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”.

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