The last Catholic Prime Minister?

James Bundy examines the legacy of Boris Johnson, the first – and perhaps final – Catholic Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

What an eventful time to be in Westminster!

I was in London during the week Boris Johnson fell as the charity I work for, Freedom Declared Foundation, was hosting fringe events for the Freedom of Religion or Belief International Ministerial.

Representatives of 60 governments from around the world discussed the best ways to champion Freedom of Religion or Belief, and how best we can support those who are suffering from religious persecution.

If you didn’t hear about it, the toppling of the Prime Minister rather stole the headlines but our panel on FoRB during Covid featured a Humanist, a Baha’i, a Jew, and a Christian and raised important concerns about the illegal closure of places of worship during the pandemic; the increasing rate of religious and belief illiteracy; and the policing of language.

This event happened in the IPU room, just off Westminster Hall. From a personal point of view, it was an honour to organise and host an event on domestic Freedom of Religion or Belief in this location as it was the place where St Thomas More was condemned to death because of his Faith.

I have a personal devotion to St Thomas More. His bravery and conviction is what is increasingly needed in our politics.

And in my Freedom Declared Foundation role, his martyrdom shows that Britain’s history is filled with religious persecution, and we cannot forget this when discussing Freedom of Religion or Belief in our United Kingdom today.

Before Freedom Declared Foundation’s event, the National Prayer Breakfast was hosted in Westminster Hall. Without realising it, one of the preachers was about to spark events that will shape modern British political history and will dominate the news for the coming months.

Reverend Les Isaac was talking about the importance of telling the truth and personal integrity when in a position of responsibility. One of the people in Westminster Hall was the then-Secretary of State for Health, Sajid Javid.

Listening to these words, Javid decided he had to resign from the Cabinet led by Boris Johnson.

Javid’s resignation on the Tuesday evening sparked resignations en masse. Despite trying to cling on to power, it became evidently clear that there could be no functioning government with Boris Johnson as leader. Finally accepting this reality, Johnson announced his resignation as Conservative Party leader on the Thurs- day morning and will step down as Prime Minister on September 5 when a new leader is elected.

Despite only being Prime Minister for three years and dividing opinion, Boris Johnson will be remembered. Not least as the Prime Minister who broke the Brexit deadlock and oversaw Britain’s departure from the European Union. But what I believe is most historic about his premiership is the fact that he was the first Catholic Prime Minister of our United Kingdom.

Not since the end of the reign of King James VII & II in 1688 had there been a Catholic leader within the British Isles. He was baptised a Catholic following the wishes of his mother, Charlotte Johnson Wahl. He was also married in a Catholic church, Westminster Cathedral, which described them as parishioners.

While he’s declined to discuss his Faith publicly, if we consider the legislation passed in the 17th century to prohibit Catholics from public office, those drafters would have no doubt that Johnson was a Catholic.

It’s perhaps consistent with the guddled history of Catholicism in these isles that having been barred from leading the country for centuries, when a Catholic did finally become Prime Minister, it wasn’t clear he was a Catholic, very few of his actions suggested he was a Catholic and many Catholics didn’t want to admit he was a Catholic!

Nonetheless a Catholic Prime Minister should have been a symbolic point in our country’s history. A signal that one’s Catholic Faith should not be a barrier to the highest elected office in the land.

But is this really the case?

It is no secret that Boris Johnson aligned himself with the more socially liberal section of the Conservative Party and as noted never publicly spoke about his Faith.

Would a Catholic who spoke openly about their Faith or went against the liberal grain on cultural issues make it to 10 Downing Street today? With the increasing aggressive secularism in British society, as highlighted in Freedom Declared Foundation’s event at the Freedom of Religion or Belief Ministerial, I highly doubt it.

In any case whatever the religion of the next Prime Minister, one of the biggest challenge they will face is that people are losing trust in their politicians and parliament. Our political leaders need to show personal integrity. They need to tell the public the truth. They must follow the rules that they implement.

Wherever they draw their moral inspiration from, having those qualities is what I’m looking for in our next Prime Minister.

James Bundy is the operations manager of the Freedom Declared Foundation and a Scottish Conservative Councillor for Falkirk North.

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