You can’t blame the New Statesman for selling its story as “Rowan Williams attacks the government”; nor the Telegraph for splashing the story across its front page. It’s a strong, familiar narrative, with quotes to back it up – but it’s still almost entirely wrong.
This isn’t party politics. The people Williams has commissioned as guest editor of the New Statesman to write about government policies – such as Iain Duncan Smith – are the ones responsible for those policies, and he has given them a chance to explain those policies. Williams does believe that explanation is needed. He is reviving the notion the Church of England should form a kind of apolitical opposition, which was most vigorously pursued under Lord Runcie in the 1980s.
Williams is personally and instinctively much more of a “hairy lefty” than Runcie was. If Runcie was by temperament a one-nation Tory, Williams is a one-nation socialist. But in both cases it is the idea of one nation, and of community, that animates them far more than economics or political order.
The message of his leader is not just that “no one voted for coalition policies”, though that makes an excellent soundbite:
“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.”
Obviously, this is a pain that Lib Dem voters feel most personally, but Williams goes on to say that we don’t know now what the opposition would do instead:
“Government needs badly to hear how much plain fear there is around … not to recognise how pervasive it is risks making it worse. [But] equally the task of opposition is not to collude with [the fear] but to define some achievable alternatives. And for that to happen, we need sharp-edged statements of where the disagreements lie.”
A professional politician might respond that colluding with fear is what gets you elected and that sharp-edged statements of where disagreements lie will only confuse the voters – but then Williams has never shown any understanding of how mass politics work.
What he does show is a profound vision of what politics might be based on, and what democracy is for. It’s not just about shovelling money to the poor: they should not be seen as objects of kindness. What we should be trying to do is to be people who build other people, and to build and be part of communities that build other communities: “building the ability of the other person or group to become, in turn, a giver of life and responsibility”.
What he really wants is for the “big society” to mean something, even while he concedes that the term has “fast become painfully stale”. He thinks it is the only escape from the world view of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair: “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” – at this point, not even an archbishop needs to kick the Liberal Democrats further but they also have done their bit for managerial politics.
There are some practical points: in particular, he wants the shrinkage of the state to be limited and carefully policed: if the big society is to work, the government must still provide a long-term and carefully thought out commitment to paying for the “root issues”: child poverty, poor schooling at all levels and sustainable infrastructure. “What is too important to be left to even the most resourceful localism?” he asks.
These are not new questions. I have heard them put to Duncan Smith by a gathering of Christian charities and voluntary groups who felt they were being asked to do the government’s work without any reason to trust it. But that Williams raises them will give them a profile, and may give them some political teeth.
But these aren’t really party-political questions. They cut across and within all parties. The real point of William’s argument is surely that there’s no alternative to trying to make a big society that works, because we know that a shrunken society doesn’t.
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