Rowan Williams – Missing the Point to a Heroic Extent
The Archbishop of Canterbury has been attacking the government for doing things that, according to him, scare people.
He specifically criticised government policies on health, education and welfare reform. He accused the government of pursuing
radical, long-term policies for which no-one voted
At the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context.
Many have been criticising His Grace for making overtly political statements. I do not share that criticism. He is entitled to speak on such matters, and as leader of his church, even has a duty to do so. His role is to speak for the Church of England, and if that church has opinions or views that are affected by such matters, then he should present the church’s views on those matters. That is his job and his role, and he was quite appropriately speaking for the church and not claiming to speak “for Britain”.
Whether his pronouncements will have any effect is another matter. The majority in this country are not Christian now – significant numbers follow other religions, and the biggest number are atheist or agnostic. The C of E is not even the biggest Christian church in this country. (There are more Catholics practicising now than Anglicans.) Therefore most people probably do not care very much what the Archbishop thinks. That is sad, but almost certainly true.
Whether his opinions are right is even less certain.
On education, the Archbishop is talking nonsense, frankly. The government’s reforms in that area are so timid as to be almost invisible. They have really just continued with the direction the previous government was taking, and not even upped the pace. It might be valid to say that Conservative voters did not vote for measures like the “pupil premium” – under which schools in poor areas get more money – but somehow I think that wasn’t the aspect of the government’s policy that offended the Archbishop!
Our education service needs fundamental and radical reform, and I see no evidence the government is providing that. The Archbishop, apparently, thinks the reforms are being introduced with “remarkable speed”. In fact, the speed is only remarkable by being so glacially slow.
On health, he is on firmer ground in the sense that the government’s health reforms are clearly in a political mess. On the other hand, he is completely wrong to suggest that the voters did not vote for the changes. Here are some of the things the Conservative manifesto said:
we will give every patient the power to choose any healthcare provider that meets NHS standards, within NHS prices. this includes independent, voluntary and community sector providers
We will strengthen the power of GPs as patients’ expert guides through the health system by:
• giving them the power to hold patients’ budgets and commission care on their behalf;
• linking their pay to the quality of their results; and,
• putting them in charge of commissioning local health services.
We will set NHS providers free to innovate by ensuring that they become autonomous foundation trusts.
The manifesto, then, was pretty explicit about the health reforms, and if nobody bothered to find out what the Conservatives thought before voting for them, I have no sympathy. Perhaps His Grace should have read the manifesto himself before the election and drawn the attention of his flock to its contents then.
What about welfare reform? The manifesto was much less comprehensive on that. After the election, Iain Duncan Smith carried out a review of the benefit system. There was, in fact, extremely wide consultation about the single “Unified Benefit” that he is introducing. The paper he put out presented several options for reform, and also requested more ideas. If the Archbishop made any complaints during the consultation, or provided any new ideas himself, I did not hear them.
Apparently the Archbishop also criticises the government’s welfare reforms, complaining of a
quiet resurgence of the seductive language of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor”
I have to say I have not heard such language from the Tories – more’s the pity. It is eminently clear, and should be to the Archbishop, that some of the poor are indeed “undeserving” – that they really do not want to work and support themselves.
It is the “deserving poor” – the ones who genuinely are poor through no moral fault of their own – that are the biggest victims of the failure to recognise the difference. The scroungers take money that could be directed towards the deserving, and they ruin the reputation of the decent, deserving poor.
Yes, that language is seductive, simply because it is right. I can understand that the Archbishop, as a Church of England leader, is uncomfortable with the concept of moral right and wrong. He should move outside his comfort zone and consider the duty of his church to uphold those concepts.
Finally, the Archbishop apparently criticised the “Big Society” idea, saying it was viewed with “widespread suspicion”, that it was a “stale slogan” and that it is viewed as “opportunistic” cover for spending cuts. Ho hum. I wonder how a “stale slogan” can be “opportunistic”?
More seriously, though, the Big Society idea is feeble, not because it is cover for spending cuts, but because it is empty and meaningless.
Perhaps the Archbishop should put his own house in order on that. His church should be at the forefront of encouraging voluntary work and involvement of ordinary citizens. It should be urging people not to leave everything to the State, but instead to get out and help the people around them. Indeed, many of his flock do just that to great effect – the church, for example, runs many of the best primary schools in Britain. He should be helping the government put flesh on the empty bones of the “Big Society” slogan, not criticising its thrust.
The government certainly deserves to be attacked – but from the other direction.
It should be attacked for being too timid, not for being too bold.
It should be attacked for not cutting down the size of the State enough, not for cutting too much. It is slowing down Labour’s planned spending increases a little, whereas it should be imposing proper cuts.
It should be attacked for failing to reform education, not for going too fast, and for botching its health reforms, not for undertaking them in the first place.
It should be attacked for failing to deliver relief for Britain’s hard-pressed citizens from an overbearing State. It should be attacked for continuing to take too much of people’s money, and using too much of it to manipulate and control every aspect of their lives. It should be attacked, not for failing to intervene, but for interving too much. It should be attacked for replacing mandation with “nudges” when it should be replacing mandation with freedom.
In short, it should be attacked for not delivering the Big Society, and not even planning to do so.
There is such a thing as Society. And with David Cameron’s Tories, it is very much the same thing as the State.