Canterbury tales

More comment on the Archbishop's NS guest-edit.

Today, the Sunday papers are having their say on the Archbishop of Canterbury's remarkable leading article in this week's New Statesman, which he guest-edited. Here's a roundup of the commentary.

Like most Fleet Street commentators, Matthew d'Ancona, in the Sunday Telegraph, reads Rowan Williams's leader as "an astonishing attack on the Coalition", passing over in silence the Archbishop's observation that "we are still waiting for a full and robust account of what the left would do differently [to the coalition government] and what a left-inspired version of localism might look like. D'Ancona spends some time examining Dr Williams's claim - which has attracted most attention this week - that "we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no-one voted". D'Ancona at least grasps, as many other commentators haven't, that the Archbishop was not questioning the legitimacy of the coalition as such, but rather its mandate to carry out certain policies (especially in relation to public sector reform) that were not in either of the governing parties' election manifestos. In response, he quotes from a recent book on the coalition by regular NS contributor Vernon Bogdanor:

As Vernon Bogdanor, David Cameron's former tutor, argues in his book on the Coalition: "In future... if we are entering a world of hung parliaments, the manifesto will be seen as nothing more than a bargaining chip, parts of which can be done away with once the votes have been counted." Lest we forget: Miliband himself was a member of Labour's negotiating team in the post-election inter-party talks 13 months ago. In the unlikely event that he and his colleagues had cobbled together a "rainbow coalition", would he - and indeed Dr Williams - have considered its decisions in government illegitimate, too?

In the same newspaper, Tim Montgomerie chastises the Archbishop for failing to acknowledge the role played by Christian Conservatives (like himself and Iain Duncan Smith) in the formulation of current government policy. Predictably, Montgomerie doesn't mention that Dr Williams commissioned a column from IDS, in which the Work and Pensions Secretary defends the coalition's welfare reforms. He's more interested in reminding the Archbishop - as if he doesn't know - that those reforms spring from the work that Duncan Smith and Montgomerie did together at the Centre for Social Justice, the right-wing thinktank formed after IDS visited the blighted Glasgow housing scheme of Easterhouse in 2002. (I discussed the work of the CSJ in an interview with Duncan Smith last year.) "Inspired by Catholic social teaching," Montgomerie writes, "[Christian Conservatives] sought to build a Conservatism that was as serious about tackling social injustice and environmental pollution as it was about crime or red tape." Montgomerie goes on:

Conservatives believe government has an important role in providing a safety net for everyone - but that strong families, a good education and work are the best routes out of poverty. Sadly, the Archbishop of Canterbury's New Statesman article leaned on the language of the Left, a language of spending and regulation.

That's a crude misrepresentation of what the Archbishop wrote. Rather than dismissing the government's welfare reforms out of hand, he urged ministers to present their message more clearly:

If what is in view - as Iain Duncan Smith argues passionately ... - is real empowerment for communities of marginal people, we need better communication about strategic imperatives, more positive messages about what cannot and will not be left to chance ...

There's nothing there that suggests a statist contempt for "empowering" the poor and the "marginal". Indeed, it seems to me that all the Archbishop is doing is suggesting that the government make Montgomerie's point - that "Conservatives believe government has an important role in providing a safety net for everyone - but that strong families, a good education and work are the best routes out of poverty" - more sharply.

Neither d'Ancona nor Montgomerie questions the constitutional propriety of the Archbishop's intervention. David Cameron didn't query Dr Williams's right to pronounce on public matters either; this was left to the odd Tory backwoodsman and people like Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society, with whom I debated the question on Radio 4's The World Tonight on Thursday. A leader in today's Observer defends the Archbishop's right to speak out:

[S]ome have argued that his intervention was misguided because the spiritual head of the Anglican church ought not to be getting political. We don't agree. To his credit, neither does David Cameron. He was correct to say that Rowan Williams is entirely free to express opinions that the government disagrees with.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.