It was almost a throwaway line in an interview with a London newspaper by a prominent British woman politician who has always shied away from excessive publicity. But it said everything.
Until she stood down this week from Gordon Brown’s Government, Ruth Kelly was one of the most competent and effective Labor ministers and among the longest-serving. She is also an Opus Dei supernumerary, and until she resigned the UK’s most prominent Catholic MP.
She said she was going to time to spend more time with her four children. But that’s not the heart of it.
"It is difficult to be a Christian in politics these days," she tells the Evening Standard. "The public debate has become more secular and believers are portrayed as being a bit odd. That doesn’t reflect the reality in communities, where church-going and belief is considered normal."
Her remark echoes former prime minister Tony Blair’s complaint after leaving office that you were considered a "nutter" if you admitted religious faith while in Government. "They sort of [think] you maybe go off and sit in the corner and commune with the man upstairs and then come back and say, ‘Right, I’ve been told the answer and that’s it", he told the BBC. The prevailing secularism at the heart of British public life under Labor prevented Blair from becoming Catholic until after he left office, as I discussed in America back in January.
One example: Blair and Kelly last year fought for Catholic adoption agencies to be excluded from new laws which will make it illegal for same-sex couples to be excluded (on those grounds) from adopting. Blair -- this was shortly before his resignation in 2007 -- and Kelly lost the battle in Cabinet: the laws come into force in January, forcing 13 agencies in the UK to close down or cut their ties with the Church. (See previous post ).
The determination of Cabinet not to grant that exemption indicated a newly aggressive secularism that sees faith-clause exemptions from equality laws as undemocratic and faith as a private business.
But what triggered Kelly’s resignation was something even more serious -- the Government’s treatment of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) legislation which first came before Parliament in May.
The HFE bill legalizes the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos, "savior siblings" and other forms of human commodification deplored by the Catholic Church.
What shocked Kelly was that the prime minister, Gordon Brown, wanted to "whip" the vote -- forcing all Labor MPs to vote with the Government -- rather than allow a free (conscience) vote, as did the Conservatives when they introduced the original HFE Act in 1990.
Kelly, along with two other Catholic members of Cabinet, rebelled, and Brown reluctantly agreed to allow a free vote on the more contentious issues in the Bill -- but only on its first two readings. (Kelly, of course, voted against). The third - final - reading is next month, but it remains whipped. For Kelly to have avoided violating her conscience, she would have needed to be "unavoidably absent" that day from Parliament (the fiction deployed in these circumstances); she could not have publicly opposed the legislation.
For a Catholic MP of huge integrity and principle, who has never hidden her firm Catholic conscience, that was asking too much.
It is on record that she wanted to resign in May -- at the time of the HFE debate. But Brown persuaded her to stay on until this week’s reshuffle, in order to prevent it looking as if the HFE bill was the trigger for her departure.
But it was, of course. The official reason -- to spend more time with her family -- is not a lie: Kelly has missed out on bringing her children up in ten years as a minister. But she chose this moment, and not any previous, to make that choice; and in her Standard interview, speaking of the HFE Bill, she registers her objection, gently but with devastating clarity: "It is a conscience issue," she says, "and there should have been a free vote."
She is too loyal a Labor minister to use her departure to take a stand that would harm the Government. But anyone who knows her can do the math. It is one thing to be a beleagured minority, considered "a bit odd" -- that’s British English for "real crazy" -- for her Catholic views, or to be viciously attacked (as she was when Equality Minister) by gay people for being "unfit" for office because of her membership of Opus Dei. After all, politics is tough. And of course, any minister gets used to losing arguments in Cabinet and having to abide by decisions they argued against; without such "collective responsibility" there could never be agreement on anything.
But to be forced, publicly, in Parliament, to vote on a life-and-death issue which goes to the heart of your religious faith -- an issue on which conscience has to come before party or any other interest -- is another matter altogether. She has taken the only path open to a Catholic in these circumstances, one already trodden -- in more dangerous times, but for the same reasons -- by St Thomas More.
It is hard not to spot the parallels between this new faith-deafness on the part of the Labor Party and the same disability in the Democrats, as charted in the magazine this week by Michael Sean Winters. Says MSW of the Democrats: "If you want to win the next election, you need to learn to speak the language of churchgoers. That language does not recognize religion as a strictly private matter." Says Kelly (implicitly) of Labor: "The public debate has become more secular ... That doesn’t reflect the reality in communities, where church-going and belief is considered normal."
Catholics voted strongly for Blair in 1997, although with less enthusiasm in the two elections since. There was plenty for Catholics to object to in Blair’s policies; but as long as he was prime minister, space was made for a Catholic conscience in Government. Under Brown, that space has been removed. Whatever their political standpoint, English Catholics are sensitive -- for historical reasons -- to such exclusion.
That is why Kelly’s departure may mark the moment this Labor Government lost the British Catholic vote.