Editor’s Note — after Rowan Williams

Jason Cowley on the fallout from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s guest edit of the <em>New Statesman<

Well, that was a quiet week . . . After the hysterical response to the Archbishop of Canterbury's leader in last week's New Statesman, of which he was guest editor, we gathered on the evening of Monday 13 June in the Guard Room at Lambeth Palace for summer drinks. ABC, as Rowan Williams is known to those who work closely with him, was remarkably chipper and seemed unconcerned about all the personal criticism.

The archbishop's political intervention was especially courageous because he must have known how his disparagers would mobilise against him; how they would wilfully misread and misinterpret his highly nuanced contribution, which challenged both left and right to define a new kind of communitarian politics at a time when government is attempting to cut both the demand for and supply of the state. Sure enough, his enemies mobilised. "When sorrows come, they come not single spies," says Claudius in Hamlet, "but in battalions."

Glorious mud

Interesting word, "Lambeth". We know that Lambeth Palace is used metonymically for the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury, just as Downing Street is for the Prime Minister and the British government. But what of its etymology? I could find nothing on it in various dictionaries, but Dr Williams, a renowned polyglot, tells me that Lambeth means "mudbank" in Middle English, which fits with its location on the south bank of the Thames. Is he correct?

A bomb in your pocket

After signing off the final proofs for last week's issue, I headed for Stratford-upon-Avon to watch Michael Boyd's Macbeth at the triumphantly reconstructed Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Much later that evening when I turned my phone back on, the emails and texts were accumulating as I suspected they would be. Everyone wanted to talk about Dr Williams's "sustained attack" on the policies of the coalition, which was splashed on the front page of the next day's Daily Telegraph. How? What? Where? Why? I turned off my phone and went to sleep.

Showers of arrows

There is a view inside Lambeth Palace that much of the indignation against the archbishop was driven by the English Catholic right, which supports disestablishment and for which the post-Reformation persecution of Catholics serves as a kind of folk memory of trauma and loss.

My father was an English Catholic, and I find it moving to read of the martyrdom of Edmund Campion and others. We used to speculate, too, on whether Shakespeare was a covert Catholic and enjoyed attempting to decode the plays accordingly. I'm deeply sceptical of conspiracy theories or absolutism of any kind, and yet there's little doubt that the sharpest and most pointed anti-Rowan arrows were being fired by Catholic journalists, the poison tip of which was disestablishment.

State-sponsored terrorism

I thought of the persecution of Catholics in the 16th and 17th centuries as I watched Macbeth, which was first performed around the time of the Gunpowder Plot and the execution of Guy Fawkes. The stage sets for the opening scenes of this latest Royal Shakespeare Company production are starkly apocalyptic; you're confronted by smashed stained-glass windows, ransacked monasteries and churches, and beheaded and defaced icons, scenes of state-sponsored devastation and ruin. You are left in no doubt of how much fear and suspicion there is around, to adapt the words of the archbishop, writing in another context last week.

Meetings of equals

One of the stories circulating is that David Cameron was saved from taking part in "the archbishop's anti-coalition rant", as one newspaper absurdly described it, by the intervention of an aide, Gabby Bertin. She is reported to have intercepted a letter from Lambeth Palace requesting a "thoughtful" interview with the Prime Minister, sensed a trap and torn it in half. It's true that Dr Williams wrote to Cameron inviting him to contribute. The idea was for the two of them to have an open conversation - a meeting of equals, as it were - of the kind that eventually took place with the Foreign Secretary, William Hague (to the satisfaction of the Foreign Office, which was eager to publish our piece on its own website).

Hague emerged well from the discussion, impressing the archbishop with his "statesmanship" and wide-ranging analysis of world affairs. Foreign Office officials say much the same of the man they are calling a "natural" Foreign Secretary - high praise from the mandarins, who did not say the same of poor old Margaret Beckett.

Did Nick make him do it?

Everyone knows now that Cameron, for all his poise and verbal fluency, is an arch-equivocator: he changes his mind, flip-flops and makes U-turns depending on what the latest polling data from Andrew Cooper is telling him, or how restive the Liberal Democrats are. He likes to think of himself as a "One-Nation radical", but his radicalism is too often at odds with One-Nation pragmatism. He knows the kind of Prime Minister he wants to be, but equally doesn't know how to be what he wants, hence the equivocation.

As I understand it, he initially declined to meet Dr Williams; he then changed his mind and agreed to the interview, only to change his mind again - because, as he told one of the archbishop's aides, he did not want "to upset Nick [Clegg]". It's felt by some of those close to the Deputy Prime Minister that their man was beguiled by our previous guest editor Jemima Khan into giving an intemperately candid interview to the NS in April. You know, that interview, in which Clegg spoke of how he wept while listening to music, of how he was not a human punchbag, of how his eldest son had asked, "Why are the students angry with you, Papa?", and so on. Surely it can't be true that Dave didn't want to meet Rowan because of what Jemima made Nick say?

Coming up next . . .

Now I keep being asked who our next guest editor will be, or what other surprises we have lined up. The interest is very welcome but readers will have to wait and see.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 20 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation