THE Government will “stain the reputation” of the country “for a very long time” if it does not reverse its plan to outsource the UK’s responsibilities for asylum-seekers to Rwanda, the former Prime Minister Sir John Major has said.
In a speech to the National Cathedrals Conference in Newcastle Cathedral on Monday, Sir John said: “In England, in 1763, Lord Chancellor Henley said: ‘If a man steps foot in England, he is a free man.’ Today, under the pressure of numbers, if that man is a refugee in a rubber boat, he receives a chilly welcome and the threat of deportation to Rwanda.
“I cannot believe that is the right way forward: such a policy is not a moral advance, and I hope the Government will look again. We need a policy that is Europe-wide to contain people-smuggling and help the miserable and unfortunate victims of this trade.”
Sir John, who was Conservative Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997, acknowledged the difficulties that the Government faced in dealing with immigration. But he said: “However you look at this policy, it is wrong to forcibly transport people to a far-away land, when all that most are seeking is a better life.
“I hope — in their own interests — the whole Cabinet will reject this policy. If they do not, they will stain not only their own reputation, but that of the entire Government — and, most of all, our country — for a very long time.”
The plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda was denounced by the Archbishop of Canterbury and other faith leaders after it was announced last month (News, 22 April). The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and other Conservative MPs accused church leaders of misconstruing the proposal.
In his speech, Sir John defended the right of church leaders to comment publicly on matters of politics “in its wider sense. . . The Church mustn’t be pushed into the sidelines of life. It must be alive in our communities, in our discourse, in our daily concerns. Politics is about how we live; that cannot — and should not — be ignored by the Church.”
Two “blockbusting events” would affect the UK’s future, Sir John said: Brexit (“our modern-day break with Rome”), and Covid. “Brexit divided our four nations and our politics, as well as family from family, and friend from friend,” he said. “If Scotland and Northern Ireland secede from the UK, Brexit must bear a part of that blame.”
It was not realistic, he said, for the UK to re-enter the European Union “for many years”, he said. “An early attempt to do so would fail, and worsen the ruptures in our national politics system. Nor could we rejoin upon the favourable terms we once enjoyed.
“But attitudes to Europe may change when today’s young, in due time, govern our nation. All the evidence suggests they are overwhelmingly pro-European.”
Regarding Covid, Sir John praised the Government for acting “boldly” in establishing the furlough scheme and for the swift roll-out of the vaccine scheme.
“But there remain valid questions to be answered about advice to the public; wasteful expenditure; a lack of control over fraud; the decision to transfer elderly patients from hospital to care homes; and the slipshod manner of awarding Covid-related contracts.
“A public inquiry has been promised and should not be delayed. At the very least, the country deserves an interim report within this Parliament.”
Urgent action was needed, Sir John said, to tackle the “serious inequalities” in the UK, which had been exacerbated by both Covid and Brexit.
“In times of austerity, we are told that we are ‘all in it together’,” he said. “If so, then logically, we should ‘all be in it together’ in times of prosperity. I hope the Government will devise a policy that encourages ‘trickle down’ and shares national growth more fairly.”
He also spoke of the financial challenges facing C of E’s parishes, and referred to “doubt around whether a nationwide parochial system can be sustained”.
It was “a Herculean task”, he said: “The Church of England — with its cathedrals and parish churches — is responsible for a very large part of our architectural and cultural heritage, including no less than 45 per cent of all Grade 1 listed buildings.
“The lion’s share of the cost of maintaining this huge community asset falls on the diminishing number of regular worshippers. This is both unjust and, in the longer term, unsustainable.
“Some argue that it may be necessary to close churches, reduce the number of stipendiary clergy, and sell assets. I do hope not.
“It would be a grim outlook, and I hope Christians will rally to prevent it. Churches are not only part of our lives — they are also an important part of our landscape. If lost, we would all be the poorer. And by ‘we’ I don’t mean churchgoers only — I mean everyone.”
The second National Cathedrals Conference began in Newcastle Cathedral on Monday. The conference, “Different Country, Different Church”, included talks, workshops, and debate about the direction of the Church on social, racial, and climate justice.
Addressing the conference on Tuesday, the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, who is the C of E’s lead bishop on the environment, encouraged cathedrals to reduce their fossil-fuel-related emissions, as part of the C of E’s 2030 target for net zero emissions (News, 14 February 2020).
“In the main, churches and cathedrals are currently heated by burning oil and gas, the very fossil fuels which are contributing to climate change,” he said. Reaching the 2030 net zero target would be “challenging and costly”, he said. But the announcement that the Church Commissioners would provide £190 million of funding over the next nine years to support the target provided “enormous encouragement”. The money would need “to be spent wisely so as to gain the greatest impact and the best sharing of good practice”.
Several speakers addressed the conference on the theme of social justice. The chief executive of the Children’s Society, Mark Russell, spoke on Tuesday of cathedrals’ “potential to be a gathering place for communities” in which social-justice issues could be debated and support could be galvanised.
Dr Selina Stone, a tutor and lecturer in political theology at St Mellitus College, also speaking on Tuesday, said that cathedrals could be “spaces” for telling “multiple stories” about “this complex world we are now living in”.
The head of bishoprics and cathedrals for the Church Commissioners, Michael Minta, and the Assistant Director of Registration and Customer Service at the Charity Commission, Jenny Stewart, are due to speak on Thursday about the Cathedrals Measure, which overhauls cathedral administration, financial controls, and regulation (News, 27 November 2020).
The conference is due to close on Thursday with a keynote address by the Archbishop of York on “the communication between Church and nation”.
Read Sir John Major’s speech here, or watch it here.
Listen to an extended extract from the speech on the Church Times Podcast.