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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Is Scottish Labour on the way back, or heading for civil war?

There are signs of life, but also recriminations.

The extraordinary rise of the Scottish Tories and the collapse in SNP seat numbers grabbed most of the headlines in the recent general election. Less remarked on was the sudden, unexpected exhalation of air that came from what was thought to be the corpse of Scottish Labour.

In 2015, Labour lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats as the SNP rocketed from six to 56, was wiped out in its Glaswegian heartlands, and looked to have ceded its place as the choice of centre-left voters – perhaps permanently – to the Nationalists. But while the electorate’s convulsion in June against the SNP’s insistence on a second independence referendum most benefited Ruth Davidson, it also served to reanimate Labour.

The six seats grabbed back (making a total of seven) included three in the West of Scotland, proving that the Nat stranglehold on Labour’s territory was not quite as secure as it had seemed. There is, it appears, life in the old dog yet.

Not only that, but the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn across the UK has stiffened Labour’s spine when it comes to insisting that it, and not the SNP, is the rightful home of Scotland’s socialists.

Corbyn was largely kept south of the border during the election campaign – Kezia Dugdale, the leader at Holyrood, had supported Owen Smith’s leadership challenge. But in August, Corbyn will embark on a five-day tour of marginal SNP constituencies that Labour could potentially take back at the next election. The party has set a target of reclaiming 18 Scottish seats as part of the 64 it needs across Britain to win a majority at Westminster. The trip will focus on traditional areas such as Glasgow and Lanarkshire, where tiny swings would return seats to the People’s Party. Dugdale is no doubt hoping for some reflected glory.

Corbyn will present himself as the authentically left-wing choice, a leader who will increase public spending and invest in public services compared to the austerity of the Tories and the timidity of the SNP. “Labour remains on an election footing as a government-in-waiting, ready to end failed austerity and ensure that Scotland has the resources it needs to provide the public services its people deserve,” he said. “Unlike the SNP and the Tories, Labour will transform our economy through investment, insisting that the true wealth creators - that means all of us – benefit from it.”

The SNP has benefited in recent years from the feeling among many north of the border that Labour and the Tories were committed to differing shades of a similar economic programme, that was starving public services of cash and that paid little attention to Scottish desires or needs. But as the Nats’ spell in government in Edinburgh has worn on, first under Alex Salmond and now Nicola Sturgeon, with little being done to tackle the nation’s social problems, patience has started to run out.

Dugdale said yesterday that she “looked forward to joining Jeremy in August as we take our message to the people of Scotland”. That’s not a sentiment we would have heard from her before June. But it does raise the future spectacle of Davidson’s Tories battling for the centre and centre-right vote and Labour gunning for the left. The SNP, which has tried to be all things to all people, will have to make a choice – boasting that it is “Scotland’s Party” is unlikely to be enough.

The 20th anniversary of the referendum that delivered the Scottish Parliament is almost upon us. Then, Scottish Labour provided the UK and the Westminster government with figures of the stature of Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson. That was a long time ago, and the decline in quality of Labour’s representatives both in London and Edinburgh since has been marked. The SNP’s decade of success has attracted much of the brightest new talent through its doors. Young Scots still seem to be set on the idea of independence. Labour has a credibility problem that won’t be easily shaken off.

But still, the body has twitched – perhaps it’s even sitting up. Is Scottish Labour on the way back? If so, is that down to the SNP’s declining popularity or to Corbyn’s appeal? And could Dugdale be a convincing frontwoman for a genuinely left-wing agenda?

There may be trouble ahead. Yesterday, the Scottish Labour Campaign for Socialism – whose convener, Neil Findlay MSP, ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign in Scotland – accused Dugdale of “holding Corbyn back” in June. A spokesperson for the group said: “While it’s great we won some seats back, it’s clear that the campaign here failed to deliver. While elsewhere we've seen people being enthused by ‘for the many, not the few’ we concentrated on the dispiriting visionless ‘send Nicola a message’ – and paid a price for that, coming third in votes and seats for the first time in a century. In Scotland we looked more like [former Scottish leader] Jim Murphy’s Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn’s – and that isn’t a good look.”

While the group insists this isn’t intended as a challenge to Dugdale, that might change if Corbyn receives a rapturous reception in August. We’ll learn then whether Scotland is falling for the high-tax, high-spending pitch that seems to be working so well elsewhere, and whether Scottish Labour has jerked back to life only to find itself staring down the barrel of a civil war.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).