The Church of England has published an “open letter” to its members concerning the General Election. In many ways this 50 page document entitled Who is My Neighbour? does not live up to some of the pre release hype. It is in fact very general and more focused on the general political culture of Britain than anything else.
There is a sense though, in which some of it reads as somewhat politically naive and at times it uncritically repeats slogans put out by the liberal left without seemingly taking the trouble to check whether these are actually true.
For example, the claim that Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Victorian values’ meant the reintroduction of ‘unregulated markets’ (section 36) whilst admittedly a populist left wing slogan is nonetheless historically simply untrue. Conservatives have never believed that (although nineteenth century Liberals did). Rather, they believe as Quintin Hogg who (as Lord Hailsham) was Lord Chancellor in Mrs Thatcher’s government famously observed ‘free market economics are very nearly true’ i.e. they still need a modicum of regulation.
In fact this wasn’t even what Mrs Thatcher was referring to in her 1983 comments on Victorian values. If the bishops had taken the trouble to look at what she actually said they would have seen that she was arguing for precisely the sort of voluntary sector action, church schools and charities that they themselves are arguing for in their letter.
Similarly it is disappointing to see the main statement on unemployment say that “unemployment has not risen as high as was predicted” – when in fact unemployment has fallen at the fastest rate for quarter of a century. The bishops really do need to better at making accurate statements if they are to be taken seriously.
What these reflect is not an overt bias, but an almost institutional tendency of public statements by bishops on social and economic issues to veer, consciously or otherwise a bit leftwards. Sometimes this is more overt, as in some chapters of the book edited by the Archbishop of York On Rock or Sand: Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future, which was published last month. However, the Church of England is perhaps slowly beginning to learn the lesson that, like the BBC, it has to at least try to be seen to ‘politically neutral’ even if it doesn’t always quite manage it.
There are actually a number of really good things in this paper such as the concept of ‘the common good’, which is in fact drawn from Catholic Social Teaching – and is potentially of real practical value in weighing up both local and national political issues. However, It is a shame that some sloppy scholarship detracts from this. That is particularly disappointing when one considers how many bishops have high level academic degrees.
Nevertheless, this is not a report that the Labour Party can in any sense claim as vindicating their ideas. It doesn’t. At times it even praises the last Conservative manifesto theme of the Big Society and acknowledges that this reflects a long standing Conservative idea (section 94). There is here perhaps a challenge for us as Conservatives to recapture and re-embrace in a new and fresh way a moral vision of Conservatism.