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Monday, 14 November 2011

Doubt of the Benefit III

Being long overdue, this piece is closer in spirit to a memoir than a diary. At short distances, one’s own history can only be seen through the long paparazzi lens of hypocrisy, and so dear reader, beware, I am my own ventriloquist - and I speak not of what I know. 

A clever, talented and unusually attractive graduate living in the depths of rural England has but one choice to make. He can leave; or he can stay and rot. 

I opted to stay, but only because I couldn’t figure out how to leave. I had been offered a  place to do a Masters at Cambridge, but for me Cambridge is much like the Garden of Eden - assuredly it still exists, but once you have left there is no way back. In Part II of this series, and elsewhere on this blog I have outlined my objections to the teaching and writing of literary criticism by career scholars, but what really dissuaded me was the thinness of the intellectual diet on offer. How strange and demoralising to wake up every morning for a year and have to think about the early Eighteenth Century, as I would have done: a daily broth of powdered periwigs, overflowing street gutters and cold, supercilious wit. Once I had got to the bottom of where the bookseller ended and the author began in selected works by Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe I do not suppose I would have been any closer to fulfilment. Besides there were economic considerations. Masters degrees prop up the business end of our universities - they are pure revenue raisers and attract little by way of public subsidy. For too many of my contemporaries, postgraduate study in the humanities has turned out to be little more than an expensive way of playing for time.

In the end all roads lead to London. 

My village adolescence left me with an ingrowing provincialism. It was a place where eldest sons inherited the family farm and youngest daughters got knocked up in potting sheds. There was a pub, a house built on the site of another house where Charles II once spent the night, and a church with no vicar. It was not a place to develop an instinct for society. Every week the pub and the church would compete to attract fewer punters. The pub usually won, it was a simple question of demographics: there weren’t enough people who fell in between the Ribena and Ovaltine drinking stages of life. The nearest cinema was seven miles away, the nearest friend another thirteen. Until I discovered the internet weekends were long, drowsily repetitive affairs; I would go for late night walks down muffled country lanes, past allotments, and pebble-dashed bungalows, struggling to think in the stupefying calm. 

(To be clear, this was not childhood deprivation in any material sense. And any social deprivation I experienced was largely self-inflicted. At a young age, for instance, I conceived a virulent prejudice against tackles, wickets, offsides, stickerbooks of foreign millionaires in coloured shirts, bruised shins, and fast-moving spherical projectiles of all kinds. As a means of sabotaging one’s social prospects at primary school,  an aversion to competitive team sports was only less effective than acquiring head-lice, or being found in possession of a Gay Card.)

When it comes to the subject of national difference we are the pub bore of all Europe. British exceptionalism is really our crass attempt at flirting. When France slinks up to the bar to order a glass of vin we can’t resist the urge to sidle over and beerily regurgitate our informed opinions on the moral superiority of Yorkshire pudding over escargots de Bourgognes, or the military advantages of not sharing a border with Germany - while she looks ahead and smiles unsmilingly, in that inimitable French way. If only she would condescend to reply, we all might learn something. After all, one thing both countries have always had in common is a totally disproportionate centralisation of social, cultural and economic opportunity - Capital, in other words - in their capital cities.

In 1947 the French geographer Jean-François Gravier struck a gallic nerve when he wrote of Paris et le désert français. Sixty years on the Parisian political establishment’s tooth and nail defence of the Common Agricultural Policy is starting to look a lot like a symptom of guilty neglect. Rural England, by contrast, is London’s occasional picnic spot; its political function is to provide safe seats for the Conservative Party; its social purpose is to assure Londoners of a picturesque retirement. Our villages and market towns have become fashionable antiques, which is why house prices so often outstrip local incomes in the most attractive parts of the country.
So London came to assume an awful significance in my villager’s mind. It was the place where all the friends I’d failed to make thus far were surely waiting for me, hidden in crescents and squares and garrets, with flats full of second-hand classics, tickets to the theatre and large  bottles of gin.  And deep down I hoped to repeat that archetypal literary journey - Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson’s journey - from rural obscurity to the great City, where somewhere in the tangled streets and tavern-talk the self is found. 

Going elsewhere therefore would have been an act of cowardice, a gross dereliction of duty. And yet I was unwilling to do a Dick Whittington and simply turn up, slap my exposed thigh and hope to be given a job. As I wrote in Part I, the plan first was to prospect for an internship in politics, journalism or, you know, ‘the arts’. Unfortunately a quick perusal of my family tree revealed I had no genetic entitlement to such a thing. Having failing to establish a blood connection with an MP, a broadsheet columnist, or even an assistant director at the RSC I was in a seditious mood.

In late eighteenth-century France, where social stagnation was a positive aim of government policy, the infant bourgeoisie faced a similar predicament. Senior posts in the civil service, military and professions had all been monopolised by the nobility.  If the Ancien Régime had offered internships to would-be young Jacobins, who knows, perhaps the Bastille might have seen out the summer of 1789 unstormed.

I mention politics because the London internship recently opened up as second front alongside Oxbridge in the perennial debate about how to open up Britain’s untitled aristocracy to the 93% who didn’t attend a fee-paying school. My own answer to the vexed Intern Question is simple. Either extend the student loans system to cover unpaid internships, or allow interns to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance (or the Universal Credit) on the same means-tested principle as everyone else. (They are currently prevented from doing so because to claim JSA you must be ‘actively looking for paid work’. The welfare state has no time for the argument that an unpaid internship is far more likely to result in long-term employment than a fortnightly browse through the job section of the local Echo.) Both options are administratively straightforward, though politically uncomfortable. At the present time it would take a very brave minister to bring a Bill before Parliament allowing young people to take on even more debt. And both the Left and the Right would have their own objections to socially mobile graduates claiming a welfare benefit designed as a short-term stopgap for those at the lower end of the income scale.*

That said, both these options are preferable to the current suggestion emanating from ‘progressive’ circles, that of forcing employers to pay interns the National Minimum Wage.  Not only would organisations with fixed or limited staffing budgets simply provide fewer places, but a flat wage would conceal the qualitative difference between individual interns. Some are essentially temping for free while others can barely be trusted to stuff envelopes. In the current climate it seems unfair to oblige employers to pay for a punt on these unknown quantities.

But to return to the matter at hand. Aside from my nepotistic disadvantage, a further barrier to obtaining a London internship was the relative barrenness of my CV. Up until then the only wage I’d ever received was a surprise envelope containing £20. This was for a week’s work experience when I was 15, shifting antiques around at a local auction house.

Admittedly job opportunities had been limited in my village. There was the pub: a profit-vacuum with a tendency to revert to new management every 18 months. Bar-work there had a somewhat dynastic character, with coveted positions passed from sibling to sibling. Then there was the Craft & Design Centre, which purported to sell the handmade produce of local artisans but was really a tat emporium of the worst kind. It sold scented candles, psychic crystals and novelty cufflinks at  guileless prices to coach-loads of unwitting pensioners, and had a tacit policy of only hiring girls, as my sister later confirmed.

But by the summer after graduation such excuses were no longer viable. My family had just moved to the county capital, a medium sized market town. While I waited for an internship to manifest I resolved to make myself fit for London by learning the value of Hard Work. The results are chronicled in Part I of this series.  

I did, in the end, get a job. But for the six weeks between then and ‘coming down’ from Cambridge for the last time I received Jobseeker’s Allowance (unemployment benefit).  Trooping along to the Jobcentre (Plus) every fortnight proved to be an instructive experience and may have been what eventually turned me Tory.


My dealings with the State shall form the subject of Part IV.

*Update - as a result of the Coalition Government's welfare reforms, young people can now claim JSA for up to 8 weeks while undertaking unpaid work experience placements.    

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Capitalist Dogs

Here's a link to a newborn blog promoting the Stirling branch of the Communist Party of Britain (CPB). My facebook newsfeed coughed it up this morning – which means that some friend of a friend of a girl I once tried to chat up over lukewarm cocktails in Cambridge's 'only Indie bar' is either a) Scottish Communist, or b) intent on mocking Scottish Communism.

'Indie', by the way, in a provincial market town like Cambridge is more easily defined in terms of what it isn't than what it is, and this particular club hosted a peculiar confederacy of musical tribes: disparate peoples, united only in their distaste for the dance and "cheese" music played in the rumbling meat-factories across town. This wasn't ideal and it meant that frail hipsters were in constant danger of having their irony specs knocked off by the metalheads flinging their dreadlocks around. And no-one ever quite got the song they wanted.*

On the other hand, the club's strict playlisting policy kept out the cheese-loving riff-raff. (Anyone familiar with the three 'Aristolelian' theatrical unities of time, space and action may discern a similar rigour in the modern insistence that 'the best' music unites songwriter, performer and instrumentalist in a single artist or band.) Even the perverts were of a tamer species, preferring shy leers from a polite distance to a shameless dick-jab in the kidneys when Sex on the Beach comes on.

But I digress. Back to Stirling Communists.

This kind of diverting chatter - designated 'news' and presented to me for inspection by Mr. Zuckerberg's busy algorithms - is one of the reasons I can't go along with our latter-day puritans and 'purge' my account all the ‘friends’ I haven't met for a cup of tea and a game of backgammon in the last six months. In due course I clicked the Stirling Communists link, which became a portal to the mental world of my 15 year-old Marxist self.

My 15 year-old Marxist self, aged 17

Though now in essence a Tory I am naturally suspicious of anyone simply born into the Right without ever having been exposed to the worldview of the Left. The historic failure of Socialism doesn’t absolve the injustices of the free market. Class is real; so is exploitation. Both, like matter and energy, are hidden aspects of the other. It wouldn’t be necessary to point out something so blindingly obvious were it not for the complacent ‘We’re all middle class now’ opinion pieces which turn up in the right-wing press every few years to assure tax lawyers that they’re not doing anything wrong. Thatcherism and New Labour didn’t abolish the class system so famously cemented into British society – they merely watched as globalization exported it round the world, finishing what the Empire started. Now the real British working-class mine coal in China or forge steel in India while derivatives traders in the City of London subconsciously tinker with the level of their wages. In a single world market class is global rather than national, which is why domestic Communist parties like the CPB will always end up looking hopelessly provincial, even to avowed Marxists. Trotsky, in the end, was right.
The true value of the financial 'products' (a necessarily ironic phrase) Wall Street and the City juggled throughout the Noughties couldn't be acknowledged until someone dropped all the balls. In the eyes of some on the Left this absurd game discredited the entire market system, meaning that now is the best time to be a Western Communist since 1968, (at least until news of Soviet tanks crashing into Prague filtered through). On the Stirling Communists’ blog there’s a little blurb telling us just that - though critics of devolution will be surprised to hear there’s any private enterprise going on North of the Tweed, much less the exploitative kind. One line in particular caught my ear:

"Never before has a Communist alternative to the capitalist dogs in Westminster and Holyrood been [more] necessary."

I'm sure eventually they'll realise they left out a "more" before "necessary" but in the meantime what intrigues me is the phrase "capitalist dogs". If it sounds tinny it's because it's not something any native English speaker would ever say.

This is enough to confuse anyone's irony radar
Communism is at least as much a polemic as it is a theory and one with a long tradition of rhetorical abusiveness, though not, (appropriately enough) a very rich tradition. Early on the anti-capitalist tirade seems to have become weirdly formalised, with a certain emphasis on low-status animals to represent the bourgeois oppressor. As a result Party literature in the early 20th century pulled a kind of anti-heraldry off the assembly line: 'the howling jackals of capitalism', 'fat cats' (still current) 'capitalist pigs', 'the mad dog: imperialism' and so on. When George Orwell sets his Stalinist parable on an English farm he animates a few of these careless metaphors, turning the bestial world imagined by Communism in on itself – so that the not-human finally becomes inhuman.

Marxism, like the Judeo-Christian tradition from which it emerged, is a scriptural faith; though there's also something quite Islamic in the Marxist scholar’s attachment to quoted authorities. It is not surprising then that we should find preserved in the writing of modern Communists some of the idioms of 19th-century Germany and Russia. Perhaps calling someone a ‘dog’ in 1840s Prussia was a bit like calling someone a twat or a bastard in contemporary England. 

Church of England vicars provide a good analogy here. Having absorbed, via the Authorised Version of the Bible, the words and rhythms of 17th–century prose, when they open their mouths they become in effect living museum exhibits, offering us grand jussives: ‘Let us pray’, and solemn negatives (made all the more so by their syntactical out-of-placeness): ‘Lead us not into temptation’ . 

So I quite like ‘capitalist dogs’. It's the echo of a broadcast from a bygone age, a linguistic antique, albeit the kind of one more likely to turn up on Cash in the Attic than Sothebys.
Communist Cat: I iz in ur Politburo, implementin' ur Five Year Planz

*By 'no-one' I of course mean me

Monday, 29 November 2010

Doubt of the Benefit II


Several pious opinion pieces bobbed up in the Left-wing press recently to prophesy the death of Culture. For many years now, Culture, who in this conception is a senile, bedridden old bore, has been hooked up to a cash drip, courtesy of the British taxpayer. Now it seems the ruling classes have turned philistine and intend to euthanise him, cut by cut. There is something laughable about the way in which these would-be little humanist manifestos imagine what’s been sustaining the very soul of Western Civilisation all these years is a special grant from the Arts Council. They pull off an agile rhetorical trick, uniting the aesthete's intellectual dishonesty with a puritan's brittle rage. But when penned by Oxbridge humanities academics such tracts are positively bile-inducing. After all, this is the one class of people to have ever actually made any money from the doodlings in Coleridge's notebook and yet, without a shred of irony, their chosen battle-cry is “Arts for arts sake!"
In a typical specimen Dr Priya Gopal of Cambridge, writing for the Guardian, suggests we should “insist that poetry and philosophy have the virtue of generating creativity, empathy and tolerance.”
This is a diversionary tactic. The Tories aren't massed round the Bodleian with cans of kerosene and pockets full of matches. It’s the study of poetry and philosophy that is threatened by the cuts, not the philosophical and literary texts themselves. Unfortunately no-one who sat the course which Dr Gopal supervises could seriously claim we were taught to engage with Literature as a source of ethical reflection.
Instead Cambridge tutors encouraged us to erect wobbly theoretical scaffoldings around particular writers, welded together out of whatever philosophical scrap-metal we could lay our hands on: Freudian psychoanalysis, Greerite feminism, the ravings of Nietzsche - the more isms we could stuff into a paragraph the better.

This kind of critical jerrybuilding certainly doesn't encourage 'empathy and tolerance', any conclusions a student ends up reaching refer to a shifting spirit world of pure abstraction where people can 'negate' one another and personal identities become 'fragmented' or 'dispersed', owing to odd sounding weather-fronts like 'semantic pressure' and 'generic instability'. The beings envisioned in this way of writing are made of smoke and light, you couldn't empathise with them any more than with a triangle.

The language of literary criticism we imbibed from our scholarly superiors only dragged us further down the rabbit hole. It was a kind of latter day monastic Latin, an artificial, cloistered tongue, for formal use only with an inbuilt hostility to ordinary speech. As a truly archetypal example I offer an extract of a review from a literary journal. The work under scrutiny is a conceitedly erudite 237 page lyric poem by one of our esteemed professors, which, in all probability has an exact ratio of readers to reviewers. At this point our reviewer has been unable to pass up the opportunity to demonstrate his own unbearable cleverness and provides us with a little treatise on the metaphysics of poetic metre.
"Thus while prosody may refer to form, form itself must be understood in its emergence, by acknowledging that the embodied memory which utters it has itself been shaped collectively. Prosody mediates between language, the flesh, and the collective. Divorcing the semantic content of the poem from its prosodic disposition re-enacts the Cartesian cleavage of mind and body."
The fundamental cause behind such fogginess of expression is the gawky pseudo-technical lexicon humanities academics have invented so as to feel on a professional par with the hard sciences. Writing about Literature in this weirdly un-literary way is roughly comparable to measuring the dimensions of an MC Escher mansion: a futile attempt to provide quantity and clarity that only trivialises the work at hand. Besides, this was always an uneven contest; within the hard sciences words refer to things.  In Literature, by contrast, it was was gleefully explained to us that words could only ever refer to other words, and that these in turn would only echo the meaning back again.
Consequently we were taught to write a dead jellyfish language: something formless, rubbery and opaque.

I’ve had my three years of ‘contested’ symbolic authorities, ‘gendered’ discursive spaces, ‘fractured’ literary selves, the (tiresome) reduction of every possible reading to ‘language relishing its own plasticity’ and all the other scholarly charlatanisms the Cambridge English Faculty flogs to eager undergraduates year after year.

And now I’d quite like a job.

If we’re really going to dispense with ‘the utility calculus’ and study the arts for their own intrinsic, inestimable non-monetary worth then perhaps the Professorship of Postcolonial Studies at Cambridge University should become a rolling unpaid internship.
Frankly I can only conclude this section by observing the following: if cuts to the humanities mean less people like me – a shallow gang of languid aesthetes pickling in their own (unjustified) smugness – that can only be a good thing.


Doubt of the Benefit I

Being an Account of The Trials and Tribulations of an overeducated Under-earner


This summer I wanted money but I couldn't get a job. This unfortunate paradox was due in part to my having a degree from the world’s best university.

Perhaps one of the worst things about an Oxbridge education, certainly the hardest thing to get shot of, even when you’ve given up drinking port and consulting William Blake for pick-up lines, is the ghastly sense of entitlement. When you get the acceptance letter from Dr So-and-So, with its beautifully embossed college crest, and it’s carefully passed around the family, all your smiling older relatives say this:

“It’ll open Doors you know.”

Curiously you never hear this from the academics themselves - they’re far more interested in books than Doors and can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to stay on for a PhD – but we tell it to ourselves and to each other. After all, we’re all so clever, why wouldn’t anyone want to buy our cleverness?

This is so easy to believe when you’re walking to hall at twilight, across some ancient, muffled courtyard in a gown and a suit, gabbling about Keats to a beautiful girl in an evening dress.

Of course this business of opening Doors is only the rarefied Oxbridge version of what governments tell all prospective students: get a degree, get a good job - and that shimmering figure, what's it supposed to be? £400,000, £100,000 – the difference between what a graduate will earn over her lifetime when compared to that dwindling race of people who never went to university, but it’s us, the ones who got the letters, who feel the most despondent. This isn’t how it was supposed to be.

So far, (and I’ve only been BA (hons) for six months now), all the Doors I’ve tried come with a faultlessly polite bouncer who, without really looking, has concluded that my name isn’t on the guest list. I live in the South West, on the edge of a huge pocket of rural deprivation and the kind of jobs I vaguely imagined myself doing after graduation (“…something to do with arts/media/politics…”) don’t really exist here. In fact they don’t even begin to exist until you walk to the station, catch a train at nine in the morning and arrive in central London at midday.

I’m practically incompetent but not excessively proud, so I thought I’d try for a few jobs that weren’t ‘something to do with arts/media/politics’, raising a bit of cash and fleshing out a rather skeletal CV while I queued up for an unpaid internship in the capital.

(Unpaid internships, by the way, are a brilliantly organised Middle Class labour racket. I could easily devote a blog post to the subject but everything that needs to be said about them has already been said, while no-one in government has shown the slightest inclination to reform the system. Why would they? I’ve personally witnessed how the House of Commons depends on a constant stream of unsalaried graduates to keep staffing costs down. New Conservative MPs in particular seem desperate for unpaid staff.)

I began with the chain coffee shops, which have friendly websites with downloadable application forms. On the Starbucks one there’s a little space where they ask you to write why you think good customer service is so important to the franchise. There wasn’t room to treat the subject with the analytical rigour it deserved but I gave a pretty good account of the labour theory of value, with illuminating quotations from Smith, Marx and Hayek. Starbucks, typically favouring the class interests of Global Capital, seem to have taken this as a provocation and I never received a reply.

I slightly dumbed down for Costa – who were far more interested in the colour of my skin (for diversity monitoring purposes) than what I thought of their business model – and I only mentioned my A-Levels, (leaving out AS Theatre Studies and a summer at the British Institute of Florence). Once again I heard nothing back and wondered whether being “Italian about Coffee” also meant being Italian about recruitment practises, (which are a tangled fishnet stocking of family connections, personal favours and Tunisians in the basement).

At the same time I began to question whether citing a Oxbridge don as reference in lieu of a previous employer wasn’t actually undermining the job hunt. After all, she’d be able to give potential employers an excellent account of my rather ingenious psychoanalytic readings of Medieval religious satires, but knows even less about my latte-frothing skills than I do.

Next I applied for the position of Optical Assistant (frame-chooser) at Specsavers. This one was quite exciting because I was actually given an interview. I put on a suit and had a nice chat with a lovely middle-aged lady (middle-aged ladies tend to like me, unless they’re Chinese) and a serious managerial blonde; we discussed, among other things, Stephen Fry, auction-houses and this blog; for some reason my suspicions weren’t aroused by the minimal time we devoted to commercial optometrics and I was pathetically surprised when I got the rejection letter.

Employers, I began to discover, had no intention of taking on graduates who were likely to spend every coffee break plotting escape to London Town and its glittering arts/media/politics internships. After all, it costs them time and money (which in business are the same thing) to advertise vacancies, then to train new recruits and supervise them until they can manage by themselves. No serious employer wants to repeat the whole process every six weeks, and besides, graduates have a tendency to subvert the lower orders with their Airs and Graces and Tales of Finery.

(To confirm my thesis when, at the end of this sordid tale, I finally did get work it was from a business with such a high staff turnover that they paid me with cash from the till at the end of every shift, and never bothered to take the ‘vacancies’ sign out of the window.) So here’s an intriguing question for David Willets and Iain Duncan Smith: if I had left my degree out of the application forms would I be more likely to get hired?

In fairness I can’t lay all the blame at the feet of national franchises and their recruitment directives. I am temperamentally unsuited to the world of work and would much rather be in my room chain-smoking and listening to classic Jazz - or in someone else’s room having sex, than stacking, stapling, post-it note labelling, “interacting” with the general public, peering at spread-sheets, answering the telephone, lying to clients, lying to bosses, lying to my friends about what it is that I actually do, lying to myself about the approximate worth of my personal happiness, lying to the taxman about the approximate worth of the company’s assets, or even, in spite of the recent prestige afforded it by bryllcreamed Übermensch Don Draper, marketing some sort of Product.

No doubt a faint echo of my exquisite personality has found its way onto some of these application forms, so that the profit-grubbing dullards, terrified of the threat to their own complacency, are swiftly led to reject me in favour of vicious yoofs with NVQs, nasal tattoos and Excellent Customer Service Skills.
As an arts graduate, I take enormous comfort in the fact that I transcend mere monetary value.

A Theme we shall treat of further in Part II

Friday, 17 September 2010

L'état, c'est moi - The Papal Vist and Vatican Statehood

Beatification does not come cheap, which is why this week’s papal visit is set to cost 20 million temporal pounds. The Roman Catholic Church in Britain is contributing £11 million, with the British taxpayer picking up the rest of the tab. To irate secularists it makes no odds that the amount individual households will actually end up contributing might plausibly be located down the backs of the nation’s sofas. As far as they’re concerned anyone who looks to an elderly virgin in velvet slippers and a cape for insights into human sexuality is very welcome to cover his expenses; the rest of us however would rather spend our change on those naughty HIV positive balloons you can buy in pub toilets.

There’s a well-rehearsed argument as to why we should disapprove of His Holiness’s presence on our heathen shores. As a nation we still entertain a rather sentimental fondness for those three Great British vices: baby-killing, buggery and the scientific method. The pontiff’s heroic struggle against such pernicious enemies of civilisation as sexually active gay men, medical researchers and the Durex corporation cannot help but inflame our misguided sensibilities. Sat next to the depraved liberalism of British culture his divinely inspired moral vision shifts uncomfortably in its seat, like a beautiful choirboy awaiting the darkness of the confessional.
Religious commentators like to point out that anti-Catholic prejudice is something of an inherited deformity in English public life. Apparently our distaste for priestly child rape is merely the latest symptom of this venerable Protestant pathology. Bigots all, we stubbornly refuse to accept that possession of Holy Orders may quite legitimately exempt an aged sex criminal from the authority of the secular law.
Elements of the press have even claimed a ‘systematic cover-up’ of child abuse which (via his former incarnation as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) can be traced back to the Pope himself. This is arrant nonsense. For years all requests for an independent inquiry into Rome’s management of this epidemic have been met with a tight-lipped silence. Police meanwhile are denied any access to Vatican documentation. There, silly journalists, they’ve confused ‘systematic cover-up’ with total suppression of the evidence.

On the question of why Catholics alone can’t foot the bill for the papal tour, the British Government, slightly embarrassed at the question, replies that not only a religious leader His Holiness also happens to be a head of state. Oh ok, so this is a diplomatic visit as well is it? Well that’s different – roll out the red carpet.
In a very superficial sense the argument holds. We might not like a lot of the things the Chinese Government do but most taxpayers wouldn’t resent paying to house and protect a diplomatic delegation from Beijing. In a more profound sense however the idea of some sort of political equivalence between the People’s Republic of China and Vatican City is patently ludicrous.
                                                Spot the difference

For an institution which makes such a fuss of its commitment to principle over pragmatism the world’s smallest state has an inconvenient back-story. Vatican City was established by treaty as a sovereign nation in 1929. In return for complete political independence the Holy See promised it wouldn't actually exercise it and the co-signatory: the fascist Kingdom of Italy, was spared papal criticism throughout its existence. Mussolini sweetened the deal by promising a compulsory Roman Catholic education in every Italian school and the Vatican duly signalled its gratitude to the dictatorship with an offering of full diplomatic recognition. It’s an unsavoury episode from which to trace the state’s short history and we might well ask what was the point of securing liberty of conscience in the first place if not to condemn the very governments which were at the time so determined to destroy it? Presumably gynaecologists make for easier targets than National Socialists.
If we consider Papal neutrality from the other end of the telescope it is of course right that the headquarters of a global religion should be protected from undue pressure by successive Italian governments. What is less clear however is that the legal fiction of Vatican statehood is necessary to ensure this. Why not for example a special provision in the Italian constitution?
Though a dispute over the existence or non-existence of a sovereign state called Vatican City might appear to be no more than some ethereal semantic game (like the theology practised within) it is in fact an urgent point of international law. Since serving heads of state are immune from foreign prosecution the Vicar of Christ may not, if considered such, be charged with perverting the course of justice with regard to his sexually deranged subordinates; nor can any relevant documentary evidence from the Vatican be forcibly seized. (The little we do know about Joseph Ratzinger’s determination to avoid the involvement of the secular law at all costs comes from a leaked paper trail, partly the work of American bishops who are no longer willing to take the fall for Rome.)
Legitimate states operate under the rule of law. Even amongst some of the most corrupt legal systems in the world we find, at least some of the time, that when the law is broken the criminal is punished. Not so in Vatican City. According to the leaked material, persistent child-molesters have been relocated, ignored or in one case urged onto a “spiritual retreat” by Ratzinger. If Vatican City is a state then it is a failed state – unable or unwilling to guarantee a fundamental human right to the victims of its government employees.
If however we actually think about the attributes of statehood, or the purpose of state visits, the papacy’s political pretensions are revealed for the shallow technicality they are.
Vatican City is not a surrogate for the world’s one billion Catholics as some commentators seem to imagine, nor is the pontiff in any position to influence their relations with the United Kingdom: they have their own national allegiances, their own heads of state. The actual population of the Holy See consists of the Pope, his toy-box bodyguard and the man who holds a lonely twenty-four hour vigil next to the shredder - in case he should ever receive a certain phone call from the papal solicitor. This is no more a state than Walmart. As Christopher Hitchens has often pointed out, the Vatican is far more accurately thought of as the managing executive of the world’s oldest multinational corporation.
                                 To be fair they do have a flag. But then...


When other foreign heads of state visit Britain they do not devote the bulk of their time to holding outdoor religious rallies, nor do they pause at each official engagement to sternly lecture us on our ‘values’ or supposed lack of them (an effect roughly comparable to receiving advice on monetary policy from Kim Jong-Il). No, they come to discuss the relations between states: issues like trade, security and international development.
Take trade. What for example is the annual worth of UK exports to the Vatican? How about Vatican exports to the UK? As far as we can tell it only produces two manufactures: cardinals and papal encyclicals, both increasingly senile attempts to impose a passionless template of human nature upon the world.
And security? Does His Holiness have any special information relating to international terrorism he wishes to share with the Prime Minister? The Pope’s only memorable contribution to liberal democracy’s current stand-off with armed Islamism was to inflame Muslim opinion in 2006 with an ill-chosen quotation from a 14th century Byzantine text, all too easily chiselled out of context by the usual troublemakers.
Finally 'international development'. The lethal misinformation concerning the efficacy of condoms distributed by the Catholic Church in Africa - with the shameless acquiescence of the Vatican - reduces the phrase to a dark parody of its intended meaning.
Both the moral and pragmatic grounds for pretending a cathedral is a country are deeply suspect. Vatican City is a state in name only, just as the celibate priests of the Roman Catholic Church are only nominal ‘fathers’. Seemingly however this is enough to justify spending £9 million worth of taxpayers’ money on its leader. For the next few days then, we will play host to this bookish old man, who is so much more interested in beatifying a Victorian theologian than redressing the injustices of his vast, mouldering institution. I for one plan to mark the occasion by reading my Book of Common Prayer, while masturbating a gay man into a condom.