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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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.