Coalition should launch full frontal attack on Archbishop

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.

Well said. The Archbishop, by publicly denouncing the government with these unfounded accusations, has forfeited he right to any civilised response with respect for his office.
A public challenge to debate is a great idea, but a full frontal slanging match, definitely not. The man is pitiful, a demagogue and a blatant member of the labour party.
“I have a nuclear weapon against them [the bishops]. If I think they are going too far, I threaten to bring in a bill to give legal force to the Ten Commandments to see where they would stand on that.” Lord Tebbit Today Radio 4 9th June http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9508000/9508665.stm
Agree wholeheartedly with every reason you give for why Rowan Williams should not have said what he did but I do not think Cameron should make the same points. They are clear to all who disagree and those who agree will attack DC for starting a slanging match.
Having read the article a couple more times, I think I would lighten my criticism a little. However, one further point struck me. He says: "But, for example, the 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" - of course the government that brought in the 1944 education act was not elected at all!
The Government isn't going to attack the leading figure of the Church of England. Despite recent trends in religion, anglicanism is still the most popular religion in the country so what political advantage would it give the Government to publically attack the Archbishop of Canterbury.
It should attack what he says (that is clear from the post though not the title). These are important arguments to be made if the moral case for a smaller government is to prevail. I agree they should not personally attack the Archbishop.

1. So economic matters should be reserved for debate amongst lay experts should they? And who exactly are the 'lay experts'? And who decides? Philip Booth and his pals at the IEA? In what sense is Philip Booth better qualified to debate issues of public policy than the Archbishop of Canterbury? If the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot be permitted to express his views, then what hope is there for the man on the Clapham omnibus?

Your comments raise two important questions: one about the definitive nature and objectivity of economic policy, and a second about the conduct of intellectual debates.

With regards to the first, your comment implies that there is no moral dimension as to how economic policy is either formulated or implemented. This is extremely poor logic. All economic choices are political choices, and most political choices are moral choices. There is more than one way to reduce the deficit, or to run an economy, and how you choose to do either depends on how you wish to distribute the ensuing benefits and hardship amongst the different income and social groups within the population. These are moral and political decisions and therefore they most definitely fall within the Archbishop's area of specialised knowledge.

Secondly, no debate should ever be confined to a group of self-appointed 'experts'. Debates should be about policy and intellectual ideas, not people. The quality and veracity of an idea should not depend on the status of the person proposing it, but on the merits of the idea itself. If the IEA does not like people such as the Archbishop of Canterbury (or even people like me) attacking their ideas, then they should try to defend their ideas rather better instead of attacking those who dare to attack and refute those ideas.

2. No, he weakens his authority if he fails to address issues of social injustice and unfairness. His job is not to unite Christians, it is to guide them, and remind them of the basic teachings of Christ, and of what it means to be a Christian. JC did not devote his life to helping the rich. When he wasn't throwing the money lenders from the temple (ethical banking), he was curing the sick (universal health care free at the point of delivery), founding the principle of the welfare state (parable of the Good Samaritan: Luke 10:25-37) by redefining the scope of one's responsibility to one's neighbour, and advocating progressive taxation (parable of the widow's mite: Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4). That all sounds pretty socialist to me. So the real question is: how can you call yourself a Christian and NOT be a socialist?

3. The common good is not just about individual flourishing, it is also about collective responsibility and universal insurance. Private healthcare and education are therefore anathema to the common good, and so are many cuts to welfare benefits.

All persons should indeed be allowed a 'certain amount of freedom'. However, if one person's freedom infringes the freedom and liberty of another then it is not a right that is in the common good. That is where individual freedom should end. Freedom for a privileged few is not freedom, particularly when its costs are borne by others who are denied the same opportunities. In this respect it is difficult to comprehend how the freedom (especially in areas such as health, education and welfare) that you speak of can be construed as freedom as opposed to privilege.

As for spending cuts, they can only be moral and in the common good if those that suffer the greatest hardship from the cuts are the very same people that will reap the greatest benefit in the future. That didn't happen in the 1980s, and unfortunately it probably won't happen now either.

4. The welfare state does indeed penalise work, family and saving. But why is this? It is because of the rules under which it has operated are designed to punish those on benefit. All stick and no carrot. This is a direct result of years of poisonous rhetoric regarding welfare that has concentrated on demonising the poor. Whether it is right-wing economic think-tanks attacking the very existence of the minimum wage, or a barrage of press headlines that seek to pillory all those who are unemployed or on welfare as 'scroungers' and 'cheats'. The result is governments are browbeaten into cutting welfare spending to the bone. It is therefore those with independent means (i.e. savings and part-time jobs) that suffer first as welfare funding is reduced. So if the welfare state does indeed penalise work, family and saving, it is because it is not generous enough and is underfunded (the very policies that the Right has supported).

Cantab83 - your attack is extraordinary. I did not say that the people commenting on economic matters should be "self appointed" - where exactly did I say that? In the early church the people dealing with such matters as looking after the poor were appointed by the church but were explicitly different from the early bishops. I did not say that there was no moral aspect to economic issues but that Rowan Williams was not addressing the moral aspects - what I said was not poor logic, I simply did not say it! Rowan Williams was not reminding anybody of the basic teachings of Christ. Christ was remarkably silent on the issue of whether the government should spend over half of national income and have a huge welfare state. He was not silent on the need for the Christian community that followed him to put the poor first - hardly anything Christ said related the role of the Christian community to the role of political authorities. These are matters of prudential judgement and, I repeat, Rowan Williams has no special expertise in this area any more than I have any special expertise in theological matters. My post did not attack Rowan Williams - it attacked his ideas (this must be so as your post is mainly attacking the ideas that attack his ideas). So, Christ choosing to cure the sick implies a state-provided, state-funded socialist health service does it? This is extraordinary logic. It is an inability to make this distinction between the role of political authority and the role of the community that makes me think that Rowan Williams is so ill-equipped to participate in these debates. Yes, he is free to participate in debates about political matters but I think his office should lead him to be restrained when he is making purely prudential political judgements rather than judgements that have a genuine moral content (of which there are many in politics). Otherwise, he simply divides his flock - and his great pastoral responsibility is to lead his flock in unity towards Christ. Of course, I know that there is a community aspect to the common good - the question is what is the role of the state and what is the role of the community. He does not address this except using highly loaded political rhetoric.
Professor Booth has exposed the vapid content of the Archbishop's thinking on matters of economic policy, and it is totally appropriate that this member of the House of Lords is challenged to lay out his vision in full on the matters raised in the last pararaph of the post. I would simply go further: as the central problem of current British economic policy is that of the vast government deficit, could the Archbishop of Canterbury tell us how, precisely, he would deal with it?( I suspect that we will all have to wait until Hell freezes over to get a reply on this matter).

Just a few more points for consideration:

5. So debt is more than 500% of GDP is it? Which debt are you talking about here? According to the ONS government debt is 60.1% as of 30th April this year. Irrespective of the merits of either figure, your line of attack neglects one important factor: the assets that this debt has paid for.

The next generation don't just inherit the debt, they also inherit the infrastructure that it was used to build. They inherit the standard of living of today and modern technological knowledge. So why should they be entitled to inherit the benefits (economic and technological) and yet not bear some of the costs (the debt used to finance them)? After all, it is not as though they are expected to pay off the entire debt themselves. They will hand most of it on, just as it was handed on to them.

Rather than undermining the common good of the next generation, such debt gives that generation a head start over previous ones by virtue of the extra investment that it has delivered. Your criticism of this debt only carries weight if this '500%' is significantly more than previous generations have inherited, or the standard of living they will inherit is lower, or both. You have clearly failed to make any such economic case here that I can see.

6. One area of pre-election agreement (however tentative) does not in itself demolish the argument that the coalition has no democratic legitimacy for some of its other policies. A genuine coalition based on democratic principles should coalesce around policies upon which both parties had previously agreed, rather than putting forward policies that neither party was prepared to advertise or commit to before the election. The coalition may have secured over 50% of the total vote at the general election, but if it is now implementing policies that at least one of the parties never even alluded to before the election, they cannot legitimately claim to have the support of over 50% of the electorate for that policy. That is where the lack of democratic legitimacy arises and it is not just the Archbishop who has pointed that out. Many Lib Dem voters have as well.

7. "There are, no doubt, people who worry about certain services not being provided - though few who are gripped with fear." Really? So what is your evidence for such a definitive statement?

"He must also recognise that a large amount of this spending is being financed by placing obligations on the next generation..." The next generation is always a beneficiary of the previous one, as I have already pointed out. For example. every child is educated at the expense of the previous generation, and not by using their own income. It is how every generation invests in the next. So if the next generation has always benefited from the industry of the previous one, why should it not also have to pay for it through financial obligations?

"We have gone beyond the point at which public spending can be financed by taxation." On the contrary, we have barely begun to explore the possibilities of using wealth and property taxes to fund public spending. There is nothing magical about the 40% threshold or the 50% one, and many other countries have much higher levels of public spending than us and a higher standard of living. The greatest correlation is between low levels of government spending and low GDP per capita. The vast majority of poor countries have government spending well below 30%: the vast majority of rich countries have spending well over 40%.

And Finally:

"These interventions by the Archbishop should be batted away robustly." Really? And to what extent do you think that this article has achieved that?

" 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." Perhaps before you ask him that, you should start by defining the 'common good'. And then perhaps you should explain how laissez-faire free-markets based on the principle of the survival of the fittest and the strongest together with a 'winner-takes-all' ethos will deliver that 'common good'.

Unfortunately this distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor is not a new one as I have noted on another post. Certain elements of it could be even be seen in the mindset and policies of the last Labour government sadly.

The "fear" that the Archbishop refers to is I suspect not so much based on the coalition government's current proposals, but rather on the direction of travel that they represent. Many will see these policies as a stalking horse for more draconian measures to come in the future, measures that many on the Right have long been campaigning for. Given the potential impact of these "ideas", the poor do indeed have a lot to be fearful about. Given the way that all the main political parties now seem to have abandoned the poorest of the poor, they certainly need someone like the Archbishop of Canterbury to speak up on their behalf more than ever before, because it is becoming increasingly clear that no-one else will.

@cantab "Perhaps before you ask him that, you should start by defining the 'common good'." You could have a look at Catholic social teaching and the market economy "And then perhaps you should explain how laissez-faire free-markets based on the principle of the survival of the fittest and the strongest together with a 'winner-takes-all' ethos will deliver that 'common good'." Why should I explain this? I have never suggested that markets are based on the principle of the survival of the fittest and strongest and winner takes all and I don't know any proponent of markets who believes that. Tomorrow, i shall go down to the bakers and exchange money (representing payments for my services) for bread - the market is based on free exchange. It isn't that the baker takes all or I take all. Funnily enough, where governments allocate a fixed amount of resources (such as school places) the winners do win at the expense of the losers. Tomorrow, I get nice bread, he gets my money - no losers.

Reply to Philip (on Mon, 13/06/2011 - 08:39)

(i) 'I did not say that the people commenting on economic matters should be "self appointed"... '

Quite true, and I didn't ever claim that you did say that. Nor did I ever intend to suggest that you did.

You actually said: "Williams has specifically chosen matters which should be reserved for debate amongst lay experts..."

My original question was, who decides who is sufficiently expert? This is particularly important given that economics is not exactly an objective or empirical science, and is very political in the way it is practiced. As long as there is a political dimension to the debate, then the debate should be conducted more widely than just between a few 'experts'. It should not be restricted to a debate amongst an elite group from within the economics community, or even worse, one particular branch of that community, particularly when the results and consequences of that debate will be spread far wider than the economics community and its 'experts'. The term "self appointed" was one I introduced to this debate myself (though perhaps I could have chosen a better epithet) in order to emphasize my concern about any such debate possibly being restricted to a body of 'experts' appointed from within an elite group to the exclusion of all others.

(ii) "I did not say that there was no moral aspect to economic issues but that Rowan Williams was not addressing the moral aspects - what I said was not poor logic, I simply did not say it!"

Then I still don't understand what it is you claim you were saying. In point 1 of your article you appear to imply that Archbishop Rowan Williams should restrict his views to issues of faith and morals which overlap with public policy. Then you say: “Williams has specifically chosen matters which should be reserved for debate amongst lay experts...”

To me this implies that you think Rowan Williams should be barred from any debate on these issues, which I take to be on economic and social policy (i.e. welfare). If this is indeed your position, is it because you believe there is no moral dimension to economic debate and welfare policy? Or is it because you believe economics and welfare are not part of public policy? Personally, I disagree with both propositions which is why I cannot understand the logic of your position.

(iii) "Rowan Williams was not reminding anybody of the basic teachings of Christ."

No, I was. And I was doing so to point out that those basic teachings, in my opinion, are incompatible with right-of-centre economic policies and laissez-faire free-markets based on the principle of the survival of the fittest and a 'winner-takes-all' ethos.

In point 2 of your article you state: "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." Well I profoundly disagree that "Christians are free to disagree" on this as I will outline in (iv).

(iv) "He was not silent on the need for the Christian community that followed him to put the poor first..."

In which case how are laissez-faire free-markets based on the principle of the survival of the fittest and the strongest together with a 'winner-takes-all' ethos consistent with putting the poor first? How are policies that make the poor poorer consistent with putting the poor first? And if they are not consistent, then how are they consistent with being a Christian? And how are these issues then ones "on which Christians are free to disagree"?

To my mind Cantab83 seems to be missing a rather basic point: Rowan Williams has has qualifications in theology (a D.Phil), and has held a Chair of Divinity (at Oxford); but his CV is totally empty regarding matters relating to debt management policy and fiscal retrenchment strategy. Obviously, no-one is suggesting that he should be "barred from debating" these matters...to the contrary, my post (above) invited him to do so. His New Stateman piece ducks these matters entirely. So, to repeat my earlier challenge (see above): will Dr Williams now provide the rest of us with a clearly articulated programme for fiscal consolidation in the UK? Or is unable to do so?
I get worried when clerics are more interested in saving bodies rather than souls.

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