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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To the Commonwealth, "Global Britain" sounds like nostalgia for something else

And the former colonial subjects have a less rose-tinted view of the past. 

Earlier this month, Boris Johnson became the first British foreign secretary to visit the Gambia since independence. His visit came a few days before the inauguration of the Gambia's new President, Adama Barrow, who has signalled his intention to re-join the Commonwealth - an institution that his dictatorial predecessor had left in protest at its apparent "neo-colonialism".

Accusations of neo-colonialism, regrettably, seem to be of little concern to the foreign secretary. After Johnson committed himself to facilitating the Gambia's Commonwealth re-entry, he declared that "the strength of our partnerships show that Global Britain is growing in influence and activity around the world". 

His comments are the latest example of the government's Brexit mission-creep in its foreign engagements. Theresa May mentioned "Global Britain" no fewer than ten times in her Lancaster House speech last month, reminding us that Britain "has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world" and emphasising the UK's post-referendum desire to "get out into the world". Ministers' repeated subsequent referencing of Global Britain has almost come to the point of re-branding Great Britain itself. But now the government seems to be directly equating Global Britain with the Commonwealth, the organisation comprising most of the former territories of the British Empire. If the Commonwealth is wooing back former members and seemingly growing in stature, that must mean Global Britain is doing the same. The Gambia's proposed re-admission to the Commonwealth is reconfigured as a victory for British clout and prestige in the face of the Brexit naysayers.

But the Commonwealth cannot be a vehicle or front for Global Britain, on either a technical or political level. The Commonwealth emphasises that it is an organisation of 52 equal member states, without any preference in decision-making. India (population 1.26bn) and Tuvalu (10,000) are treated the same. The organisation is headquartered in London, receives the most money from Britain, and its members share elements of history, culture and political systems; but it is not a British organisation and will not take orders from the British government. Commonwealth states, particularly poorer ones, may welcome UK political, financial and developmental support, but will reject the spectre of neo-imperialism. Diplomats remark that their countries did not leave the British Empire only to re-join it through the back door. 

And yet, shorn of influence following the decision to leave the EU, and the single market so instrumental to British jobs and prosperity, the government is desperate to find an alternative source of both power and profit. The members of the Commonwealth, with their links of heritage and administration, have always been touted as the first choice. Leading Brexiter Dan Hannan has long advocated a "union with the other English-speaking democracies", and Liam Fox has been actively pursuing Commonwealth countries for trade deals. But the Commonwealth cannot replace the EU in any respect. While exports to the EU account for just under a half of Britain's total, the Commonwealth receives less than 10 percent of our goods. The decline of UK trade with the Commonwealth was taking place long before Britain joined the EU, and it has in fact revived in recent years while being a member. The notion that Britain is restricted from trading with the Commonwealth on account of its EU membership is demonstrably false.  

The EU, the beloved scapegoat for so many ills, cannot fulfil the role for much longer. Indeed, when it comes to the Commonwealth, 48 of the 52 members have already completed trade deals with the UK, or are in the process of negotiating them, as part of their engagement with the EU. Britain could now be forced to abandon and re-negotiate those agreements, to the great detriment of both itself and the Commonwealth. Brexiters must moreover explain why Germany, with a population just 25 percent larger than ours, exports 133 percent more to India and 250 percent more to South Africa than we do. Even New Zealand, one of Britain's closest allies and a forthcoming trade-deal partner, imports 44 percent more goods and services from Germany, despite enjoying far looser cultural and historical ties with that country. The depth of Britain's traditional bonds with the Commonwealth cannot, in itself, boost the British economy. The empire may fill the imagination, but not a spreadsheet.

The British imperial imagination, however, is the one asset guaranteed to keep growing as Brexit approaches. It is, indeed, one of the root causes of Brexit. Long after the empire fell into history, the British exceptionalism it fostered led us to resent our membership of a European bloc, and resist even limited integration with it. The doctrine of "taking back control" for an "independent Britain" speaks to profound (and unfounded) anxieties about being led by others, when in our minds we should be the ones explicitly leading. The fictional, if enduringly potent victim narrative that we became a colony of someone else's empire, has now taken hold in government. The loss of our own empire remains an unacknowledged national trauma, which we both grieve and fail to accept. The concept of being equal partners with like-minded countries, in a position to exert real, horizontal influence through dialogue, cooperation and shared membership of institutions, is deemed an offence to Britain's history and imperial birthright.

The relentless push for Global Britain is thus both a symptom and cause of our immense global predicament. Through an attempt to increase our power beyond Europe, Brexit has instead deflated it. Britain has, in truth, always been global, and the globe has not always been grateful for it; but now the government preaches internationalism while erecting trade barriers and curbing migration. After empire, Britain found a new role in Europe, but with that now gone, Global Britain risks producing global isolation. Despite the foreign secretary's rhetoric, the Commonwealth, geopolitically and economically, has moved on from its imperial past. It is not waiting to be re-taken.

Jonathan Lis is the deputy director at British Influence.