sort of soppy goodness. And that is how you get to socialism, which I have always seen basically as an ethical thing rather than as an economic system. At any point in time, it’s an ethical question as to how you organise the economy to make sure all are fairly treated. Socialism, for me, has always been about regarding each and every human being as of equal importance, and then organising the world according to that premise.
Practical politicians seem to get irritated by your constant talk of ethics, don’t they?
I do remember voices around Number 10 used to say, “Oh God, she goes around as though she was Mother Teresa.” That kept cropping up and I can guess who it was. But people who know the story of my life and the kind of person that I am, know that I am not some kind of Holy Joe.
But you do regard yourself as principled. You wouldn’t like to be called a pragmatist?
Well, obviously you can’t create justice by sitting on the top of a mountain and not doing anything at all unless you can get perfection. You have to struggle to bring justice into being and that requires pragmatism. But that struggle shouldn’t be about what has only occurred to you that day, or about what the latest focus group says, or whether it will help you win an immediate election. It has got to be guided by some sense of principle.
But isn’t it dangerous in politics to talk about ethics? Aren’t you liable to be hoist with your own petard, to find that events don’t allow you to stick to your announced beliefs and that you then leave yourself open to accusations of hypocrisy?
That hasn’t happened to me.
Surely it happened over Iraq? People said that if you had stuck to your principles and resigned earlier then there might have been a chance of avoiding the war.
No, no. They didn’t say, “you said you would be ethical and you weren’t.” They said, “you’d said you would resign and you didn’t.” Which is true. It is true. I fully intended to resign. Yes, some people wanted to believe that the vote in the House of Commons could have stopped the war but it couldn’t because the Tories were voting with the government. All that business about Tony Blair resigning if the vote wasn’t won was a pretence, a falsity. Because there was no way the vote was ever going to be lost.
But people were genuinely upset. I met so many people who admired you, even loved you, who felt bitterly betrayed by your decision to stay on in government, by what they saw as your ethical about turn.
I don’t agree with you, that it was about my ethics. I said I would resign and they felt bitterly that I had let them down. Of course, I know people felt enormously passionate. I got a lot of very nasty letters. But if I could have stopped the war I undoubtedly would have resigned. I didn’t resign because the PM promised me we would at least do the reconstruction right and give the UN its proper role and I decided because the war was unstoppable it was right to stay for that. And then all the undertakings he had given me were breached. For my own self I know that I tried everything. People keep saying to me “do you regret not resigning” and for myself I don’t. If I had just been trying to be popular then I would have gone, and in a funny kind of way, maybe it was because of my flipping Catholic childhood belief that you have got to try, that I stayed.
That must have been a very difficult time for you. What was the worst about it?
My own son attacking me was the most painful thing of all. But that is my truth. I didn’t stay just because the PM asked me to but because I knew the war couldn’t be stopped by then. I also thought we had to deal with the situation in Iraq. We couldn’t have another 12 years of sanctions: the people of Iraq were suffering. So I did believe in resolving it but doing it right and Blair/Bush didn’t do it right. Blair promised we would do the reconstruction right and said I need you there. And I talked to the UN, to the World Bank, to the IMF, to the Germans and the French, and then everything he promised on that was thrown out. So that is my truth. I am glad I stayed to try, even though I completely failed. And I took absolute hell for it.
When you have such hard times where do you look for comfort, for reassurance?
I give my mum a lift to mass most weekends now and go to mass with her. I don’t go to communion or anything, but I have started reading the Bible and I have read a big chunk of the Koran in the summer. Because of the kind of constituency I am in, I get invited to the ceremonies of all the different world religions and I am moved by some of the beauty of the books and the ceremonies. And I walk sometimes; I think there is something about the reflections you can have by beautiful seas or cliffs or just trees. I’m also moved by the best of what you find in old and ancient churches, a space to reflect, a calmness, a sense of history. I think the texts in the holy books of most religions have a lot of wisdom in them.
And I think justice, truth, beauty are all linked to something finer that the human heart and soul yearns for. I believe that we all need something beyond the material, something bigger than ourselves in order to be really human, and that has often been passed on through religion. A lot of us sixties kids decided that because the Church was being too dogmatic about science or sex or contraception in the Catholic Church they were completely wrong about sex in every regard we decided to throw it all out. But in doing that we lost something beautiful music, beautiful buildings, uplifting texts, quiet spaces to reflect. I am sort of getting some of that back. And I am glad of it.