TONY BLAIR used to call it the masochism strategy: taking critics head on and standing up before a hostile audience to put your case. The Archbishop of Canterbury did something similar last week. After prolonged criticism in the right-wing press for his robust Easter Day sermon criticising the Government’s new asylum policy (Press, 22 April), he put his name to an article in The Daily Telegraph outlining his perspective on the issue (News, 29 April).
I am not sure that it would have converted many not already convinced of the justice of Archbishop Welby’s case; nor did it particularly answer the critics who asked what he would do instead of the Home Secretary’s, wheeze of sending unspecified numbers of undefined categories of refugees on one-way tickets to Rwanda. The answer seemed to be: “We can and must do better,” with a side order of condemnation of the evil crime of people-trafficking, which, in so far as it went, was little better than the “something must be done” imperative on the government benches.
That did not stop the tricoteuses in the Telegraph Twittersphere from emerging from their caves. “Has the preposterous Welby actually thought about what he has written?” one Nicholas Dixon wrote. “And sod the British people, eh Welby? . . . keep shipping in more third worlders,” added another, named Daley Male — possibly a pseudonym — who may have strayed from another publication.
This is the small change of discourse on the internet these days, and politer than some, though none the wiser, nor better informed. When I joined the Telegraph as a reporter on the paper’s venerable Peterborough diary column, in 1984, the then editor, Bill Deedes, told me: “The thing is, we don’t like to wound anyone, unlike Dempster on the Mail”; but that is a rule that is long gone now. Truly, not even the Telegraph represents the Church of England at prayer these days.
MEANWHILE, the Daily Express opened another front on the Bishops. Now they are not only wrong-headed, but, by spouting opinions that the newspaper and presumably its readers disagree with, they ought to be kicked out of their entitled seats in Parliament altogether.
While there are perfectly good and reasoned arguments for this, that was not the Express’s purpose. Under the deathless headline “Your time is up Justin!” it quoted an opinion poll from a company, Techne, suggesting that 62 per cent of the public want the Bishops to be thrown out of the Lords, and that just 19 per cent are happy for them to stay.
How widespread or urgent this feeling is among the public is hard to say, not least because the newspaper did not publish the number polled, the question asked, nor, indeed, the method of polling. Nevertheless, it found Marco Longhi, the Tory MP for Dudley North, to voice what the Express divined as growing disquiet that bishops were no longer interested in faith, but in pushing a “woke” agenda. “The Archbishop is entitled to his opinion,” Longhi said, generously. “And I am entitled to mine. At least I have an elected mandate. . . he should not assume to know what God knows in my humble opinion.”
A MORE substantial critique came from the conservative Archbishop Cranmer website, which asserted that charity must begin at home: “The Archbishop of Canterbury thinks we should add (indeed facilitate the arrival) of millions of asylum seekers (who may well be economic migrants). . . This is economic illiteracy masquerading as Christian socialism. . . It is a de facto ‘open borders’ policy because Jesus doesn’t like insularity.”
Hm. I am not sure that Archbishop Welby is advocating allowing in millions, but a bit of charity wouldn’t come amiss, or some generosity of spirit, at least towards those who do arrive here. Cranmer himself, having given the Archbishop a good kicking, did not say in the piece whether he thought the Rwanda scheme was a good idea.
Or even workable. As an article in Prospect magazine by the freelance journalist Sanjana Varghese pointed out, the welcome given to Ukrainian refugees “only throws into sharp relief the abominable treatment of those who have come from other countries, which inevitably hews across racialised faultlines. . . there are countless examples of the cruelty behind the UK’s immigration bureaucracy. . .
“Since 2012 many asylum seekers who are awaiting a decision on their application have to physically go to a local ‘reporting centre’ . . . to confirm that they are still in the UK. At any visit people can be taken away to a detention centre marked either for indefinite detention or deportation. All this serves to do is remind vulnerable people of their insecure status.”
Varghese referred to the case of Trevor Donald, deported to Jamaica, a country that he had left at the age of 11, and then refused residency in Britain because of his absence from the UK at the time he was appealing.
Stephen Bates is a former religious affairs correspondent of The Guardian.
Andrew Brown is away.