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The Spectator's Notes

To beat Islamist terror, France must close the gulf between church and state

Also in the Spectator’s Notes: in praise of the European Central Bank; and why Scotland did NOT vote Remain

30 July 2016

9:00 AM

30 July 2016

9:00 AM

At the beginning of his war memoirs, Charles de Gaulle famously wrote, ‘All my life I have had a certain idea of France’ and its ‘eminent and exceptional destiny’. It was not only an abstract concept: the picture in his mind was of ‘the Madonna in mural frescoes’. What is President Hollande’s certain idea of France? Presumably it cannot be the Madonna, since Hollande is the child of French laïcité, which creates an unbridgeable gulf between religion and the republic. But what happens when, in the name of one religion, men in France enter the temple of another and slit the throat of a priest, as happened this week near Rouen? The historical justification for laïcité has been that it is necessary to ensure peace and liberty for believers and unbelievers alike. It does not seem to work in modern France, where the political resistance to the discussion of religion is such that a policy against Islamism cannot be formulated. It is actually illegal, for example, for the government to collect religious data on citizens, so no official statistics exist about crimes committed by Muslims. Mainstream politicians in France cling to the republic’s god of non-religion, leaving the field open to wars of religion declared by Muslim extremists and exploited by the Front National. It is time for latter-day de Gaulles to arise prepared to defend their country as part of European, Christian civilisation.

It is good to know that Theresa May, and France’s robust Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, are friends, and have one another’s mobile phone numbers. But the challenge of being Prime Minister, as opposed to Home Secretary, is to conceptualise the problem not only in terms of security, but also of ideology and what sort of a challenge Islamism poses to a free society. I hope the vicar’s daughter will find this easier to express than the hapless Hollande.

Exactly how you separate church and state varies tremendously. We have just returned from visiting in-laws in the great state of Montana. When you arrive in the airport at Missoula, which is a government entity, you are greeted by an absolutely enormous stuffed grizzly bear and no religious symbols at all. As you drive along the highways, however, numerous private citizens have erected Christian placards. The most common one is the full text of the Ten Commandments — quite distracting for any passing driver trying to read the words at the wheel and wondering whether it is all right to covet one’s neighbour’s elk. The US constitution’s treatment of religion is famously contested in the public space, but on the whole, the American idea that it matters hugely, but should burn in the hearts of private citizens not on the altars of the state, seems to work better than the French pretence that it barely exists at all.


During the EU referendum campaign, there was much unfavourable comment (usually justified) about foreign entities or leaders who intervened to try to frighten us into voting Remain. Virtually all did so — Nato, the IMF, the World Bank, President Obama. But one important voice was silent — that of the European Central Bank. Its president, Mario Draghi, confined himself to saying that the ECB was ‘ready for all contingencies’. This was greatly to his credit. I gather that the ECB came under enormous official pressure to join the chorus of anti-Brexit warnings, but refused. It sensibly realised that it had no business instructing British voters, and needed only to be ready to deal fairly with whatever might happen. If Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, had understood this too, and shut up, perhaps the result would have gone the other way.

If the SNP ever succeeds, it will be because of the failure of the English to understand its game. English people with no goodwill towards Scottish nationalism keep saying that ‘Scotland voted to remain in the EU’. It is not true. The Scots, like all other voters, answered the question which was put to them, which was whether the United Kingdom should leave or remain in the EU. They were not asked about what Scotland should do, any more than London, Liverpool or Bristol — three cities which voted Remain — were asked whether they sought secessionist EU membership. To say that Scotland must have another referendum on anything because a majority there voted Remain is to say, in effect, that it has acquired independence already. That is a nationalist argument which no one else should accept.

On returning from Montana, I caught up with an angry article by Lord Falconer, the former Lord Chancellor. He was affronted that the 40-year-old Liz Truss had been made Lord Chancellor. The appointment showed Theresa May’s ‘indifference to the rule of law’, he said, because Ms Truss had shown ‘no known signs of independence’ and ‘backed Mrs May right from the off in the leadership election’. By chance, I know this to be untrue, because I walked through a television studio on the morning of 29 June and bumped into Ms Truss, who told me that she was just going to announce her backing for Boris. It was not her fault that, 24 hours later, Boris vanished from the contest, tipping her into the arms of Mrs May. The reason that our Lord Chancellor is no longer a revered legal figure but can be any old (or young) non-lawyer politician is that Tony Blair, bored with the British constitution one weekend, tried to abolish the office altogether. This proved impossible, so the compromise was to downgrade it. Lord Falconer, who, by Mr Blair’s account in his memoirs, was ‘on side’, then became Lord Chancellor.

The historic role of professional lawyers in our island story has not been completely forgotten, however. I see from the full list that the highest-paid member of the government is not the Prime Minister, who has to jog along on £143,462. It is the Attorney-General, Jeremy Wright, whose salary is £161,510.


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