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14 May 2020updated 28 May 2020 11:38am

From the NS archive: The government needs to know how afraid people are

9 June 2011: Rowan Williams, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, offers advice to the coalition.

By Rowan Williams

Under the Cameron-Clegg coalition government, with Ed Miliband leading the Labour Party, Rowan Williams caused a stir with this calmly impassioned leader. The then Archbishop of Canterbury was alarmed by the government’s reforms of education and health and was concerned that the public and the legislature were unconnected. His solution was not state paternalism but the version of community suggested by theology – that is, “building the ability of the other person or group to become, in turn, a giver of life and responsibility”.

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I can imagine a New Statesman reader looking at the contents of this issue and mentally supplying: “That’s enough coalition ministers (Ed).” After all, the NS has never exactly been a platform for the establishment to explain itself. But it seems worth encouraging the present government to clarify what it is aiming for in two or three key areas, in the hope of sparking a livelier debate about where we are going – and perhaps even to discover what the left’s big idea currently is.

The political debate in the UK at the moment feels pretty stuck. An idea whose roots are firmly in a particular strand of associational socialism has been adopted enthusiastically by the Conservatives. The widespread suspicion that this has been done for opportunistic or money-saving reasons allows many to dismiss what there is of a programme for “big society” initiatives; even the term has fast become painfully stale. But we are still waiting for a full and robust account of what the left would do differently and what a left-inspired version of localism might look like.

Digging a bit deeper, there are a good many on the left and right who sense that the tectonic plates of British – European? – politics are shifting. Managerial politics, attempting with shrinking success to negotiate life in the shadow of big finance, is not an attractive rallying point, whether it labels itself (New) Labour or Conservative. There is, in the middle of a lot of confusion, an increasingly audible plea for some basic thinking about democracy itself – and the urgency of this is underlined by what is happening in the Middle East and North Africa.

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Incidentally, this casts some light on the bafflement and indignation that the present government is facing over its proposals for reform in health and education. With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted. 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. The anxiety and anger have to do with the feeling that not enough has been exposed to proper public argument.

I don’t think that the government’s commitment to localism and devolved power is simply a cynical walking-away from the problem. But I do think that there is confusion about the means that have to be willed in order to achieve the end. If civil society organisations are going to have to pick up responsibilities shed by government, the crucial questions are these.

First, what services must have cast-iron guarantees of nationwide standards, parity and continuity? (Look at what is happening to youth services, surely a strategic priority.) Second, how, therefore, does national government underwrite these strategic “absolutes” so as to make sure that, even in a straitened financial climate, there is a continuing investment in the long term, a continuing response to what most would see as root issues: child poverty, poor literacy, the deficit in access to educational excellence, sustainable infrastructure in poorer communities (rural as well as urban), and so on? What is too important to be left to even the most resourceful localism?

Government badly needs to hear just how much plain fear there is around such questions at present. 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.” To acknowledge the reality of fear is not necessarily to collude with it. But not to recognise how pervasive it is risks making it worse. Equally, the task of opposition is not to collude in it, either, but to define some achievable alternatives. And, for that to happen, we need sharp-edged statements of where the disagreements lie.

The uncomfortable truth is that, while grass-roots initiatives and local mutualism are to be found flourishing in a great many places, they have been weakened by several decades of cultural fragmentation. The old syndicalist and co-operative traditions cannot be reinvented overnight and, in some areas, they have to be invented for the first time.

This is not helped by a quiet resurgence of the seductive language of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, nor by the steady pressure to increase what look like punitive responses to alleged abuses of the system. If what is in view – as Iain Duncan Smith argues passionately in this issue – is real empowerment for communities of marginal people, we need better communication about strategic imperatives, more positive messages about what cannot and will not be left to chance and – surely one of the most important things of all – a long-term education policy at every level that will deliver the critical tools for democratic involvement, not simply skills that serve the economy.

For someone like myself, there is an ironic satisfaction in the way several political thinkers today are quarrying theological traditions for ways forward. True, religious perspectives on these issues have often got bogged down in varieties of paternalism. But there is another theological strand to be retrieved that is not about “the poor” as objects of kindness but about the nature of sustainable community, seeing it as one in which what circulates – like the flow of blood – is the mutual creation of capacity, building the ability of the other person or group to become, in turn, a giver of life and responsibility. Perhaps surprisingly, this is what is at the heart of St Paul’s ideas about community at its fullest; community, in his terms, as God wants to see it.

A democracy that would measure up to this sort of ideal – religious in its roots but not exclusive or confessional – would be one in which the central question about any policy would be: how far does it equip a person or group to engage generously and for the long term in building the resourcefulness and well-being of any other person or group, with the state seen as a “community of communities”, to use a phrase popular among syndicalists of an earlier generation?

A democracy going beyond populism or majoritarianism but also beyond a Balkanised focus on the local that fixed in stone a variety of postcode lotteries; a democracy capable of real argument about shared needs and hopes and real generosity: any takers?

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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