Disestablishment of the Church of England may be closer than we think

The idea that there should be a special place within our constitution for one particular religious outlook is increasingly anachronistic.

The British constitution is a curious beast. It can lie slumbering for many years and then suddenly change quite radically. We have seen this happen for example with reforms such as votes for women and the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and London. What had seemed fixed and permanent turned out not to be so after all.

We may be slowly moving towards such a turning point with the current situation in the Church of England (CofE). Last week the church voted not to allow women bishops. There has been lots of sound and fury from members of the church themselves (64 per cent of the electoral college actually wanted change but they needed a two-thirds majority) and inevitably politicians of all sides even from those MPs who you would ordinarily expect to defend it.

The CofE is currently exempt from equality legislation and there is discussion that this should be addressed. There is also talk of not allowing the bishops to remain in the House of Lords whilst the gender anomaly remains (there is a petition asking for this here). On the other hand there are some who argue that parliament should keep its nose out of the affairs of other institutions.

The primary reason for all of this consternation from those outside of the church is because of the fact that it is established. It is intertwined within our constitution in a way that other institutions are not. So politicians feel a duty to make comments on its composition and potentially even legislate in order to address concerns.

At this point I think it is worth considering the wider problem of the fact of its establishment in the first place. Britain has changed quite dramatically in the last century. Our population is made up of people who practise a plethora of religions and increasingly no religion at all. A survey at the turn of the current century showed that almost half of our population claimed no religious affiliation at all with only around a quarter considering themselves members of the established church. Roughly five per cent are Catholics, and five per cent of the population are now Muslim for example.

With such a religiously diverse and increasingly non-religious demographic mix the establishment of the church is an huge anomaly in itself. At the moment politicians are restricting themselves to discussions about trying to make sure Anglicanism keeps itself up to date and relevant in terms of its internal processes. But I think this latest episode could be the first step along a process of eventual disestablishment.

The demographic trends are not in favour of the church. Across the world there is strong evidence that religion is in severe, perhaps terminal decline. The idea that there should be a special place within our constitution for one particular religious outlook is increasingly anachronistic.

Another factor that is worth considering here too is the view of the current heir to the throne. The Prince of Wales has made it clear that when he eventually becomes King he will not consider himself "Defender of the Faith" as his predecessors have but instead wants to be declared "Defender of Faith". This dropping of the definite article is highly significant and is a sign that our next monarch himself perhaps understands how the current settlement is unsustainable in the longer term.

I appreciate we are probably a fair way away from full disestablishment at the moment. But like with other large constitutional changes that we have seen in the past I would not be surprised if within my lifetime we see it happen.

The wafer-thin loss of the vote on women bishops has just made it that little bit more likely.

A sticker supporting Women Bishops is displayed on a car. Photograph: Getty Images
Getty
Show Hide image

When is the Budget 2017?

Chancellor Philip Hammond will present the last ever springtime Budget to Parliament on March 8th. He has a tricky hand to play.

Fans of the Chancellor’s red box photocall outside 11 Downing Street are in for a treat this year - the abolition of the Autumn Statement means Philip Hammond will present not one but two Budgets to the Commons.

The first – the last ever Spring budget – will be published on Wednesday 8 March 2017. A second – the first Autumn Budget – will come later in the year. This will be followed by a new Spring Statement, which will respond to forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility but will no longer introduce new tax and spend changes. 

But what is likely to happen this time around? The Institute for Fiscal Studies set out a grim outlook for the chancellor in its "Green Budget" earlier this month. This year’s deficit will be higher than in 47 of the 60 years before the crash of 2008, the national debt is at its highest level since 1966, and the chancellor is still committed to the diet of austerity prescribed by his predecessor, George Osborne. With day-to-day spending on public services set for a real-term fall of 4 per cent between now and 2020 and those same public services already in a parlous state, Hammond has a difficult hand to play. 

However, Theresa May’s government has proved adept at U-turning when it needs to – think the Brexit White Paper and Amber Rudd’s lists of foreign workers. Here's what to look out for:

Changes to business rates

MPs of all stripes have been pressuring the government to rethink its plans on business rates, which will see new rates based on updated property valuations introduced for the new financial year. 

Initially, the government maintained that three-quarters of businesses won’t see any changes to their rates at all. But the fact that rates for pubs, shops, GP surgeries hospitals could be set to more than double riled Tory backbenchers, several ministers, the CBI and right-wing papers including the Sun and Daily Mail

We will likely see a concession from the Treasury on controversial changes, which were slated to kick in from April. Communities and Local Government secretary Sajid Javid told the Commons that a solution would be in place by Budget Day. 

Reassurances for social care

Britain’s crisis-stricken social care system – and the vexed question of how we’re going to pay for our ageing population – also looms large. In the aftermath of the controversy around the government’s supposed “sweetheart deal” with Surrey County Council, local authorities and charities have been lobbying Number 10 for a new settlement – or at least some extra cash to ease the pain. 

Indeed, the Health Service Journal has revealed the Care Quality Commission is to be handed regulatory oversight for how councils manage their social care services, and a number MPs are increasingly convinced that the government could be set to unveil a modest increase in funding. Any such package would only be a sticking plaster.