Archbishop of Canterbury strongly criticises government policies

By staff writers
June 9, 2011

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has criticised the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government's policies on a wide range of issues.

In a leading article in the New Statesman magazine, appearing in print tomorrow, he says the government is committing the country to "radical, long-term policies for which no one voted".

Dr Williams, who also guest-edited the magazine, argues that many of the public - especially the most vulnerable - are feeling "anxiety and anger" because of of the coalition's failure to expose its policies to "proper public argument".

Regarding the Prime Minister's health and education changes, which are being promoted as 'reforms', the Archbishop, who is clerical head of the Church of England and spiritual leader of the world's 77 million Anglicans, says that the coalition has instigated a mixture of "bafflement and indignation" among ordinary people.

"With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted," he writes. "At the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context."

David Cameron promised to stop "top-down reorganisations of the NHS" before the election. But since failing to secure a majority, and after entering a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who themselves endured disappointing results, he has embarked upon the largest reforms to the NHS since its creation in 1948.

These have been strongly criticised by patients, doctors, nurses, health care professionals and health service experts.

Regarding Michael Gove's education reforms, Dr Williams writes: "[T]he comprehensive reworking of the Education Act 1944 that is now going forward might well be regarded as a proper matter for open probing in the context of election debates."

He goes on to warn: "Government badly needs to hear just how much plain fear there is around such questions at present."

The Education Secretary's 'free school' academy proposals were pushed through Parliament in the summer of 2010 "with a haste usually reserved for emergency anti-terrorism laws", comments the New Statesman in its advance online highlights of the Archbishop's article.

Following on from comments by the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster and Free Church leaders in Britain, Dr Williams also criticises David Cameron's "big society" agenda, saying that the slogan is "painfully stale".

He writes that the policy to shift funding, responsibility and execution of public services from government to private and voluntary actors is being received with "widespread suspicion" as an "opportunistic" cover for huge public spending cuts that hit the poorest worst.

The Archbishop adds that is not credible for government ministers to blame the last Labour administration for all of Britain's problems, just as he was critical of aspects of the New Labour approach when they were in office.

He writes: "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'."

The latter phrase is one that millionaire chancellor George Osborne has repeated on a number of occasions, claiming that cuts affecting the least well-off are needed to reduce the deficit - a claim that political economist Ann Pettifor and others have described as "economically illiterate".

Significantly, Dr Williams rehearses a substantial critique of the coalition government's welfare reforms.

He points out that there has been a "quiet resurgence of the seductive language of 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor", together with "the steady pressure" to increase "punitive responses to alleged abuses of the system".

The Tory-Lib Dem administration's welfare policies have been substantially shaped by Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who is a practicing Catholic, and who established the Centre for Social Justice several years ago.

The development was seen as a 'softening' of the Conservative right's determination to defend wealth and privilege and punish the poor. However, since coming to power, some of the CSJ's key policies have been modified or changed my Mr Duncan Smith.

The 'Big Society' agenda has been pushed by, among others, former theologian Philip Blond, who along with his wealthy think-tank ResPublica has been seen as pursuing interesting ideas about mutualism and cooperation, while remaining in denial about the true impact of cuts and other policies on the most vulnerable in society.

In his New Statesman leader article, which will be published in full on 10 June 2011, Dr Williams says that his aim in writing is to stimulate "a livelier debate" about government policy and to challenge the political left to develop its own "big idea" as an alternative to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

The Archbishop has in the past described himself as a "hairy lefty", and his theological writings have been characterised by an emphasis on the Christian practices of compassion, justice and peacemaking, alongside philosophical themes in explication of what observers describe as a "creative orthodoxy" on central Christian convictions.

However, he has reined back on his previous more anti-Establishment ecclesial stance, veiled his social criticism in qualifications, and been seen to compromise to readily and fully with angry voices seeking to exclude gay people and those who sympathise with them from the counsels of the Church.

Dr Williams has gone on record as saying that church leaders should speak out on social and political issues from a Christian perspective, but not expect or wish to be seen as political authority figures themselves.

His latest contribution to the political debate in Britain will be seen to be in line with themes in his much commented upon 2002 Richard Dimbleby Lecture, 'Nations, Morals and Markets', delivered during the tenure of then Prime Minister Tony Blair and New Labour.

There are also echoes of the famous 1985 Archbishops' Commision on Priority Areas 'Faith in the City' report, headed up by Archbishop Robert Runcie, which infuriated Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - and which was denounced as 'Marxist' by many Tory grandees who subsequently admitted to not having read it. The report was an appeal to the Church and to the nation to give priority to the poor.

In November 2010, In the face of sweeping public spending cuts and a UK government economic strategy which they say targets the poor to pay for a crisis produced by the wealthy, a group of Christians in public life (activists, ministers and theologians) issued a statement calling for Christian unity with others in the movement to resist the cuts in public and welfare provision.

'Common Wealth: Christians for economic and social justice' (, backed by the beliefs and values think-tank Ekklesia and others, urged the churches to be wary about being co-opted into the Big Society initiative - which it called 'a big lie' in economic terms.

The document articulated a radical theological critique of government policies and the social and economic order they seek to maintain. It is rooted in an alternative vision based on strong Christian roots and wide solidarities, arguing for a Common Wealth that expresses the central dynamics of the Gospel message.

The statement - which is far more radical than Dr Williams' latest intervention - was and is also a call to form a network of discernment, resistance and creativity in the generation of fresh approaches to the shared life of people and planet.

* The full article by Dr Williams can be read here:

Also on Ekklesia:

* 'Common Wealth: Christians for economic and social justice' -

* 'Betraying disabled people and welfare' -


Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.