The politics of fear may make for great headlines, but are we really a nation gripped by fear over government reforms? The Archbishop of Canterbury has today been criticised for a two-page critique in this week's New Statesman magazine entitled 'The government needs to know how afraid people are.' As I just told Premier radio, I'm not convinced.
That said, those of Rowan Williams' critics who think he should 'stick to religion' understand neither the democratic process nor the true nature of Christianity. We should all be 'stepping into the political arena,' to question on what is going on in society and the direction in which government is taking us all, and there is a particularly responsibility for religious leaders to do so, as representatives of their communities, just as surely as there is for business leaders, scientific experts, academics, and others who excel in their respective fields to do so. Moreover, Christ commissions his followers to be a transformative influence in and beyond their communities, so the sphere of politics is a perfectly legitimate area of engagement for all Christians.
In that context, Dr Williams shares with us all a responsibility to make a constructive contribution to public debate, not simply to be critical of things about which he is anxious or concerned. To complain about 'policies for which no one voted' and the speed of some of the reforms is obvious nonsense. 29,691,380 of us voted in the last general election and where there are policies now being pursued by government that were agreed in the compromise between the Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs that we elected, this is a problem of coaltion in general, not of this particular coalition – a problem that was widely discussed in the recent AV debate. As for the speed of reforms, the policies now being implemented on education, for instance, were a central part of the Conservative manifesto and the economic reforms mean 'the Cameron state is 3 per cent larger than the Brown state' and 'once the cuts start they’ll be smaller than the European average,' while Barack Obama proposes to cut even faster than Britain.
The Archbishop is right when he observes that the lack of proper public argument 'allows many to dismiss what there is of a programme for "big society" initiatives.' As the Jubilee Centre has noted, the Big Society was developed as the solution to what had previously been identified as the problem of Broken Britain: family breakdown, educational failure, worklessness and economic dependence, addiction, and indebtedness. Yet this has been very poorly communicated. As have Dr Williams' own comments in favour of Iain Duncan Smith's attempts to give 'real empowerment for communities of marginal people,' with one paper claiming the Archbishop 'reserved some of his harshest words for the programme of benefit reforms drawn up by Mr Duncan Smith'! Indeed, on how his article has been spun by the media, can anyone explain to me how a hope 'to discover what the left's big idea currently is,' and lines such as 'we are still waiting for a full and robust account of what the left would do differently and what a left-inspired version of localism might look like' or 'Managerial politics...is not an attractive rallying point, whether it labels itself (New) Labour or Conservative' (to quote from just the opening three paragraphs) contribute to a case against the Coalition rather than an invitation to all politicians?
I am somewhat baffled though as to why the Archbishop laments the language of the 'deserving’ and 'undeserving’ poor. For the Bible is clear, even with its heavy emphasis on compassion and the requirement for state intervention to look after the disadvantaged, that we all – including the poor – have responsibilities and we should be wise that our charity does not do more harm than good. E.g. 'Of what use is money in the hand of a fool, since he has no desire to get wisdom?' (Proverbs 17:16), 'Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth,' (Proverbs 10:4) and 'If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.' (2 Thessalonians 3:10)
As he observes himself, 'there is another theological strand to be retrieved that is not about "the poor" as objects of kindness but about the nature of sustainable community, seeing it as one in which what circulates - like the flow of blood - is the mutual creation of capacity, building the ability of the other person or group to become, in turn, a giver of life and responsibility.' The Archbishop can certainly count us in for his invitation to 'sharp-edged' public debate – 'a democracy capable of real argument about shared needs and hopes and real generosity.'