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17 April 2022

Justin Welby schools the government about refugees and compassion

The Archbishop of Canterbury's comments in his Easter sermon reflect a shift in the public's attitudes to immigration.

By Freddie Hayward

It’s often said that the Church of England is the Conservative Party at prayer. That comparison feels far-fetched today after the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, described the government’s plans to send people seeking asylum in Britain to Rwanda for processing as unable to “stand the judgement of God”. While acknowledging the details should be left to politicians, Welby said in his Easter sermon that the principle of the policy “privileges the rich and the strong”.

Leaving the theology to one side, the intervention underlines a potential problem with the government’s refugee strategy. The Church of England may no longer command the moral authority it once did, but it does still speak for some traditional small “c” conservative voters who will feel uncomfortable sending asylum seekers 4,000 miles away to central Africa.

More broadly, Welby’s comments reflect a recent shift in the public’s attitudes to immigration. The issue does not exercise voters as much as it once did: in the years since the Brexit vote, the issue has dropped down voters’ priorities and opposition to migration has softened. In a recent poll migration didn’t even make it into voters’ top ten most important issues.

The reaction to recent migration policy announcements reveals this shift in attitudes. For example, the government’s open-door policy to migrants from Hong Kong following a crackdown by the Chinese government was widely supported by voters and by Conservative MPs. In contrast, the government’s muddled, reluctant approach to the Ukrainian refugee crisis in the face of overwhelming public generosity has been a source of frustration for Brits eager to open their doors to those fleeing the Russian invasion. The government’s insistence that Ukrainian refugees get visas and the slow pace of processing applications when other countries have simply opened their borders has only reinforced the perception of a disconnect between the government and the public. 

That does not mean that the debate is settled for good. The high number of Channel crossings, which have become a focus for populist agitators such as Nigel Farage, could catalyse a reverse shift in the trend of public opinion. But we are not there yet and, for the moment, the Church of England seems closer to the broader UK public, and to conservative voters, than the Tory party.

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