A very British anomaly

It's time to end the historic right of Anglican bishops to sit in the House of Lords.

One thing above all stood out from Rowan Williams's evidence yesterday evening to the Parliamentary committee looking at proposals to reform the House of Lords, and that is that the Church of England is very keen to maintain its peculiar historic privilege of having bishops in the legislature. Indeed, he and the church he leads see it as a vital part of their wider role in British society.

The present situation might be seen as anomalous, he conceded (albeit "a constructive anomaly"). There were no ecclesiastical representatives deputed from Scotland (where the Presbyterian church also has official status) or from Wales or Northern Ireland, where there are no established churches. In a multi-faith society the absence of automatic representation for other religions might also be seen as problematic. Williams wouldn't object were some mechanism found for incorporating Jewish, Muslim or Hindu leaders, though he foresaw problems in identifying such leaders. But he didn't seem to think of this as much as a priority, in any case, since the religious voice was so well represented already by himself and by his fellow Anglican prelates.

It's at times like these that you realise the centrality of its legal establishment to the Church of England's sense of itself. The word is not ill-chosen. The church is indeed part of the British Establishment, and it shares vital characteristics with other parts of the country's ruling elite: an air of benignity and good intentions, impeccable good manners, a ready espousal of progressive ideals (more recently coupled with an enthusiasm for fashionable jargon), above all a sense of unshakable entitlement to its own historic privileges and a rat-like cunning in preserving them.

A perfect illustration of the latter came in what was by far the most newsworthy part of the Archbishop of Canterbury's presentation -- his suggestion that the first women bishops be fast-tracked into the House of Lords, thus avoiding a long wait until one of them achieved the necessary seniority. The church, he said, was "very conscious that one of the reproaches that can be laid against the bench [of bishops] is that it's not exactly representative in gender terms."

A lovely piece of Williams understatement, that. The implication is that a quota of Anglican bishops that did include a woman would be somehow more legitimate -- and thus have more of a right to be part of the legislature -- than an all-male one. But this is neither a good argument for having bishops in the House of Lords, nor for ordaining women bishops.

Another classic piece of Anglican chutzpah was Williams's claim that the job of the bishops was not to represent the interests of the Church of England at all. In fact, they were "bishops of the realm", uniquely able to provide a "faith perspective" on legislation. Williams was at pains to point out that the bishops weren't just there for the Anglicans, or even for the Christians. They formed a focus for "the web of relationships in communities they serve". They were able to "bring their experience to bear on all aspects of civil society". They had a "unique capacity to express common values". They even had (in their dioceses) "something like constituencies".

All this may be true. I'm sure that bishops, on the whole, are wonderful people. And I wouldn't deny that faith leaders have a part to play in the wider debate surrounding proposed legislation -- as do the leaders of other interest groups in the country. Nor is it unreasonable that when crossbench peers are appointed -- assuming that a future second chamber is not to be wholly elected -- present and former faith leaders be considered as candidates. But it's something else entirely to argue that a particular subset of religious leaders should also be ex-officio legislators.

In what was perhaps his most audacious comment in favour of the status quo, Rowan Williams suggested that for him and his fellow prelates to be ejected from a reformed second chamber (something that doesn't form part of the present reform proposals) "would be to send a signal that the voice of faith is not welcomed" in the legislative process. It would represent, in other words, not just a snub to the Church of England but for religion as a whole.

But that's nonsense. In no other democracy would such a confusion of religious leadership and law-making even be imagined. Bishops, and other faith leaders, play a valuable and significant role in society. So do members of both houses of Parliament. But it is in no sense the same job. Taking bishops out of the House of Lords would free them to devote more time to their diocesan responsibilities; to become better bishops. Sometimes the only thing to do with an historical anomaly is to end it.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.