Archbishop of Canterbury appointment revives Cameron's class problem

After being accused of running an "old Etonian" elite, the appointment of an Eton-educated Archbishop is awkward for Cameron.

In the week that David Cameron was accused by former Home Office mandarin Helen Ghosh of surrounding himself with an "old Etonian clique", the media has been quick to note that Justin Welby, who was revealed today as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, was educated at the school. Significantly, the Telegraph reports that there were "questions over whether an Eton-educated Archbishop would be well received in some quarters" and that these "played a part in delaying the final decision".

It appears likely, then, that Welby's education was, if anything, a hindrance, but his appointment, which will be officially announced by Downing Street (although Welby was selected by the 16-member Crown Nominations Commission), will inevitably be cited by some as evidence of favouritism. It will also prompt further discussion about the state of social mobility in Britain. It's notable that the Prime Minister, the Mayor of London and, now, the head of the Church are all Eton alumni. When was the establishment last so dominated by public school boys?

Welby's predecessor Rowan Williams is, of course, a former NS guest-editor (you can read his famous editorial attacking the government for pursuing "radical, long-term policies for which no one voted" here). Asked yesterday in Auckland, in what was his final press conference, what advice he would give to his successor he declared that the new Archbishop should preach "with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other".

"You have to be cross-referencing all the time and saying, 'How does the vision of humanity and community in the Bible map onto these issues of poverty, privation, violence and conflict?'

"And you have to use what you read in the newspaper to prompt and direct the questions that you put to the Bible: 'Where is this going to help me?'

"So I think somebody who likes reading the Bible and likes reading newspapers would be a good start."

School students wearing their traditional school uniform line the top of a boundary wall at Eton College. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Scottish Labour's defeat to the Tories confirms a political transformation

The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist.

It was Scotland where Labour's recovery was supposed to begin. Jeremy Corbyn's allies predicted that his brand of left-wing, anti-austerity politics would dent the SNP's hegemony. After becoming leader, Corbyn pledged that winning north of the border would be one of his greatest priorities. 

But in the first major elections of his leadership, it has proved to be Labour's greatest failure. A result that was long thought unthinkable has come to pass: the Conservatives have finished second (winning 31 seats). For the first time since the 1910 election, Labour has finished third (winning 24). Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale stood on a left-wing platform, outflanking the SNP on tax (pledging to raise the top rate to 50p and increase the basic rate by 1p), promising to spend more on public services and opposing the renewal of Trident. But rather than advancing, the party merely retreated.

Its fate confirms how Scottish politics has been realigned. The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist. With the SNP as the only major pro-independence party, the Tories, led by the pugnacious Ruth Davidson, framed themselves as the pro-UK alternative - and prospered. In contrast, Dugdale refused to rule out supporting a second referendum and suggested that MPs and MSPs would be free to campaign for secession. The result was that Scottish Labour was left looking dangerously irrelevant. "Identity politics. Labour doesn't get it," a shadow minister told me. Its socialist pitch counted for little in a country that remains ideologically closer to England than thought. The SNP has lost its majority (denying it a mandate for a second referendum) - an outcome that the electoral system was always designed to make impossible. But its rule remains unthreatened. 

Corbyn's critics will seek to pin the baleful result on him. "We turned left and followed Jeremy's politics in Scotland, which far from solving our problems, pushed us into third," a senior opponent told me. But others will contend that a still more left-wing leader, such as Neil Findlay, is needed. Dugdale is personally supportive of Trident and was critical of Corbyn before his election. Should she be displaced, the party will be forced to elect its sixth leader in less than five years. But no one is so short-sighted as to believe that one person can revive the party's fortunes. Some Corbyn critics believe that a UK-wide recovery is a precondition of recovery north of the border. At this juncture, they say, SNP defectors would look anew at the party as they contemplate the role that Scottish MPs could play in a Westminster government. But under Corbyn, having become the first opposition to lose local election seats since 1985, it is yet further from power. 

In Scotland, the question now haunting Labour is not merely how it recovers - but whether it ever can. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.