The former deputy Labour leader, a 'hardened atheist', was so intrigued by British Catholics he wrote a 600-page history of them

I am in the book-lined study of a flat deep in the shadow of Westminster Cathedral. On the table sits The Catholics: The Church and its People in Britain and Ireland from the Reformation to the Present Day and opposite me is its author, Roy Hattersley: former Labour Cabinet Minister, retired peer, hardened atheist.

The “hardened atheist” tag comes from the dust jacket of the book. Is it a fair description? “It’s an accurate description, I think. I’m not quite sure what ‘hardened’ means, but I’m an uncompromising atheist. Agnosticism is a very weak condition. There’s no evidence for God and therefore I’m an atheist.” Has he ever wavered in his conviction? “Never.”

There is no trace of doubt: not in his words, not in his voice, not in his eyes. His unbelief is rock solid. “I remember being 17 in the sixth form, arguing my case. My atheism was certainly in full flood by then. Nothing has changed.”

My next question more or less asks itself. How does an uncompromising atheist come to write what is, in many respects, an admiring 600-page history of Catholics?

He acknowledges that it seems “perverse”, though it isn’t the only time that he has tackled religious themes: among his 25 published works are biographies of John Wesley and of William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army.

His reason for writing The Catholics was twofold. First, “I’m a professional writer and this is a good story.” The book (glowingly reviewed in these pages by AN Wilson) shows Hattersley to be a very fine storyteller. He has long since shed the skin of a politician and is on extended leave of absence from the House of Lords (“They won’t allow you to retire”).

Journalism too is a thing of the past: he wrote the last of his regular Guardian columns when he was 75. He is now 84. What remains is “a great desire to write long books”.

“The thing that attracts me to Catholics is moral certainty,” he says. This is the second driver behind the book and one he expounds on in the introduction: “With the exception of the sanctity of life and the need to create a more equal society, I am riddled with doubt about every philosophical precept and can find exceptions to every moral rule. So I can only envy men and women who, thanks to the received truth of scripture, the writings of the early fathers and the judgment of St Peter’s successors, know, more often than not, what is right and what is wrong.”

This kind of certainty was something entirely absent from his upbringing: “My mother used to say that we weren’t religious, we were Church of England.” Hattersley came from an aspiring middle-class family in Sheffield. His mother and father, in pursuit of respectability, attended Evensong occasionally, but they never discussed faith with him. He reckons his parents were “perhaps agnostic”.

This, however, is only to scratch the surface of a quite remarkable tale. On the face of it his father, Frederick, was “a lowly local government official”. Yet 10 days after his death, Roy, by then nearly 40, opened a condolence letter from the Rt Rev William Ellis, which began, “as you will know, we were at the English College in Rome together and were young priests in the diocese of which I became bishop.”

Frederick Hattersley, it turned out, had been a parish priest in Nottingham. He agreed to instruct Enid Brackenbury in anticipation of her marriage to a young collier and then performed the wedding ceremony. Two weeks later, the priest and bride ran away together, eventually married and, for 45 years, “they lived in bliss”.

In retrospect, Hattersley realised that countless apparently unreligious conversations with his father were littered with clues to his past. On visits to historic churches, Frederick would translate Latin tombstone inscriptions on sight.

While Hattersley has never crossed the road from his London flat to attend a service in the Cathedral, his father once slept there. He tells me the story somewhat sheepishly, but it is quite a good one.

“My father loved Rome. He didn’t need any excuse to talk about it. He was a poor boy, sent to public school. His Latin wasn’t good enough for going to university, so he spent a year working for Thomas Cook at Termini railway station while he learnt Latin. When he was coming home, he slept in Westminster Cathedral because he’d missed his train north. He saw an old man tinkering with the Stations of the Cross. It was Eric Gill.” (Clearly, Hattersley’s father recounted this whole story to his son without ever letting slip that he had also once been a Roman priest.)

Hattersley has described the history of the Catholics of Britain and Ireland as “a series of adventure stories, some of which have happy endings”. Who, then, are the heroes of these stories?

“John Fisher did everything right. He was unostentatious. He didn’t push for preferment. He fought the good fight as he saw it. I was very impressed by Cardinal Pole as well. He is underrated. He ran England for five years and hardly anyone has heard of him. And, as the Book of Martyrs says, he was ‘not a regular burner’.

“And Manning. He made Catholicism count as part of society in the 19th century. But the real heroes are the little people who went willingly to the flames because they believed.”

Hattersley also describes the history of the Church as “a series of crises which never quite turned into catastrophes”. What, though, of the abuse crisis? “I don’t think it’s a catastrophe. I think they pulled themselves out of it in the end, not least because of Vincent Nichols. Now there is a very firm policy that the child’s interests must come first. But they were terrible years for the Catho­lic Church in England.

“What fascinated me about it was that it was the Reformation all over again, the argument between the secular power and the ecclesiastical power: ‘We’re not having the secular powers try our priests.’ And Nichols, when he was the assistant bishop working for Hume, was the one who put his foot down and said, ‘the children must come first’.”

He greatly admires the current Archbishop of Westminster (who had a statue of John Fisher in his bedroom when he was a small boy in Liverpool and has written a biography of the saint). The two recently shared the stage at the Oxford Literary Festival, where the cardinal commended Hattersley’s book to the sold-out audience.

I conclude our interview with the obvious but irresistible question for anyone who has taken the long view of things as Hattersley has. If Catherine of Aragon had produced a male heir, would England have remained a Catholic nation? Another straight answer: “Yes.”

But then, for the first time, some prevarication: “Well, I say yes, but I shouldn’t jump to conclusions. The Reformation was not simply about the desire of Henry to marry Anne Boleyn. It was about his dissatisfaction with his relationship with Rome. His nominee for Pope had been turned down twice. The Pope had divided South America between Portugal and Spain.

“Therefore there was this feeling that we could do better outside. And he was under great theological pressure from Cranmer and political pressure from Cromwell. Perhaps my ‘yes’ was too emphatic. I think Henry would have wanted a sort of loose relationship rather than a total break.”

With that, we part company. Hattersley is leaving Westminster and heading back north to Derby and another bunch of determined underdogs, perhaps like the Catholics “more sinned against than sinning”: the day before we met, he had agreed his next project with his publisher – a history of coal and coalminers.

Michael Duggan is a freelance writer

This article first appeared in the April 21 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here