24 Jun 2012

Archbishop brands Big Society concept ‘aspirational waffle’

The Archbishop of Canterbury attacks the Big Society concept as “aspirational waffle” designed to conceal a “deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities” to the vulnerable.

Dr Rowan Williams will stand down in December

Dr Rowan Williams, who will stand down in December, denounced the Prime Minister’s flagship policy in a book being prepared ahead of his retirement.

The archbishop also suggested that ministers had fuelled doubts over the concept by failing to clearly set out the role of British citizens within the Big Society.

In one passage, obtained by The Observer, he writes: “Introduced in the run-up to the last election as a major political idea for the coming generation, (it) has suffered from a lack of definition about the means by which such ideals can be realised.

“Big society rhetoric is all too often heard by many therefore as aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable.”

Civic identity

Casting further doubt on David Cameron’s vision, he added: “If the big society is anything better than a slogan looking increasingly threadbare as we look at our society reeling under the impact of public spending cuts, then discussion on this subject has got to take on board some of those issues about what it is to be a citizen and where it is that we most deeply and helpfully acquire the resources of civic identity and dignity.”

It is not the first time the Archbishop has weighed in on the subject.

Last year he condemned the policy as a “stale” slogan which, he said, was viewed with “widespread suspicion”.

In his new book, Faith in the Public Square, Dr Williams also condemns military expenditure.

The Archbishop, who has never been shy about expressing political opinions, writes: “The adventure in Iraq and its cost in any number of ways seems to beggar the imagination”.

He caused controversy last June when he warned the government was committing Britain to fundamental reforms in health and education “for which no one voted”.

His comments, in an article for the left-wing New Statesman magazine, drew a furious response from Conservative MPs who described his attack as “ill-judged and unacceptable”.

International development secretary Andrew Mitchell defended the government’s Big Society concept on BBC1’s the Andrew Marr Show.

Asked if he thought it was a cover for the withdrawal of the state, he replied: “Well it is absolutely not that, it is the reverse of that and we don’t always explain it perhaps as well as we should.

“But it’s about crowding in all parts of society, the government, local government, the voluntary sector, civil society to tackle these big endemic problems, which the prime minister and all of us have tried to articulate and tackle.”

He added: “The Archbishop and I will be announcing this week a joint effort between the government and all faiths on tackling poverty in the poorest parts of the world, we’ve been working on this for the last year.

“I think the headline belies the extraordinary amount of agreement on tackling poverty here and abroad which exists between this Coalition Government and the Church of England.”