GOVERNMENT policies are causing fear and anger, the Archbishop of Canterbury said this week.
In this week’s New Statesman, Dr Williams writes about the proposed reforms in health and education. “With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted.” As a result, “the Government badly needs to hear just how much plain fear there is around questions such as these at present.”
On Thursday, government figures responded robustly to Dr Williams’s comments. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, said: “I profoundly disagree with many of the views he has expressed.”
Dr Williams acknowledges the “widespread suspicion” that the Big Society initiative has been promoted for “opportunistic or money-saving reasons”, and writes: “even the term has fast become painfully stale.”
Dr Williams’s leader comment was described as “a bold political intervention” by the editor of the New Statesman, Jason Cowley, who invited Dr Williams to guest-edit this edition. Other guest editors have included Alastair Campbell, Ken Livingstone, Melvyn Bragg, and Jemima Khan.
Dr Williams has commissioned contributions from the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, Gordon Brown, Philip Pullman (who writes about being a “Church of England atheist”), Terry Eagleton, Richard Curtis, Maurice Glasman, and Iain Duncan Smith. He interviews the Foreign Secretary, William Hague. A short story by A. S. Byatt appears, as do columns by Tom Hollander and Lucy Winkett.
In his leader, Dr Williams criticises a lack of debate to accompany government reforms. “Not many people want government by plebiscite, certainly. But, for example, the comprehensive reworking of the Education Act 1944 that is now going forward might well be regarded as a proper matter for open probing in the context of election debates.The anxiety and anger have to do with the feeling that not enough has been exposed to proper public argument.”
He suggests that, if civil society must pick up responsibilities shed by government, certain services must be given “cast-iron guarantees of nationwide standards, parity, and continuity”. He asks what is to happen to “what most would see as root issues: child poverty, poor literacy, the deficit in access to educational excellence, sustainable infrastructure in poorer communities (rural as well as urban), and so on”.
And he states that the Big Society is not equipped to pick up the pieces. “The uncomfortable truth is that, while grass-roots initiatives and local mutualism are to be found flourishing in a great many places, they have been weakened by several decades of cultural fragmentation. The old syndicalist and co-operative traditions cannot be reinvented overnight and, in some areas, they have to be invented for the first time.”
He does not spare the Labour Party, either. “We are still waiting for a full and robust account of what the left would do differently and what a left-inspired version of localism might look like.”
Asked about the New Statesman article in Belfast, before addressing the Northern Ireland Assembly, Mr Cameron said Dr Williams “should be entirely free to express political views”. But he said: “I profoundly disagree with many of the views he has expressed, particularly on issues like debt and on welfare and education.”
Mr Cameron said it was not “good or even moral” if the country stopped “paying down our debts and just pass that down to our children”; nor was it “good or right for us to pay people to stay on welfare, trapped in poverty”.
Mr Cameron also defended the Big Society, saying it was “an enormous opportunity . . . not just for the Church of England but for all religious organisations and faith groups”.
Responding to Dr Williams’s claim that there was “a quiet resurgence of the seductive language of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor”, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, said he had “never spoken about the deserving or undeserving poor”. He said “the system” was “damaging the very people it seeks to serve”, and had itself “created an underserving group”.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Lord Tebbit, the former Conservative minister who described the Church of England’s 1985 Faith in the City in report as “Marxist”, said: “No one would dispute the right of the Archbishop to make comments of a political kind in this area; it’s part of his job, I think, to do so. And he’s quite right there are policies of the Coalition for which nobody seemed to vote and policies for which people voted which are not being carried through by the Coalition. But that’s the problem of coalition.”
Speaking on the same programme, the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, said that Dr Williams was acting as “a critical friend” of the Government, and raising “issues which are of concern to the constituencies we represent.
“What he’s saying is . . . it has come to be [that] we have a speed and scale of change which is sometimes hard to cope with.”
Christian contribution. In his sermon for Ascension Day, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 last week, Dr Williams warned Christians against false optimism. “If the world looks and feels like a world without God, the Christian doesn’t try to say, ‘It’s not as bad as all that,’ or seek to point to clear signs of God’s presence that make everything all right.
“The Christian will acknowledge that the situation is harsh, even apparently unhopeful — but will dare to say that they are willing to bring hope by what they offer in terms of compassion and service. And their own willingness and capacity for this is nourished by the prayer that the Spirit of Jesus has made possible for them.”