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By Andrew Lilico

A lot of excitement today about Rowan Williams' "attack" on the Coalition.  I suspect most of the commentary is based on George Eaton's mischievous summary, rather than Rowan's actual article, though I shan't be exonerating the Archbishop altogether.

Before we get into the pros and cons of what he said, let's begin with the context.  Rowan begins his New Statesman leader column by defending the number of articles by Coalition ministers in the edition of the New Statesman that he's editing – i.e. his leader is written from the angle of trying to reassure the New Statesman readership that the edition he is editing is not simply a mouthpiece of the Establishment, a pulpit for the Coalition.  It is thus unsurprising, given the purpose of his column (reassurance to New Statesman readers on this point), that he focuses upon various critiques of the Coalition.

The other thing to understand is that, as I read it, part of his defence of offering a New Statesman platform to Coalition ministers is his claim that it is useful for them to clarify various points – he says: "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".  Thus, when he talks later of the need to address people's fears and the "bafflement" concerning certain Coalition proposals, what he's doing is justifying using the New Statesman to engage with the government on these points.  The other part of his defence is that by engaging with the government, the left might benefit intellectually - we might "discover what the left's big idea currently is"; "the task of opposition is not to collude in [fear]…but to define some achievable alternatives. And, for that to happen, we need sharp-edged statements of where the disagreements lie."

Things he got clearly right

  • "Big society" is a "term [that] has fast become painfully stale".  You don't say…
  • "[W]e 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."  Indeed.
  • "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."  Many of us on the Right have said this for years.
  • "There is, in the middle of a lot of confusion, an increasingly audible plea for some basic thinking about democracy itself."  That's surely correct!  Think: AV referendum.  Think: do we need a elected House of Lords to be a democracy?  Think: does democracy require assemblies in Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland with power to raise most of the money spent there?  Thus, when he goes on to talk about the lack of explicit democratic mandate for the government's health reforms (for example), he's raising that main as an illustration of issues concerning what democracy is, not as any kind of criticism of the substance of the Coalition's policies.
  • "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."  Who disagrees with that?
  • "[W]hile 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."  Could have been written by Oliver Letwin.

Things I think he got wrong

In a number of areas I disagreed with him.  As it happens, although I do have a religious sympathy with the sense of prophetic mission some Churchmen feel in standing up for the interests of the poor, even when I disagree with them vigorously about means and regard them as naive and sometimes insufficiently casuistical in their understanding of ends, that isn't what Rowan Williams gets wrong in a couple of places.  He isn't standing up for the poor; he's promulgating flawed leftist nostrums.

  • He claims that the reversal of "several decades of cultural fragmentation… 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".  He can say that, if he believes it, but I shall say he's just wrong.  We absolutely need to rediscover the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor, and to understand how a system that does not make this distinction corrupts the undeserving poor – the worst victims of insufficient moral discrimination - whilst being desperately unfair to the deserving poor.
  • He asks: "how…does national government…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?"  This is either poorly phrased, or simply the wrong question.  The central issue is not how the government continues to provide taxpayer investment in these things; rather, it is how society as a whole best delivers on addressing them, which might potentially involve little or no government spending on them at all.  I am not, at this stage, advocating spending little or no taxpayer money on them, but I do believe that it is a fundamental error to approach these questions by believing that, whatever the best answer is, it must involve considerable government money.
  • He claims that in an ideal democracy "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"".  That's a classic arch-Democrat position.  Bizarrely, he claims that "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."  Err…no, it isn't.  There is an arguable (if, in my view probably flawed) position according to which this would be part of St Paul's concept about what the Church should be – the community of the Regenerate.  St Paul doesn't remotely claim that this is how a wordly political state should function.  In St Paul's system there are rulers, ordained by God whom it is our duty to obey insofar as they do not exceed their ordained scope of authority, and according to Romans 13 such a ruler exists as "God’s servant to do you good" and as "God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer".

Things that are arguable

  • The "big society" is "An idea whose roots are firmly in a particular strand of associational socialism".  That's certainly arguable, but I think it's a bit of playing to the New Statesman gallery.  The big society idea is surely every bit as much Burkean or Victorian philanthropist Tory as it is "associational socialism".
  • He claims that we need "a long-term education policy at every level that will deliver the critical tools for democratic involvement, not simply skills that serve the economy."  I am broadly sympathetic with him in hoping that education provides a material "liberal arts" element rather than being purely utilitarian.  But I'm not sure that that applies "at every level".  Some education surely should be directed at providing useful skills to the economy, and government might even choose to prioritise useful skills for at least some of its funding (always bearing in mind that the skills that are most useful will also presumably be the most sought by the Market, and hence those that the government least needs to subsidise).
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My final remark is that, as I read it, though I disagreed with him on a number of points, Rowan's article didn't strike me as constituting any kind of "attack" on the Coalition, and I can quite understand why he didn't feel he needed to "warn" Downing Street about its contents.  I don't mind at all that the Archbishop expresses his political ideas, even when they are wrong.  He ought to do that.  It is a Christian duty to engage with politics and to try to steer events.  He isn't a Pope, though, and though I welcome his contribution, I feel no compunction about disagreeing with him.

16 comments for: Andrew Lilico: Where Rowan was right, wrong, and arguable

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