The Passion narrative, read in all churches this week, reminds one of exactly why Jesus was put to death. In Matthew’s account, it is based on the evidence of two false witnesses. They accuse Jesus of saying ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days.’ Then the chief priest asks Jesus whether he is ‘the Christ, the Son of God’. Jesus replies: ‘Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power….’ This is denounced as blasphemy by the chief priest, and the crowd calls for Jesus’s death. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, says that Jesus is a ‘just person’ but literally washes his hands of him and allows him to be crucified. I wonder how Jesus would fare under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, in which the government is trying to include a clause banning ‘incitement to religious hatred’. Although we are told again and again that this is not a blasphemy law, it is always what the faithful see as blasphemy which stirs up the greatest hatred, and it is the offence caused to the faithful which the law is intended to punish. Jesus most certainly caused offence to the (Jewish) faithful, and the Christian belief that he is God is blasphemy to Muslims (and, indeed, to Jews even now). If he were in Britain today under the new law, he would surely be one of its first victims, held in Belmarsh, perhaps, while lawyers debated whether he should be deported to Israel, or to the Palestinian authority, or tried here. And the Pilate role? It is not hard to think of a politician who fits that bill.
One victim of religious persecution this Holy Week is Adrian Hilton, the Conservative candidate for Slough. Last week Mr Hilton was summoned to see Andrew Mackay, the Tory MP who is in charge of candidates, and told that he must resign. His offence, it turned out, was that he had been attacked in the Catholic Herald and that John Gummer MP is on the board of the paper and thought that Mr Hilton should go. The order ultimately came, said Mr Mackay with a comic disregard for the implication of the phrase in this context, from ‘a higher power’. The Herald dug up two articles which Mr Hilton had written in The Spectator in 2003, and decided to be upset by them. It said that a vote for Mr Hilton would be ‘an insult to the faith of our fathers’. I have re-read Mr Hilton’s pieces. What they say is that the Protestant succession in Britain is part of our historic attempt to guard our liberty against foreign power and that the European Union, Roman Catholic in much of its inspiration, is an attempt to take away the independence of a Protestant nation. Many will think that Mr Hilton is too literal-minded in his interpretation of the Catholic Church’s political role today, but few could deny the huge influence of Catholic political and social doctrine on the EU. In any event, his view is an educated and thoughtful one, certainly not that of a ‘bigot’. Besides, these articles were raised as a possible objection to Mr Hilton’s original presence on the candidates’ list, and the objection was overruled, so he is being treated utterly unjustly for them to be thrown back at him now. As I write, Mr Hilton is appealing against his dismissal by this kangaroo Spanish Inquisition, and the Slough association is standing by him. It seems almost incredible that a Tory candidate should be cast out for defending the current, legal form of our monarchy.
Until now, I have been against Internet voting in parliamentary and local elections because of the danger of fraud and because it is a more serious and considered act to go along to a polling station and mark an X than just to press a couple of buttons at home. The fraud problem remains real, but the point about seriousness, I now think, is wrong. When you buy something on the Internet, as I quite often buy air tickets, a system is established which makes you double-check your answer and explains clearly to you the point at which your decision will become irrevocable. You then happily part with £1,000 (or whatever it is). There is nothing frivolous about it. Now that people are used to making real decisions in this way, they will be alienated if they are not allowed to make electoral ones. Some fear that this means more people will vote Labour. I don’t see why. I suspect, rather, that it would make all election results more unpredictable and less secure for big parties, particularly whichever one is in office. What’s wrong with that?
What did you think of the state visit of the President of Italy the other day? I thought so: you didn’t know that it had taken place. Now that foreign potentates and our own Monarch can travel anywhere easily at any time, is there any point in state visits? Or, at least, shouldn’t their number be drastically reduced so that, when they do happen, they are for important political reasons and conducted on a stupendously grand scale?
Two current phrases which are completely meaningless: ‘going forward’ (as in, ‘We have a strong management team, going forward’) and ‘Stability and Growth Pact’.
Last week my old college, Trinity, Cambridge, asked me to speak at its Commem Feast. I went to the chapel service beforehand whose centrepiece was a long recitation of all the main benefactors in the college’s history. Listening to this, I realised that if a much poorer society than ours today could so generously sustain a college out of private funds for hundreds of years, our own rich, modern society could easily endow an entire university. Since government’s interference in the work of universities becomes more and more oppressive (and the shortage of government money for them more and more of a problem), the solution is for the best to break away from public funding. Experts tell me that Cambridge, which already has an endowment worth about £2 billion, would need another £5 billion to be securely independent, and that the university does not dare take this risk. But it seems to me that it is only when the risk is taken that the money will appear. At present, most British alumni, unlike American ones, do not take very seriously the duty to pay back for the privilege of our education because we have been brought up to believe that the state will provide. If it won’t, our consciences will be pricked. This need not mean, by the way, that the state must have no role. One of the means King Henry VIII used to endow Trinity was to rob monasteries. That tool is no longer open to our government, but a policy of assisting endowments, matching some private gifts pound for pound, or whatever, would be a good idea.