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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.