In this week’s New Statesman: The fight for the Church of England’s soul

George Pitcher writes on Rowan Williams, the political church, and who comes next. PLUS: John Bercow, the runaway speaker.

George Pitcher: Between church and state

In our cover story this week, former public affairs secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury George Pitcher considers the question: just how separate are piety and politics?

He examines the tenure of the politically vocal Dr Rowan Williams, newly valedictorian Archbishop, and asserts the qualities of a worthy replacement: “William’s successor must be someone of personality and guts.”

 As a larger consideration, he asks: “just how political is the role of archbishop of Canterbury”? He writes:

We start, therefore, with a paradox – the Church of England is deeply rooted in British political life, yet it transcends party politics. Williams has managed this difficult relationship with the nation’s politics remarkably well. With carefully chosen interventions, the outrage of politicians and in some quarters of the media may be seen to have demonstrated that he has got this aspect of his job bang on.

[...]

He has spoken out frequently against welfare cuts, successfully fronted the campaign to prevent the government selling off our national forestry to its mates as tax dodges, quietly held David Cameron’s feet to the fire over his “big society” rhetoric, criticised our policies on Europe and, of course, caused a minor storm in Westminster with a leader comment on the quality of our political life when he guest-edited the New Statesman in June last year.

It’s a tough act to follow. Whoever succeeds him in the early days of 2013 will need to maintain the momentum that Williams has established, without being taken hostage by any parliamentary faction. It’s a prospect complicated by the politically atypical nature of the Christian world-view. If one is to generalise, Christian politics are often economically progressive and socially conservative.

 

The NS Profile - John Bercow: “I’ve never liked little cliques”

In our lead interview this week, Jemima Khan meets Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow: “misfit”, “thorn in the side of David Cameron” and “punchbag for the right-wing press”.

Having notoriously endured the worst of the parliamentary “playground” culture - juvenile personal insults and boy’s-club cliques – his hard earned high rank,  historically weighty position and his permission to punish outspoken ministers are, as Khan puts it, “a nice two fingers up at the bullies, snobs and anti-Semites he has encountered in his life so far.” Red an exclusive extract here.

 

Andrew Adonis: Bury the past

In our NS Essay, Labour Peer and former schools minister Andrew Adonis draws out a new manifesto between private and state education. The division between state and private education is deeply entrenched, but why should it be? Adonis proposes an end to separationist policy, stating that a system of sponsorship would improve education for all. He begins:

Two of the greatest challenges in English education today are, first, not just to reduce the number of underperforming comprehensives but to eradicate them, and second, to forge a new settlement between state and private education.

I put these two challenges together because they go together. It is my view, after 20 years of engagement with schools of all types, that England will never have a world-class education system or a “one-nation” society until state and private schools are part of a shared, national endeavour to develop the talents of all young people to the full.

The two also go together, in that academies are at the heart of the solution to both challenges. It is academies that are systematically eradicating failing comprehensives. And academies – as independent state schools – are the vehicle by which private schools can become systematically engaged in establishing and running state-funded schools.

So, just as the challenge is simple – how to unite state schools and private schools in a common endeavour – I believe the solution is also simple. Every successful private school, and private school foundation, should sponsor an academy or academies. They should do this alongside their existing fee-paying school or schools, turning themselves into federations of private- and state-funded independent schools and following the lead of a growing number of private schools and their foundations that have done precisely this and would not think of going back....

 

Rafael Behr: Cameron’s own backbenches land deadlier blows on him than labour

From the Politics Column this week: Rafael Behr examines David Cameron’s tendency, if not to “lurch”, then at least to gently “sashay” away from his proposed line of policy:

Labour consistently overestimate Cameron and Osborne’s intellectual rigidity. All the evidence shows they change their minds with ease. The u-turn is their most practised manoeuvre. Ed Miliband likes to attack the Prime Minister for what Labour imagines him to believe. Conservative MPs have the better measure of their leader, disliking him for not really believing in anything at all.

Cameron’s lack of a creed was once an asset. It persuaded many voters that he was a reasonable man, distinct from the fanaticism of old Tory caricature. It flummoxed Labour. But the gap has gone too long unfilled. The path to a governing purpose has been too meandering; no lurches, just a sashaying sequence of tactics to grab and hold power, accompanied with a complacent expectation that the party will tag along. But a growing number of MPs don’t believe Cameron’s way can work – a prophecy that fulfils itself. Whenever Tories pop up to say their leader is fumbling in the dark for answers, they obstruct the Downing Street searchlights. The louder they call Cameron a loser, the truer it becomes.

 

David Blanchflower: Yet more dubious promises from the Republican fantasist brigade

From the Economics Column this week: David Blanchflower writes from America - a searing review of Republican National Convention, Paul Ryan’s “unusual” budget proposal, current employment figures and Romney’s “bold” claim to create 12 million jobs in his first term:

Paul Ryan’s budget appears to be a classic example of a Keynesian stimulus, although of an unusual kind. The Republican vice-presidential candidate is in favour of huge public spending cuts on Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and student grants, to name but a few. Plus, huge tax cuts on the rich so that Mitt Romney and his various billionaire supporters would get richer while the poor would get poorer. In addition, Ryan wants a $2trn increase in unspecified defence spending that the Pentagon has made clear it doesn’t want. Romney and Ryan would not raise any taxes but they say they would close unspecified tax loopholes. These could include mortgage and retirement tax relief, which would be hugely unpopular. So Romney not only refuses to release his tax returns but will not say how he intends to fund his tax cuts. This was all made clear to the American people by Bill Clinton, whose recent Democratic convention speech was an economics masterclass.

 

Jon Cruddas reviews Bloody Nasty People: The rise of Britains far right, by Daniel Trilling

Why bother with the BNP?” asks Jon Cruddas in his review of Daniel Trilling’s Bloody Nasty People, “...why write a new text on the growth of the far right? Isn’t it in free fall?”

But within the pages of Trilling’s investigation of radical right groups like the EDL and the BNP - and the central anecdotes at the heart of their ascension in the British political mainstream - Cruddas finds cause for consideration, such as the failed Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain back in 2000 and the Bradford, Oldham and Burnley race riots in 2001. He concludes:

BloodyNasty People walks us through the various sites of contest across England. It offers sharp portraits while also keeping an eye on the increasingly harsh tone of political language driven by fear, polling and press dynamics...Despite our post-Olympic glow, Trilling’s book is a useful reminder of our Balkanised political landscape.

 

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

Jonathan Portes - director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and a former chief economist at the Cabinet Office - lays into the “factual errors” and “slipshod research” that pervade Britannia Unchained: Global lessons for growth and prosperity, a new text authored by five conservative MPs calling for an overhaul of the “idle” British work ethic and benefits culture. Further on, Simon Heffer - in Books - dissects Britannia Unchained in our lead review piece. “This book deserves to be taken seriously by all with an interest in politics,” Heffer writes. “It especially deserves to be taken seriously by the clique of complacent, trust-funded PPE graduates who call the tune in the Tory party.”

In The Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, poet Julia Copus examines literary representations of house and home. “Our sense of past self,” she writes, “is often so closely connected with the house we lived in at the time as to be inseparable from it.”

In the Books interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to Michael Chabon about his new novel Telegraph Avenue, set in a racially mixed section of Oakland, California. “I felt I’d been away from consensus, from reality in my fiction,” Chabon says. “Not since 1995 had I set a novel in a world that was more or less recognisably the world I was living in.” Also in books: Sarah Churchwell eviscerates Paul Auster’s Winter Journal.

PLUS: Ryan Gilbey on Woody Allen’s partial return to form, Felicity Cloake on why oysters are best enjoyed naked, and Will Self plunges deeper into strange America in Madness of Crowds.

All this and more in this week's New Statesman, on newsstands around the country and available for purchase here

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Women's bodies should not be bargaining chips for the Tories and the DUP

Women in Northern Ireland have been told for too long that the Good Friday Agreement is too fragile to withstand debates about their reproductive rights

When Members of Parliament are asked to pass laws relating to when and whether women can terminate their pregnancies, women’s rights are rarely the focus of that decision-making process. You need only look at the way in which these votes are traditionally presented by party leaders and chief whips as “a matter of conscience” - the ultimate get-out for any MP who thinks their own value or belief system should get priority over women’s ability to have control over their bodies.

Today’s vote is no different. The excellent amendment that Labour MP Stella Creasy has put before the house reveals not just the inequalities experienced by women in different parts of the UK when it comes to being able to make decisions about their health, but also the latest layers of subterfuge and politicking around abortion. 

Creasy’s amendment seeks access to the NHS for women who travel to England and Wales from Northern Ireland seeking abortion. Right now women in Northern Ireland are pretty much denied abortion by legislative criteria that limits it to cases that will "preserve the life of the mother" - (that’s preserving, not prioritising) - and pregnancies under nine weeks and four days. Rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality are not included as grounds for termination. The thousands of women who thus travel to England are refused free abortions on the NHS - confirmed by a recent Supreme Court ruling - on the grounds that this is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland. 

The idea behind devolution is that power should be more evenly and fairly distributed. It is not intended to deprive people of rights but to ensure rights. In refusing to exercise the powers available to him, Health secretary Jeremy Hunt is rightly acknowledging a difficult history of power imbalance between Westminster and Stormont, but he is also ignoring a wider imbalance of power, between men and women.  

There is so very much wrong with this arrangement. But a further wrong could be done if, as reports suggest, the Conservative Party whips its MPs to vote the amendment down in order to protect the regressive alliance with the anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that is keeping their fragile minority government in power.

Instead of taking this opportunity to respond to the demands of women of Northern Ireland, this government is setting out the parameters of its complicity in refusing to listen to them. 

It is not the first time. In 2008 it was reported that the Labour party struck a deal with the DUP to leave Northern Ireland’s abortion laws intact, in exchange for their support over detaining terror suspects without charge for 42 days. Labour said at the time that it was concerned about the impact on existing UK abortion laws if the debate was opened.

But not one woman has equality until all women have equality. Women’s bodies are not chips to be bargained and we should not be bargaining for one group of women’s rights by surrendering the rights of another group. The UK parliament has responsibility for ensuring human rights in every part of the UK. Those include the rights of Northern Irish women.

It’s time to wake up. It’s time to stop playing politics with women’s lives. Women in Northern Ireland have been told for too long that the Good Friday Agreement is too fragile to withstand debates about their reproductive rights – a fragility that was dismissed by the Conservatives as they drew up a deal with one side of the power-sharing arrangement.

It’s time to confront the fact that nowhere in the United Kingdom – taking Northern Ireland as a starting point rather than an end in itself – do women enjoy free and legal access to abortion. Even the UK’s 1967 act is only a loophole that allows women to seek the approval of two doctors to circumvent an older law criminalising any woman who goes ahead with an abortion.

As long as our rights are subject to the approval of doctors, to technological developments, to decisions made in a parliament where men outnumber women by two to one, to public opinion polls, to peace agreements that prioritise one set of human rights over another – well, then they are not rights at all.

The Women’s Equality Party considers any attempt to curtail women’s reproductive rights an act of violence against them. This week in Northern Ireland we are meeting and listening to women’s organisations, led by our Belfast branch, to agree strategy for the first part of a much wider battle. It is time to write reproductive rights into the laws of every country. We have to be uncompromising in our demands for full rights and access to abortion in every part of the UK; for the choice of every woman to be realised.

Sophie Walker is leader of the Women's Equality Party.

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