Ruth Kelly

Ruth Kelly MP (picture Skuds/Flickr)

As the film of The Da Vinci Code is about to open, attention has unsurprisingly returned to Ruth Kelly. You may recall that she is the cabinet minister rumoured to be a member of Opus Dei: she refuses to discuss it, saying that her religious beliefs are a private matter.

She was moved in the reshuffle last week to become Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, which includes responsibility for women and equality. Eyebrows were raised in the newspapers and the blogosphere at the prospect of a minister for equality who does not believe in it. Ruth Kelly, so the reports go, has been careful never to vote in favour of gay rights, and has famously declined the opportunity to declare that homosexuality is not a sin.

It’s not the place of this blog to take a view on matters of religion, but we have been here before.

Let’s go back 18 months to the nomination of Rocco Buttiglione as a European Commissioner. He was to be responsible for justice and internal affairs including, conveniently for the purposes of this blog posting, equality. Only he too did not believe in it.

In questioning before the European Parliament, it became clear that, whatever he might say about his proposed portfolio, his heart was not in it. The European Union is committed to advancing equality and fighting discrimination on grounds of race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, and a number of other reasons, too. It made no sense to have a Commissioner in charge of the work who did not want to see it succeed.

“Many things may be considered immoral which should not be prohibited,” he said. “I may think that homosexuality is a sin, and this has no effect on politics, unless I say that homosexuality is a crime.”

The MEPs were not convinced. They wanted a Commissioner they could trust to be committed to advancing this portfolio, not someone who could be suspected of trying to retard it. Some of the same things have been said, fairly or not, about Ruth Kelly.

The difference lies in what happened to them. Mr Buttiglione was the subject of a revolt by the European Parliament: the new Commission would not be ratified if he retained these responsibilities. The Parliament got its way and Mr Buttiglione did not get his job. In the case of Ruth Kelly, however, there was no parliamentary revolt. Criticisms may be voiced by some MPs off stage, but the political appointment went through regardless. No public hearing, no vote of confirmation. Quite different from the fate of Mr Buttiglione.

In conclusion, I suppose that the next time someone refers to a toothless parliament, you can point out that they must be referring to Westminster and not Strasbourg.

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