BY GERARD NOEL
OW THAT President Clinton has been re-elected (as predicted against all the then odds a year ago in Charterhouse) how goes the Major-Blair duel since the publication of the bishops' Guidelines on The Common Good?
The initial and, in most cases, abiding public reaction was conditioned by the headlines in the nationals before the document was even published. Almost universally they proclaimed that the bishops were backing Labour. A proper examination of the actual document shows that nothing could be further from the truth.
Not only, in important places, does it run positively contrary to current Labour policies, but its possible effect on voters might even as predicted by William RecsMogg in The Times (23 October) be to divert Tory waverers back on to the straight and narrow. Indeed, there are signs that this is already happening.
The polls, it is true, are confidently predicting a comfortable Labour victory in 1997. But such polls have become much more cautious and sophisticated since their disastrous miscalculation in 1992. Some of the most meaningful clues are thus in the small print. It is estimated, for example, that female churchgoers outnumber males by an average of 2.5 to 1. It is also thought that women voters pay more attention than do men to moral and religious issues.
In the week after the guidelines were published though quite possibly by mere coincidence the proportion of women voters favouring Mr Blair fell by roughly a third while support among the same group for Mr Major increased by the same amount. The two are now about equal. What does this indicate (if anything)? And what about the document itself?
AMAIN REASON given by the press thus contributing to the public impression that it was pro-Labour was
that the bishops favoured a minimum wage. They did no such thing.
They spoke, rather, of a "just wage" (as the Church's pronouncements on social questions have done for more than a century). The only reference to a minimum wage (para 97) was to state that if employers refused voluntarily to pay a just wage, "the Church's social teaching would allow the State to make them do so by means of a statuory minimum wage".
This is very different from saying as is believed that the Church, in favouring a minimum wage (which it doesn't) is virtually telling people to vote Labour. It is the old story of not bothering to read the actual document.
There is, moreover, one delightfully ironical twist to this whole line of argument. The TUC did, indeed, vote (overwhelming in fact) for a minimum wage of £4.26. Poor Tony Blair was horrified. He immediately went into one of his now-familiar Houdini-like contortions to try to escape from the implications of any such commitment.
THE LABOUR manifesto, it. is true,
(endorsed in Pavlovian fashion by the faithful) does mention a minimum wage, but very carefully does not specify what it should be. Mr Blair is known to favour something just over £3, realising that anything higher could bump up unemployment disastrously. And few things would be more socially injurious (and politically damaging) than that.
It is true that the bishops could be called somewhat naive and be described as taking here and there a stance somewhat akin to that of oldfashioned socialists, so many of whom, in England and Wales, in the "bad old days" were Catholics, but nothing is more anathema to "new Labour" than old-fashioned socialism.
If anything, the guidelines could be read as more of an endorsement of Tory support for the "hard-working classes" than of new Labour's appeal to the prosperous middle classes. Though the bishops, in fact, might have pleased John Burns (who "took his socialism from the Sermon on the Mount"), they must have left Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson hoping that very few voters will actually read (and take in) what they really wrote, just as they might also be hoping that the Cardinal Archbishop of Glasgow's description of the Labour leader as a "sham" will be forgotten as soon as possible.
One last point concerns what those who actually read the guidelines must have noticed as its main omission. No subject has so much exercised churchmen in this country particularly Catholic ones in the past 30 years more than peace "and justice" in Northern Ireland, where the interests of a substantial Catholic minority are of so much concern. Yet the subject of Northern Ireland is not addressed at all. Indeed there is no mention of peace of any kind in the entire document, except where the word is used in Appendix H when listing Justice and Peace Groups as among "Catholic resources" for Social Concern.
THIS MIGHT SEEM strange, especially in view of the stress laid on peace by every hierarchical and papal pronouncement on social matters since Reruns Novarum. The guidelines under consideration, however, are solely concerned with domestic social issues of a strictly equitable and economic nature. To mention Northern Ireland might have been considered risky along the same lines, but in a different way, as the charges (in the national press) that the bishops were taking a proLabour stance.
Developments in Northern Ireland in the past two years represent, after all, one of John Major's government's greatest successes, despite the rather silly sallies, based, no doubt, on some perverted sort of hope that the peace process will soon collapse. 'the fact is, as anyone who has recently visited Northern Ireland well knows, that a revolution has taken place in that province. If the peace process, however fragile, can last long enough, the disgust of the rising generation at the (largely religiously-inspired) hatreds of the past will eventually prevail. The bishops obviously wish this to happen but if they had said so in their guidelines, mightn't the press on recent form have immediately jumped in and said they were being proTory?
No, you can't appease everyone. Indeed anyone would have thought, judging by the fuss, that The Common Good was little more than an apologia for Mr You-KnowWho, for seeming to say, like a once famous Mayor of Nashville, Tennessee; "These are my principles folks. And if you don't like 'em, I'll change 'em."