God save the Queen

Anglicans have good reason to be grateful to Elizabeth II. But will the church-state link be quite s

The Church of England has announced its plans to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee later this year. It is hoping that all its 13,000 parishes will involve themselves with initiatives including The Big Jubilee Lunch, which "will see millions across the country joining together to have lunch on the afternoon of Sunday, June 3rd", and The Big Thank-You, in which churches and cathedrals will invite members of the congregation to add their names to a collective thank-you letter to the monarch. Containing an introductory paragraph by diocesan bishops, the letters "give the public a chance to say a few words in appreciation of 60 years of loyal service."

In some ways, this is the Church of England doing its job. The Establishment "deal", as conceived centuries ago, gave the Anglican church immense privileges within society (bishops in the House of Lords, for example) in exchange for the church giving its moral backing to the state. The monarchy remains the most visible symbol of the church-state link. As Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the Queen receives the "homage" of bishops on their appointment and even ordinary parish priests are expected to swear an oath of allegiance to her. Prayers for members of the royal family are offered daily in every C of E church in the land. (Francis Galton, the Victorian scientist and inventor of eugenics, once did a statistical analysis of the life-expectancy of members of the royal family and concluded that the prayers didn't work.)

The Queen promised in her Coronation Oath to "maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England" and to "preserve the rights and privileges" of Anglican clergy. But her formal religious duties are in fact fairly limited. She distributes symbolic coins to worthy pensioners at a cathedral each Maundy Thursday, and offers a prayer at each State Opening of Parliament that "the blessings of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels." Her presence at the annual Remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph might also be regarded as a religious occasion. At least technically, certain church appointments (such as parishes within the Duchy of Lancaster) are in the direct gift of the Crown. By and large, though, the monarch's position as head of the Church of England is a purely symbolic and ceremonial one.

But there's no doubt that the present Queen has taken a close personal interest in the religious aspect of her job. She is, by most accounts, personally devout. Certainly, her Christmas messages in recent years have been increasingly explicit in their Christian content. In the most recent, for example, she pronounced that "God sent into the world a unique person ... a Saviour, with the power to forgive" and offered a prayer that "We might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord." The Archbishop of Canterbury's own New Year Message contained rather fewer mentions of God.

So the Church of England's leaders have reason to be sincere in offering a "Big Thank You" to the Queen, not least for living and reigning for so long. Things might not be quite so straightforward under the next Sovereign. Prince Charles's interest in religion is well-known, but it would seem very different from the uncomplicated and quiet Anglicanism of his mother. He has famously expressed a desire to be "defender of faith" rather than "Defender of the Faith", a distinction that may seem more appropriate in a multi-faith society but which also implies a more problematic desire to involve himself in theological debates (as well as leaving atheists and agnostics seemingly undefended). Some of the more traditionally-minded clergy objected to his divorce and remarriage in a civil ceremony. A few even questioned its legality.

The next coronation, if indeed there is a next coronation, is unlikely to be an Anglican monopoly like that in 1953. Will the new king be expected, or willing, to swear to uphold "the Protestant reformed religion established by law"? It seems unlikely. But it seems even more unlikely that the Church of England would give up its official status easily, or even that it will be seriously questioned. I suspect that the C of E will be offering prayers, and even Big Thank-Yous, to monarchs for as long as the monarchy persists. Anachronisms survive best if they stick together.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.