In this week's New Statesman: Mission Impossible

George Pitcher on Rowan Williams | Online activists v the Government | Robert Webb | Mad Men returns

Rowan Williams cover

Cover story: Conscience of the nation

In this week's Cover Story, the Archbishop of Canterbury's former press secretary George Pitcher - ousted in the fallout from his New Statesman guest edit - reports on Rowan Williams's struggle against the Church of England traditionalists who run his office.

When I started working at Lambeth Palace as the Archbishop of Canterbury's principal spin doctor in October 2010, I got 15 minutes of his undivided attention and asked him what he thought and what he wanted. "I think, on balance, it's rather good news," he said in that precise, hissy voice. "I think we're rather risk-averse at Lambeth Palace. I'd look to you to do something about that."

After ten unhappy months of trying to deliver on that brief, I grabbed 15 seconds with him before I walked out, just to be sure that he wanted me to go. He sighed: "I just think it's going to get too dangerous, George."

Pitcher reveals the internal tensions between various factions at Lambeth Palace:

The Archbishop's government machine . . . breeds, and is encouraged to develop, an internal, self-serving authority, like an overweening civil service. You should never underestimate a palace's tendency to attract courtiers. The one at Lambeth is no exception. They preen and jostle for favour (somewhat pointless, as Rowan treats everyone the same). They build professional silos and guard their sometimes limited responsibilities jealously. They meet weekly around the table in the Pink Drawing Room and there is no higher endeavour than filling the Archbishop's diary over a year in advance.

Startled or offended by the apparent vulgarity of my presence and the threat of change, they isolated me like corpuscles around a foreign body.

Pitcher also writes of the Church establishment's reaction to the Archbishop's leading article in the New Statesman:

Ordinary Conservative MPs failed to get it even though David Cameron, to his credit, understood the Archbishop's responsibility to address our political standards. James Gray, the MP for North Wiltshire, called it "disgraceful drivel" and added that the Archbishop should "leave the running of the country to . . . us", apparently under the impression they were doing a good job of it. Andrew Stephenson, MP for Pendle, said that Rowan was "out of touch" and "styl[ing] himself as a politician".

Andrew Murrison, for Westbury, told the Church of England to stop "bleating about the splintering of society" and claimed that Rowan should stop "suggesting that my party is in some way indifferent to poverty" (he didn't), adding that he was "not surprised that so many are defecting to Rome" (they aren't). There were also private, scribbled letters that amounted to nasty little ad hominem attacks, of a kind that wouldn't be acceptable in corporate life but which are apparently common currency in Westminster today.

What was truly disgraceful was that elected representatives in parliament should address themselves in this way to an incumbent archbishop of Canterbury who had written a thoughtful and impersonal reflection on all political parties, as they would know if they had bothered to read it properly. You would have thought that Lambeth and Church House staff might have rallied to his support and filled the public square with further polemic. Not a bit of it. There seemed to be a common tendency informally to apologise for "any embarrassment".

Pitcher concludes with some advice for Williams's successor:

Dissolving the Court of Lambeth Palace would only be the start.

Cyber campaigners: The real opposition

With MPs living in fear of their in-boxes being inundated with tens of thousands of single-issue messages from campaigners, the New Statesman profiles the online groups leading the new "clicktivism": 38 Degrees, Change.org, Political Scrapbook and Avaaz.

In the Politics Essay, Rafael Behr asks whether, with digital savvy and by mustering public willpower, these new cyberactivists can shake parliament to its foundations:

Pause for deliberation is vital to democracy. The parliamentary term, with its protracted legislative rhythms, affords a space in which politicians can trade unpopular measures against the promise that, by election time, the benefits will be manifest. By contrast, the essence of populism is surrender of that space. It is the pretence that what the public wants most urgently is also what is most in the public interest. The new media seem to invite that surrender. Twitter and Facebook accelerate a trend set by 24-hour rolling news, shrinking the political attention span until every moment is a referendum. Mistakes big and small are punished, without perspective, in a frenzy of ridicule.

Robert Webb: I'm a "four-episodes-of-The-West-Wing Christian"

The writer and Peep Show actor Robert Webb returns to the New Statesman with a column professing his admiration for a former guest editor of the magazine:

I'm troubled by how much I like Rowan Wil¬liams. I think it reveals character flaws in myself that I'd rather not think about. The softly spoken soon-to-be-former Archbishop of Canterbury is my secret crush, my weird pash and my guilty pleasure.

No, you didn't misread: Rowan, not Robbie. I want Rowan T-shirts made. I want a Rowan duvet cover and a convincing Rowan beard to wear to funerals. When my phone rings, I want to hear Rowan fruitily intoning, "In some ways, this might be an opportune moment to answer the telephone, Robert." This would not only make me happy but "in some ways" it would also make me a kind of Christian. After all, religion is many things but one of them surely is a way for adults to indulge in uncritical hero worship. I don't want a crucifix on my bedroom wall but I might want a large poster of Rowan Williams sitting in a sensible armchair, reading a book.

Elsewhere in the column, Webb confesses to making forays into religious belief, inspired by his favourite fictional US president, Jed Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen):

I suppose I'd better come clean here. Just as I had a friend at college who described himself as a "three-bottles-of-wine bisexual" (those lucky, lucky boys!), I guess that I'm a "four-episodes-of-The-West-Wing Christian". Or rather, while I'm busy having doubts about my doubts about my doubts, it "helps" to have in front of me an example of a believer I'd like to talk to. It's an intersection of hard-won but lightly worn scholarship and classic liberal notions of tolerance and compassion that allows agnostics like me the space to believe in God without feeling like a mug. In short, it makes God "attractive". Well, I did warn you about character flaws.

Gilbert & George: "Being a Conservative in the art world is like saying you're a Nazi"

In the NS Interview, Gilbert and George, the iconic British duo, describe how admiring Margaret Thatcher is the contemporary art world's great controversy:

Gilbert: [In the 1980s] saying you were Conservative was like committing suicide.

George: Even now in the art world it's like saying you're a Nazi fighter pilot. We don't understand that, because you can discuss left or right or Labour and Conservative with waiters or taxi drivers - but not in the art world.

Gilbert: And now, that world is all based on capitalism anyway. Only the rich can buy art!

George: Our viewpoint is more honest.

Sticking with politics, the artists express disdain for the Occupy movement. On siding with City bankers over the St Paul's protesters, they argue:

George: It's very simple - if you're going to have lunch, serve a dozen oysters and bottle of Chablis, not a nut roast and an organic cider!

Gilbert: [The Occupy camp] reminded us too much of '68. They look like hippies as well. And - they are middle-class, not poor people.

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

All this plus David Blanchflower on a Budget for the rich, Samira Shackle interviews the Yemeni Nobel Peace Prizewinner, Tawakkol Karman, and Will Self on why Twitter is just a new home for old bores. In Critics, the co-founder of Salon.com, Laura Miller, notes echoes of Ingmar Bergman's Persona in Mad Men (soon returning to our TV screens), Sarah Churchwell joins the New Statesman as a regular culture contributor with a review of Nights Out by Judith R Walkowitz, and a visual arts special with Li Tianbing, Patrick Keiller and a visit to the new Jerwood Gallery in Hastings.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.