Benedict Brogan asks what David Cameron should do about Archbishop Rowan Williams' full frontal attack on health, education and welfare reform. He suggests that he should consider the PR perils of taking on the troublesome priest. He should not. He should himself go on full frontal attack. He should attack the Archbishop's economic reasoning but, more importantly, he should attack his authority and competence to speak about such matters. He should, for example, make the following points...
1. Except on issues of faith and morals which overlap with public policy (and there are no shortage of such issues - the treatment of prisoners, life issues, how wars are conducted and so on) the Archbishop has no more standing, knowledge or authority when commenting on the matters highlighted in the New Statesman article then any lay person. Indeed, Williams has specifically chosen matters which should be reserved for debate amongst lay experts and about which he has no specialised knowledge of which I am aware.
2. That by commenting on such matters - on which Christians are free to disagree - he weakens his authority when he speaks on matters of Christian doctrine. I am not an Anglican but I would have thought that his job was to be a uniting force leading his flock to God and not a dividing force.
3. That Christians - though this is less well defined in the Anglican Church - speak about the importance of governments creating the conditions for the common good. This means creating the conditions that allow human flourishing. Given that all persons are unique a pre-requisite for this is a certain amount of freedom (especially in areas such as health, education and welfare). It appears that the Archbishop will not address this issue at all in his New Stateman article but is, instead, talking about democratic legitimacy, economic problems caused by spending cuts etc.
4. That the conditions for human flourishing can hardly be nurtured by unchanged policy. In this paper I presented at a meeting of Catholic legislators in Rome last year I explained how the current welfare state undermined human flourishing at every level - something that should be taken on board by all sides of the political spectrum. Three important pre-requisites for human flourishing are work, family and saving (to ensure independence in old age, times of difficulty etc). The welfare state strongly penalises work, family formation and saving. Can the Archbishop really argue that the welfare state - as currently constructed -promotes human flourishing? Can he really argue that the education system promotes family autonomy? Can he really argue that it promotes good outcomes for the poor?
5. Surely, the accumulation of implicit and explicit debt of 500% of national income (or more) is both unjust and also has the potential to undermine the common good of the next generation (interestingly Rowan Williams supports action on climate change for the benefit of the next generation...). Surely also, government spending of over half of national income undermines the spirit of individual initiative, freedom, subsidiarity and the common good that all Christians are supposed to hold dear whilst centralising both power and resources in bureaucracies that are not answerable to those they are supposed to serve.
6. These are more issues for the politician than the policy wonk, but the Archbishop is simply wrong to argue that the coalition has no democratic legitimacy for its policies. The Lib Dems and Conservatives were more or less united in their education policies, for example, before the election.
7. The Archbishop is also wrong to say that the public is "gripped with fear". This is an emotive phrase. I really have not met anybody gripped with fear over the thought of a free school opening. There are, no doubt, people who worry about certain services not being provided - though few who are gripped with fear. But, we have to ask, in the Archbishop's ideal world, where does government spending stop. 52% of national income clearly does not do the job for him, 54%? 60%? 90%? He must also recognise that a large amount of this spending is being financed by placing obligations on the next generation who are not yet in a position to be gripped by fear but will face pretty dire consequences from the wrong policy decisions today. We have gone beyond the point at which public spending can be financed by taxation.
These interventions by the Archbishop should be batted away robustly. No punch should be pulled. All the points that Rowan Williams made have no more authority simply because they are made by an Archbishop. Furthermore, they contribute nothing to our understanding of how public policy can develop in order to promote human flourishing - the declared aim of the Archbishop himself in this field. The remarks are no more sensible than his suggestion that requiring people who had not worked for three years to do some kind of work if they were to continue to receive benefits would drive them into a downward spiral of despair.
We have heard the negative from Rowan Williams. I would like to issue him a challenge - how would the Archbishop like public policy to develop in order to ensure that it promotes the common good. Where would state involvement in health and education stop? What freedoms would individuals and families have? How much would the state spend? What would the welfare state look like? If he can tell us his vision, we can then have a proper debate.