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Well Worth a Mass

On 23 January 1593, at the age of 40 and having been a convinced Protestant all his life, King Henri IV of France, renounced his faith and became a Catholic. He did this with the (possibly apocryphal) statement "Paris is well worth a Mass". As a result, Henri was able to re-unite France after a generation of murderous inter-doctrinal warfare and establish a tolerant regime (almost alone in Europe at the time) which led him to be remembered after his death twenty years later as "Good King Henri".

 

The combination of our heightened interest in Europe and the sanctification of the concept of "principle" in current political debate, reminded me of Henri. If anyone abandoned his principles for the benefit of his country, Henri did. And don't for a second think that these principles were not massively more important to Henri than anything we are discussing today. He had been taught to believe that his soul depended on his faith. Tens of thousands of "innocent women and children" had died for that belief (indeed, Henri himself survived no less than eleven assassination attempts). Nothing, really nothing, was more important in the sixteenth century than your faith. He gave it up and rescued his country. Was he the unprincipled, self seeking, jobsworth he was accused of being by extreme Protestants and Catholics at the time? Or was he a truly great man, prepared to put the welfare of his people before even the welfare of his own soul?

 

I've never had much time for "principles" - especially when they remain unchanged by time and experience. They seem to me to be the excuse used by people, without the intellectual rigour to cope with debate and uncertainty, to give themselves the freedom to combine self righteous sanctimoniousness with the ability to despise and detest everyone who does not share their views.

 

My heroes, and Henri IV is certainly one of them, have strong consciences combined with a deep need to understand what the best thing to do might be. And a breadth of understanding to appreciate the strengths of others' arguments and the impact that one single issue might have on other, perhaps even more desirable, outcomes.

 

Where does an absolute adherence to principle get us? Let's have another look at history and compare the performance of British Kings: Charles II and his brother James II. Both were convinced Catholics at a time when that really mattered.

 

Charles kept quiet about his "principles" (he entered the Catholic Church formally on his deathbed), reigned as an Anglican King, wherever possible extending tolerance to his Catholic subjects in England, Scotland and Ireland. He ruled through a twenty five year period of largely peaceful recovery from the tumults of the Civil War and left the country immeasurably better than he found it.

 

James made his "principles" very clear as a declared Catholic. His three year reign saw the horrors of the Monmouth rebellion and the Bloody Assizes which decimated South West England. It ended with his overthrow and the emergence of a strong Protestant Government which, in turn, led to the disenfranchisement of Catholics in England, the death and improverishment of hundreds of thousands of Irish Catholics and three disastrous rebellions in Scotland.

 

Give me the unprincipled, pragmatic, intellectually agile Charles every time!

 

I had truly hoped that Jeremy Corbyn was going to take a line through Henri IV. That he would use his enormous mandate to drive reconciliation between the wings of the Party. That he would abandon a few of his long held views (and accept the cries of betrayal as part and parcel of the challenges of leadership). That he would put up with the criticisms from the far right of the party but still hold out the hand of friendship and conciliation to those on the centre left. That he would build a balanced "inner Cabinet" and "Leader's Office" which would move the Party somewhat to the left (especially on economic issues) but in a professional and consensual way. That he would explicitly disassociate himself from the wilder fringe movements with whom he had been in touch in the past - saying perhaps "that was Jeremy Corbyn, little known backbencher; this is Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Opposition and, I hope, future Prime Minister: I need to speak to and for the whole country now."

 

That would have been statesmanlike and massively encouraging. And, with the self-inflicted wounds the Tory party with be experiencing in the run up to, and even more, in the aftermath of the Referendum and their own leadership campaign, we might even have got what we all want: a Labour Government in 2020.

 

But that is not what he has done. And, failing a Damascene conversion to meaningful politics, not what he is going to do. Sticking with my 16th/17th Century model, Jeremy has instead taken the true Calvinist/Jesuitical line - he is building his own "puritanical" order. The order of St Jeremy of Islington North perhaps. There is only one Gospel and that is the Gospel according to St Jeremy and, if you do not believe it, you are not only wrong, you are consigned to the outer darkness of "join the Tories, you Red Tory heretic".

He has allowed the creation of a movement in his name - and it seems only a month or two away from Momentum becoming a true Inquistion (under the control of Inquistor Generals: McDonnell, Abbott and Livingstone) seeking out, exposing and expelling non-believers. There is no room for compromise: St Jeremy is right, he was right all along on all things and always will be. His principles are the answer: believe in them or be ostracised by the community of the saved.

 

I can't be doing with this. It is nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that. But there is a silver lining: cults do not last and their leaders are quickly forgotten (except, like James II for the chaos and harm they caused). In twenty years time, Jeremy Corbyn will be remembered only in the way that some of the stranger Mystics of the 16th and 17th Century are remembered - a good and kind man who through his unswerving devotion to his "principles" made it impossible for a centre left party to govern this country for a decade or so.

 

As Jeremy is forgotten, a new leader will emerge - probably from the left - who will decide that the Labour Party and the Country is "well worth a Mass" and we can, as Good King Henri did, start to rebuild.

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