The NS Profile: Rowan Williams

The last time the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, spoke to the New Statesman, it was at the end of 2008, a year that our writer, James Macintyre, described as "one of the most difficult for Anglicanism since the Reformation". The Lambeth Conference, the assembly of bishops from the worldwide Anglican Communion that meets every ten years, had begun amid what even the Archbishop acknowledged was "bitter controversy" over questions of sexuality. But by the end of the conference, the dire warnings about lasting schism over the matter were largely forgotten. Williams, Macintyre reported, had won over his critics: "Conservatives and liberals embraced and previously sceptical bishops spoke of a 'new Pentecost'."

This year, however, the Archbishop's gift for compromise and reconciliation appears to have deserted him. On 10 July, a proposal designed by Williams and Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, to permit the creation of separate dioceses for those opposed to the ordination of women priests was rejected by the Church of England's General Synod. Apocalyptic predictions of mass defections of Anglo-Catholic clergy and laity to Rome duly followed.

This latest imbroglio, preceded by the refusal of the Crown Nominations Commission to consider the candidacy of the gay cleric Dr Jeffrey John to the bishopric of Southwark, is, among other things, a reminder of the distinctive challenges involved in leading an established church. "People sometimes ask me," Williams told the New Statesman in 2008, "does being in an established church mean you have to watch what you say?" He insisted that he didn't worry about "being a nuisance" to politicians, if not to his own flock, though he conceded that his time in the Church in Wales had left him receptive to the case for disestablishment. "I spent ten years working in a disestablished church; and I can see that it's by no means the end of the world if the establishment disappears. The strength of it is that the last vestiges of state sanction disappeared, so when you took a vote at the Welsh Synod, it didn't have to be nodded through by parliament afterwards."

He remained suspicious, however, of the motives of many of the partisans of disestablishment among the political class. "My unease about going for straight disestablishment is to do with the fact that it's a very shaky time for the public presence of faith in society. I think the motives that would now drive dis­establishment from the state side would be most to do with . . . trying to push religion into the private sphere, and that's the point where I'd be bloody-minded and say, 'Well, not on that basis.'"

The Archbishop's resistance to what he sees as attempts to consign religion to the margins of the public sphere is not merely "bloody-minded". On the contrary, it is grounded in deep and sustained reflection on the place of faith in modern liberal democracies. Consider the comments Williams made in February 2008 on the application of sharia law in Brit-ain. His remarks in a BBC interview, widely and mischievously reported as amounting to a straightforward call for sharia to be implemented in this country, were in fact a gloss on a dense and closely argued lecture on "Civil and Religious Law in England" delivered at the Royal Courts of Justice.

Although that lecture addressed the specific question of the relationship between sharia (and, for that matter, Orthodox Jewish practice) and the jurisdiction of British courts, it also ranged widely and probed deeply. In Williams's view, examining the legal provisions of individual religious groups (Muslim or otherwise) helps us to see something important about the limits of a certain secular conception of political identity.

Impoverished citizenship

Modern secular states take for granted what Williams regards as a partial and impoverished notion of citizenship. According to what one might call the "public philosophy" of liberal secular democracy, to be a citizen is, in his words, to "be under the rule of the uniform law of a sovereign state".

The problem with this idea of citizenship, for Williams, is that it is too narrow. It takes no account of the cultural and religious affiliations citizens might have above and beyond their status as legal subjects - or, at best, it relegates those other kinds of attachment or belonging to a private world. And that is especially problematic in ethnically, culturally and confessionally diverse societies. It risks, Williams argues, producing a "ghettoised pattern of social life", in which religious forms of "interest and reasoning" are treated as infra dig, and not given an airing in public debate about "shared goods and priorities".

Williams maintains that one of the consequences of religious interests being excluded in this way is a coarsening of political discourse. Religious perspectives can, he thinks, imbue the language of public deliberation with a "depth and moral gravity that cannot be gen­erated simply by the negotiation of . . . balanced self-interests".

They can do this, in part, precisely by expanding our notion of what it is to be a citizen. Over the past 30 years or so, politics in much of the western world has been dominated by a drastically simplified vision of the idea of freedom, in which this has been regarded as iden­tical with the ability of individuals to pursue their preferences with "minimal interference". "Liberty," Williams has written, "is more than consumer choice." He is certainly right about that, though it is not at all clear that the blame for this calamitous narrowing of our horizons lies entirely with"secularism", unless that concept is defined in the broadest terms. There are, after all, versions of secularism that do not require the banishment of religion from the public sphere.

Williams's most sustained treatment of these issues - a lecture he gave in Rome in November 2006 - suggests that he also recognises this. The lecture was an intervention in a long-running debate among political philosophers over the implications of the doctrine of state "neutrality" towards religion. Roughly speaking, this doctrine holds that, in conditions of diversity and pluralism, the state ought to be neutral with respect to the competing moral and religious outlooks of its citizens. The question is what follows from this. Does the burden of neutrality fall on citizens, requiring them to divide their lives into public and private parts? Or is it only the agents of the state who are obliged to keep their moral and religious beliefs to themselves?

Williams sketches two competing visions of the secular society: one in which neutrality does require the exclusion of religion from public deliberation and debate, and one in which it doesn't. A secular state, he argues, need not demand of the religious that they set aside their most deeply held beliefs when they enter public space, so long as they don't expect those beliefs to be given a free pass just because they are religious. The result may be "noisy and untidy", yet that is surely preferable to the "empty public square" of the more "programmatic" form of secularism that Williams rejects.

Shortly before the General Synod began in York this month, the Archbishop spoke exclusively to the New Statesman about secularism, faith and politics.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Godless Britain

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.