New Times,
New Thinking.

16 November 2009

Rowan Williams slams Blairite economics

Archbishop says keep markets out of public sector

By James Macintyre

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was at his thought-provoking best today in a speech to the TUC Economics Conference.

The speech, well worth reading in full, is characteristically rich in religious and political meaning. Meanwhile, Blairites might raise eyebrows at this statement, made during the question-and-answer session:

The imposition of market models on public services is one of the biggest dead ends of the last few decades and something that needs challenging.

He begins the speech:

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“Economy” is simply the Greek word for “housekeeping”. Remembering this is a useful way of getting things in proportion, so that we don’t lose sight of the fact that economics is primarily about the decisions we make so as to create a habitat that we can actually live in.

He adds:

Appealing to the market as an independent authority, unconnected with human decisions about “housekeeping”, has meant in many contexts over the last few decades a ruinous legacy for heavily indebted countries; large-scale and costly social disruption even in developed economies; and, most recently, the extraordinary phenomena of a financial trading world in which the marketing of toxic debt became the driver of money-making — until the bluffs were all called at the same time.

Of the limitless focus on economic growth, he says:

It sets up the vicious cycle in which it is necessary all the time to create new demand for goods and thus new demands on a limited material environment for energy sources and raw materials. By the hectic inflation of demand, it creates personal anxiety and rivalry. By systematically depleting the resources of the planet, it systematically destroys the basis for long-term well-being. In a nutshell, it is investing in the wrong things.

He adds:

To decide what sort of change we want, we need a vigorous sense of what a human life well lived looks like. We need to be able to say what kind of human beings we hope to be ourselves and to encourage our children to be . . . If we’re looking for new criteria for economic decisions, we might start here and ask about the impact of any such decision on family life and the welfare of the young . . . My point is that, now more than ever, we need to be able in the political and economic context to spell out with a fair degree of clarity what our commitments are, what kind of human character we want to see. Politics left to managers and economics left to brokers add up to a recipe for social and environmental chaos.

Dr Williams pays tribute to the British labour movement’s “commitment to humane values, to humane relationships and intelligence and imagination”, adding: “I would urge you, then, to pick up what is still alive in that legacy; to revive the passion for humane social existence; to reflect on what human character is needed for stability and justice to prevail; and to resist the barbarising and dehumanising of economic life which jeopardises natural and human capital alike.”

The Archbishop concludes:

Sermons are meant to have three points: there are mine. Revive, reflect, resist. Your history suggests it can be done; so do it.

Politicians of all colours will always do well to listen to this man.


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