Rowan Williams has exposed his ignorance and crass insensitivity yet again

Dr Rowan Williams says the Coalition Government is introducing radical, long-term policies 'for which no one voted' (PA photo)

Rowan Williams is a clever man in a way, but he has emphatically not reached the beginnings of that wisdom which, you will remember, Plato defined as knowing how little we know. The trouble with excursions into the field of politics by prelates of his kind (not that there are all that many) is that they raise yet again that old but perennially foolish question “does the Church – do clergymen – have any right to pronounce on political questions?” The implication here is that they should stick to what they know about: and every time someone as senior as Rowan Williams demonstrates as vividly as he has just done how utterly ignorant he really is about politics – and not just about political principles, but about the basic facts of what he is going on about, he undermines the ability of clerics who really do have something to say about political morality to become engaged in the public square.

I have just spent some time reading 1) the text of the article in which Archbishop Williams pronounces that the government is engaged in policies in health and education for which nobody voted and in which he even attacks Iain Duncan Smith’s proposals (supported by virtually everyone in all parties) for the reform of the benefits system; and 2) the Conservative Party’s 2010 election manifesto. I haven’t looked at the Lib Dems’ manifesto; but they are clearly in support of government policy in at least two of these areas, and at one time were supportive of all three.

First (in the passage on which the media, rightly, I think, homed in), Rowan Williams wrote of

“…the bafflement and indignation that the present government is facing over its proposals for reform in health and education. With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted [my emphasis]. At the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context. Not many people want government by plebiscite, certainly. 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. The anxiety and anger have to do with the feeling that not enough has been exposed to proper public argument.”

Well, if you want to see Michael Gove’s plans for the establishment of free schools and for giving existing schools the right to become academy schools free of LEA control (that’s what Rowan Williams is presumably talking about) exposed to proper public argument have a look at him standing up to Jeremy Paxman during the 2010 election campaign: it’s all there, vigorously probed in the general context of the ongoing and – as I remember it – exhaustive debate on the Tories’ proposed education policies during the last election. As for health, it’s certainly true that Andrew Lansley’s tortuous Health Bill wasn’t set out in any detail (actually policies rarely are during elections) but in fact, the most controversial parts of the Bill were right there in the manifesto:

“We will strengthen the power of GPs as patients’ expert guides through the health system by:

• giving them the power to hold patients’ budgets and commission care on their behalf;

• linking their pay to the quality of their results; and,

• putting them in charge of commissioning local health services”.

Anything else? Oh yes, a strange oblique attack even on Iain Duncan Smith’s universally praised policies at the Department of Work and Pensions; here, the archbishop utters a direct slur of the lowest kind, by simply stating what is not remotely the case, writing of

“…a quiet resurgence of the seductive language of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, [and of] the steady pressure to increase what look like punitive responses to alleged abuses of the system. If what is in view – as Iain Duncan Smith argues passionately … is real empowerment for communities of marginal people, we need better communication about strategic imperatives…”

So, who precisely has been using the seductive language of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor? The “quiet resurgence” of such language was so quiet that nobody else except Archbishop Williams seems to have heard it: does he have unusually acute hearing? Or maybe there are voices in his head? Who knows? And what does he mean precisely by “steady pressure to increase what look like punitive responses”? His crack about the undeserving poor undoubtedly suggests that as well as being punitive towards “abuses of the system”, he thinks that the policy to withdraw benefits from those who refuse work is also a “punitive response”. But that, too, was widely discussed before the election, and was in fact, according to the polls, a vote winner. Here it is in the Tory manifesto:

“….our plans will give unemployed people a hand up, not a hand out. Unemployed people must be prepared to take up job offers. … people who refuse to accept reasonable job offers could forfeit their benefits for up to three years. This will create a welfare system that is fair but firm.”

This says nothing about all the help Duncan Smith proposes to give to those who might otherwise lose out by accepting a low-paid job paying them less than they already receive on benefit: what it doesn’t do is speak about the undeserving poor, an expression which I doubt has ever crossed Iain Duncan Smith’s lips except to reject what it implies. I think that Archbishop Williams owes him an apology, or at the very least what’s called these days a “clarification”; but I doubt that he will get one.

Frankly, I don’t give a fig about anything Rowan Williams says, as such; for a most amazing quantity of utter drivel issues forth from the midst of that ghastly beard of his (remember his pronouncements on sharia law?) What I do care about is that for most English people, Rowan Williams is the leading spokesman for something they call “The Church”. And that affects those of us who think that “The Church” (ie us) actually can have something to say about political life, in those circumstances when it is appropriate for her representatives to do so. Now, Archbishop Williams has made it less rather than more likely that they will, here at least. That’s a nuisance.