9 Jun 2011

Will Archbishop’s criticism spark repeat of 1980s?

David Cameron weighed in on the row with Dr Rowan Williams just now. The gist of it is that “I defend the Archbishop’s right to speak on politics but he’s talking tosh” (I paraphrase). 

Earlier, there was speculation that the PM wouldn’t want to go near this. But he joins Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, Liam Fox, Iain Duncan Smith and Sir George Young who have all been saying, with carrying degrees of directness and warmth, something similar.

This doesn’t nearly match though the old days when Robert Runcie waged war with Margaret Thatcher  – their terms in office (unhappily for both) heavily over-lapped. In October 1984 Dr Runcie accused the government of seeking “confrontation” and voiced concern about the miners’ strike.

Nicholas Fairburn piled in on Mrs Thatcher’s behalf and said the then Archbishop of Canterbury should eat coal in public to show penance. The month before that, the Bishop of Durham said – at his enthronement – “the miners must not be defeated.” David Sheppard, then Bishop of Liverpool, regularly attacked the government’s economic policies.

Read more: Archbishop of Canterbury criticises Coalition

When the Church produced its Faith in the Cities report one Cabinet minister was quoted as calling it “pure Marxist theology.” Has Rowan Williams fired the starting gun for a similar spiritual slug-fest? And is the government up for one?   

No. 10 says it simply heard what the Archbishop had said – “a political intervention in a left wing magazine,” one No. 10 source said – and decided instantly that the arguments needed to be taken on. No one’s got round to pondering yet whether this is a longer term church strategy requiring a matching strategy from government. 

As for the constitutional issue that the Archbishop raises, we spoke to Professor Philip Norton (now a Tory peer), longstanding professor of politics. What did he think about the Archbishop’s main constitutional gripe? Dr Williams seems to be worried that not only did the Coalition concoct an agreement, its programme for government, that wasn’t in the manifesto of either party, but worse than that it isn’t a compromise between two manifestos but an altogether different beast that goes further than either party dared to do in its respective manifesto. Dr Norton says that’s largely the nature of coalitions, who rules parliament always decides what gives … he gives Dr Williams a “beta minus.”

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