Archbishop of Canterbury: “no one voted” for the coalition’s policies

Rowan Williams launches an outspoken attack on the government in a leader for the <em>New Statesman<

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has launched a remarkable attack on the coalition government, warning that it is committing the country to "radical, long-term policies for which no one voted". In a leading article for this week's New Statesman, which he has guest-edited, Williams says that the "anger and anxiety" felt by voters is a result of the government's failure to expose its policies to "proper public argument".

His political intervention is the most significant by a church figure since Faith In The City, an excoriating critique of the Thatcher government, was published in 1985 by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie.

With particular reference to the government's health and education reforms, Williams says that the government's approach has created "bafflement and indignation" among the public.

"With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted," he writes. "At the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context."

Before the election, David Cameron promised to stop the "top down reorganisations" of the NHS but later embarked on the biggest reforms to the health service since its creation

In reference to Michael Gove's education reforms, the Archbishop writes: "At the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context. Not many people want government by plebiscite, certainly. But, for example, the comprehensive reworking of the Education Act 1944 that is now going forward might well be regarded as a proper matter for open probing in the context of election debates." Gove's free school reforms were pushed through Parliament with a haste usually reserved for emergency anti-terrorist powers.

He warns: "Government badly needs to hear just how much plain fear there is around such questions at present."

Williams also calls into question Cameron's "big society" agenda, a phrase he describes as "painfully stale". He writes that the project is viewed with "widespread suspicion" as an "opportunistic" cover for spending cuts, adding that it is not acceptable for ministers to blame Labour for Britain's economic and social problems.

In an implicit criticism of The Chancellor, George Osborne, Williams says: "It isn't enough to respond with what sounds like a mixture of, "This is the last government's legacy," and, "We'd like to do more, but just wait until the economy recovers a bit."

The Archbishop also launches a sustained attack on the government's welfare reforms, complaining of a "quiet resurgence of the seductive language of "deserving" and "undeserving" poor." In comments directed at the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, Williams criticises the "steady pressure to increase what look like punitive responses to alleged abuses of the system."

In his piece, Williams says that his aim is to stimulate "a livelier debate" and to challenge the left to develop its own "big idea" as an alternative to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

Read the full version of Rowan Williams's leading article.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn's confidence shows he knows he's safe

Even after the Copeland by-election defeat, Labour MPs believe their leader is unassailable.

A week after Tony Blair’s pro-Remain cry, Jeremy Corbyn rose to deliver a speech on “the road to Brexit”.  But it is the road to ruin that Labour MPs believe he is leading them along. The party last night became the first opposition to lose a by-election to the government since 1982. Were the Copeland cataclysm replicated across the country (and Labour traditionally underperforms at general elections), the Conservatives would win a majority of 114.

MPs believe this new nadir is not in spite of Corbyn but because of him. They blame his historic opposition to nuclear power (the seat’s major employer) and personal unpopularity for the Tories’ triumph (with the largest swing to a governing party since 1966). In his speech, Corbyn hailed Labour’s victory against Ukip in the accompanying Stoke by-election (though Paul Nuttall didn’t make it hard for them) and attributed the Copeland defeat to voters feeling “let down by the political establishment”. Yet in the Cumbrian constituency it was not a populist upstart that benefited but Theresa May’s government. Even the Prime Minister’s refusal to save local maternity services (“Babies will die,” warned the opposition) wasn’t enough to spare Labour. 

Asked by ITV journalist Chris Ship whether he had “looked in the mirror” and asked “could the problem actually be me?”, Corbyn flatly replied: “No”. He did not sound as if he was lying. “Why not?” pressed Ship. “Thank you for your question,” the leader said.

Corbyn speaks with the confidence of a man who knows that he is, for now, unassailable. In Labour’s internal conflict, it is not last night’s result that counts but last year’s leadership election. Corbyn emerged strengthened from that contest and MPs fear a similar outcome in the event of a new contest. Though activists express increasing anxiety about the party’s fortunes, most remain loyal to the leader they re-elected last summer. “We are a campaigning party, we campaign for social justice in this country,” Corbyn emphasised. Many voted for him believing, after the Tories’ surprise majority, that the 2020 election had been lost in advance. From this perspective, opposition is not the means to an end (government) but an end in itself. 

The bulk of Corbyn’s speech was a defence of the party’s decision to accept Brexit. In the post-referendum climate, Labour is being squeezed by the pro-Remain Lib Dems and the pro-Leave Tories (who have benefited from Ukip defectors). Though the party has championed amendments, such as one guaranteeing EU nationals’ rights, its commitment to vote for Article 50 regardless meant its efforts have struggled to acquire momentum. “No deal is a bad deal,” Corbyn declared of May’s threat to depart without an agreement. But that the Prime Minister can even float this possibility is a mark of Labour’s weakness.

A day may yet come when Corbyn faces a palace coup or reaches for the pearl-handled revolver. But Copeland is proof that his job is far safer than those of many of his MPs. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.