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
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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.