Entry from June 9, 2011

Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is the current guest editor of the British political weekly, The New Statesman — a remarkable datum in itself, if you ask me — and he has taken the occasion to criticize the British government, also known as “the Coalition,” in somewhat puzzling terms. Like other European governments, Britain’s is in a phase of considerable austerity. This is owing in part to the profligacy there of the previous Labour government, which was voted out of office just over a year ago. But instead of voting in the Tories, who were the official opposition, the electorate expressed its views ambiguously. Neither Tories nor Labour held an overall majority of seats in the new Parliament, and the balance of power was and is held by the much smaller Liberal-Democrats. After being offered a coalition with Labour, which would have propped up the previous government (if not the previous prime minister) in power for a bit longer, the Lib-Dems chose to form a government with the Tories.

It was an unusual if not unprecedented situation, but Dr Williams appears to have got hold of the idea that it somehow voided the whole election. “With remarkable speed,” he writes, “we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted.” You can see what he’s getting at, I suppose. Some voted for a Tory government, and some, presumably for a Lib-Dem one — though given the unlikelihood of the latter, that’s debatable. A Lib-Dem vote has long been a protest vote more than it is for a particular political agenda. But no one voted for the series of compromises and adjustments to each party’s proposals for government that were necessary for the Coalition to be formed. Some might have voted for the Coalition’s particular package of austerity measures if they had known it was on offer, but there’s no way for us to tell now how many, if any.

So what? To a greater or lesser extent all governments are coalition governments, and all must modify their pre-election programs to suit changing realities. Everybody understands this basic fact of political life, but apparently His Grace thinks he has spotted in it a loophole through which he can question the democratic legitimacy of a government he disagrees with. His taking to the public prints in order to challenge that government makes it inconceivable, in my view, that he could have done this without a political motive. Why should the Church of England have anything to say about the kind of political horse-trading by which governments in England are formed unless it is functioning as a sort of minor political party itself, and one which has a different political program from that of the government which has actually been formed?

Yet here is Andrew Brown in today’s Guardian telling us that my Lord Archbishop’s intervention in party politics “isn’t party politics”! Rather, says Mr Brown, “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.” Let’s see. The 1980s. Who was prime minister then? Oh, I remember now. Margaret Thatcher. And the opposition to her policies enunciated by Dr Williams’s predecessor Robert Runcie was “apolitical” just like his own opposition to David Cameron and Nick Clegg. What makes it apolitical when it has such clearly political purposes and motives? Only the fact that Mr Brown and others say it is.

In this they are engaging in the same kind of deception that the media do when they use the word “partisan” as a pejorative — that is to imply that partisanship is only one-sided and that they themselves are somehow above such sordidness. It’s not surprising that the C of E should be joining in the media’s quest to moralize political differences — and therefore to demonize political views different from their own. In the last 50 years it has made the transition from being “the Tory party at prayer” to being a sort of court jester: licensed to criticize the government of the day from the point of view of the utopian left because no one, possibly not even itself, takes it seriously anymore.

Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts