The prime minister has firmly rejected claims by the archbishop of Canterbury that the coalition government is forcing through “radical policies for which no one voted”.
David Cameron said Rowan Williams was free to express his concerns, but he “profoundly disagreed” with many of the comments.
Speaking at a press conference on a visit to Northern Ireland, Cameron said: “I think the archbishop of Canterbury is entirely free to express political views. I have never been one to say that the Church should fight shy of making political interventions.
“But what I would say is that I profoundly disagree with many of the views that he has expressed, particularly on issues like debt and welfare and education.”
Williams’ broadside, made in an editorial written as guest editor of this week’s New Statesman magazine, also challenged the “big society” project and criticised the government for continuing to blame the country’s difficulties entirely on the deficit it inherited from Labour.
Williams wrote that the coalition is facing “bafflement and indignation” over its plans to reform the health service and education.
“With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted,” he wrote.
“At the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context.”
Vince Cable, the business secretary, said he was “baffled” by Williams’ comments. “The two parties of the coalition got substantially more than half the total vote at the last election and the public knew that we were going to have to embark on very difficult changes, connected with sorting out the massive budget deficit problem,” he told Sky News.
He added: “The point which he seemed to be making was that there wasn’t enough debate around health reform, for example, which I don’t understand because there’s a very big debate. My party has triggered it, we’re having a pause, rethinking the reforms. So he’s obviously had his views and it’s welcome that he pitches into political debate but I think he’s actually wrong on the specifics.”
In comments that appear unusually critical of the government for a head of the Church of England, Williams also challenged the government’s approach to welfare reform, complaining of a “quiet resurgence of the seductive language of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor”.
In comments levelled at the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, Williams criticised “the steady pressure” to increase “punitive responses to alleged abuses of the system”.
Duncan Smith, who had also contributed an article to the magazine edited by Williams, said the archbishop should have been more balanced in his comments. The public would have been more anxious about the coalition if they had not tackled benefit dependency, Duncan Smith told the BBC.
“With respect to the archbishop of Canterbury, I have never ever spoken about the deserving or undeserving poor. I don’t believe in that concept. All I say is that the system itself has created an undeserving group, that’s what it has created.”
He said he wanted the archbishop to witness some of the things he’d seen while travelling around the UK, such as families stuck on benefits for generations.
“It would be nice if we’d seen a little more balance in his commentary, to say, actually the system itself is damaging the very lives it is meant to seek to help,” said Duncan Smith.
Former prime minister Tony Blair said senior clergy attacking government policy was nothing new.
“I seem to remember, going back to when I started in parliament in 1983, that bishops attacking government is a pretty recurrent headline,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“He is entitled to speak his mind. I remember people used to criticise our policies, not just on foreign policy and Iraq but on domestic policy and reform as well. It is just part of the way things work. I should imagine the government will say they are relaxed about it, and just get on with the things they want to do.”
In the article, Williams accepted that the government’s big society agenda was not a “cynical walking-away from the problem”. But he warned there was confusion about how voluntary organisations would “pick up the responsibilities shed by government”, and said that the big society was seen with “widespread suspicion”.
“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,” Williams wrote.
He also criticised the chancellor, George Osborne, saying: “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’.”
Westminster politics “feels pretty stuck”, he warned, adding 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 alliance.
He complained that education secretary Michael Gove’s free-school reforms passed through parliament last summer with little debate, using a timetable previously reserved for emergency anti-terrorism laws.
Separate reforms to universities will see tuition fees treble and funding for humanities courses cut.
Williams says education “might well be regarded as a proper matter for open probing”. But “the feeling that not enough has been exposed to proper public argument” has created “anxiety and anger” in the country.
Britain needs a long-term education policy “that will deliver the critical tools for democratic involvement, not simply skills that serve the economy”, he said.
Andy Burnham , Labour’s shadow education secretary, said people across the country would share Williams’ concerns about the government’s pursuit of policies for which it has no mandate.
Burnham said: “This government has no mandate for cutting too far and too fast, subjecting the NHS to a reckless top-down reorganisation and launching an unprecedented attack on young people by scrapping EMA and trebling tuition fees.”
Lord Tebbit, former Conservative chairman and cabinet minister, said it was part of the archbishop of Canterbury’s job to “make comments of a political kind in this area”.
Tebbit, a critic of the coalition, told Today that Williams was highlighting a “problem of coalition”.
“He is quite right that there are policies of the coalition for which nobody seemed to vote, and policies for which people voted which are not being carried through by the coalition,” he said. “But that is the problem of coalition.”
But Williams’ comments angered some on the Tory backbenches.
Gary Streeter, Conservative MP for South West Devon and chair of the all-party Christians in parliament group, said: “I think the people are with us on this and the archbishop, sadly and unusually for him, has ill-judged his attack.”
Fellow Tory backbencher Roger Gale said: “For him, as an unelected member of the upper house and as an appointed and unelected primate, to criticise the coalition government as undemocratic and not elected to carry through its programme is unacceptable.”
Gale was particularly angered by the archbishop’s criticisms of the “big society”.
He said: “I would have expected that the leading cleric of my church would wish to get behind and encourage such an endeavour, and for Dr Williams to dismiss this as ‘stale’ and to present it as a cost-cutting exercise is, frankly, offensive.”
In a separate guest column for the magazine, the chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, argues that religion already does the big society’s job – and does it better.
Sacks wrote: “A powerful store of social capital still exists. It is called religion: the churches, synagogues and other places of worship that still bring people together in shared belonging and mutual responsibility. The evidence shows that religious people – defined by regular attendance at a place of worship – actually do make better neighbours”.
The reason for this is simple, Sacks argues: “Religion creates community, community creates altruism, and altruism turns us away from self and towards the common good.”
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