Banishing the bishops

The church’s strategy is now clear – that if it is to have a hope of maintaining its privileges, it

Predicting the future is always a precarious business. But when it comes to the relationship between Christianity and public life there are some pretty clear trends which provide enough evidence to make at least a few credible assertions about what the next few years may hold.

With Gordon Brown signalling he wants to end the involvement of Number 10 in the appointment of bishops, the UK will soon be in the situation where 26 places in Parliament are reserved exclusively for men (and they can still only be men) appointed unchecked, by a separate, undemocratic institution. The system will look not just absurd, but entirely unaccountable, and it is surely just a matter of time now before the bishops are banished forever from the Second Chamber.

The public also seems less and less willing to tolerate the special exemptions and privileges afforded Christianity in the context of the state funding it receives for its community projects and institutions. Religious charities will soon have to show that they produce some public benefit beyond simply being ‘religious’ in character - currently the requirement to gain charitable status. The right of church schools to legally discriminate in both employment and admissions in favour of church goers, must also soon end. As yet another survey reported just this weekend, church schools routinely treat less favourably the 95% of the population who pay the taxes to fund them but who do not attend church. Catholic adoption agencies have already lost their battle to continue their particular brand of discrimination. Church schools must inevitably follow. Slowly but surely the religious slant in the playing field of public funding will be levelled off.

But as the adoption saga demonstrated, these things will not disappear without a fuss. The established church in particular will continue in its attempts to hold onto its privileges by appealing to the ‘Christian’ history and identity of the nation. It will do this whilst simultaneously claiming to speak for all faiths to give it greater authority. This was the approach employed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in his recent address to the Church’s Synod following the Sharia controversy. We should expect to hear a lot more of that sort of argument.

Williams has acknowledged that the blasphemy law - which protects only the Christian religion - must go. But in its place he has urged additional measures to protect the sensibilities of all religions. The church’s strategy is now clear – that if it is to have a hope of maintaining its privileges, it must try to get them extended to other religions too.

This of course, is something that other religions are very happy to support. But whoever holds them, the few remaining vestiges of Christendom look at best anachronistic and at worse to perpetuate grave, and unacceptable injustices. Even if successful, the strategy of creating a multi-faith settlement won’t provide a long-term solution. The church is running out of justifications for the various anomalies it clings onto, and it is just a matter of time before they go completely. And neither will their disappearance be lamented by all Christians.

Jonathan Bartley is co-director of the thinktank Ekklesia. He lives in Streatham in South London, and when he not discussing religion and politics, he plays in the blues band the mustangs
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.