The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has launched a remarkable attack on the coalition government, warning that it is committing the country to “radical, long-term policies for which no one voted”. In a leading article for this week’s New Statesman, which he has guest-edited, Williams says that the “anger and anxiety” felt by voters is a result of the government’s failure to expose its policies to “proper public argument”.
His political intervention is the most significant by a church figure since Faith In The City, an excoriating critique of the Thatcher government, was published in 1985 by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie.
With particular reference to the government’s health and education reforms, Williams says that the government’s approach has created “bafflement and indignation” among the public.
“With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted,” he writes. “At the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context.”
Before the election, David Cameron promised to stop the “top down reorganisations” of the NHS but later embarked on the biggest reforms to the health service since its creation
In reference to Michael Gove’s education reforms, the Archbishop writes: “At the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context. Not many people want government by plebiscite, certainly. But, for example, the comprehensive reworking of the Education Act 1944 that is now going forward might well be regarded as a proper matter for open probing in the context of election debates.” Gove’s free school reforms were pushed through Parliament with a haste usually reserved for emergency anti-terrorist powers.
He warns: “Government badly needs to hear just how much plain fear there is around such questions at present.”
Williams also calls into question Cameron’s “big society” agenda, a phrase he describes as “painfully stale”. He writes that the project is viewed with “widespread suspicion” as an “opportunistic” cover for spending cuts, adding that it is not acceptable for ministers to blame Labour for Britain’s economic and social problems.
In an implicit criticism of The Chancellor, George Osborne, Williams says: “It isn’t enough to respond with what sounds like a mixture of, “This is the last government’s legacy,” and, “We’d like to do more, but just wait until the economy recovers a bit.”
The Archbishop also launches a sustained attack on the government’s welfare reforms, complaining of a “quiet resurgence of the seductive language of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.” In comments directed at the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, Williams criticises the “steady pressure to increase what look like punitive responses to alleged abuses of the system.”
In his piece, Williams says that his aim is to stimulate “a livelier debate” and to challenge the left to develop its own “big idea” as an alternative to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.