Guest Blog: The Archbishop of Canterbury: Labour’s best politician

Nikhil Venkatesh

Image © Scott Gunn

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The most pressing question we now face, we might well say, is who and where we are as a society. Bonds have been broken, trust abused and lost. Whether it is an urban rioter mindlessly burning down a small shop that serves his community, or a speculator turning his back on the question of who bears the ultimate cost for his acquisitive adventures in the virtual reality of today’s financial world, the picture is of atoms spinning apart in the dark.

Now compare it with this:

Those at the top and the bottom, who were not showing responsibility and were shirking their duties. From bankers who caused the global financial crisis to some of those on benefits who were abusing the system because they could work – but didn’t.

Believe it or not, these two passages were created by two different people: one by Rt. Hon. Edward Miliband MP, the other by Most Revd. Rt. Hon. Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The first is from the cleric’s recent Christmas sermon, whilst the second is taken from the Labour leader’s speech on ‘responsibility’ in June.

From the similarity of these two statements, it is obvious that Williams and Miliband share an analysis of the problems in Britain’s society – a lack of morality in both our upper- and under-class. They both make use of the powerful image of unscrupulous bankers being bailed out by the taxpayer, as the feckless poor scrounge the rest of our money for benefit payments, or the post-riots clear up.

You may think that that is where the similarities end. They both see the same problem, but surely the Ed would recommend its solution by social democracy and responsible capitalism, whereas the good Dr. Williams will prescribe a healthy dose of (preferably Anglican) God-fearing! Well, not quite. Williams does, naturally, talk about God in his sermon, but the words he uses to describe the need for an established religion could easily be interpreted in a more secular fashion:

If the question ‘where are you?’ or ‘who are you?’ were being asked, not only individual citizens of Britain but the whole social order could have [in the time of the King James bible] replied, ‘Here we are, speaking together – to recognize our failures and our ideals, to recognize that the story of the Bible is our story, to ask together for strength to live and act together in faithfulness, fairness, pity and generosity.

Now, if you remove the obvious biblical reference, the core idea – that all classes of  Britons need to be united behind shared values, and co-operate with each other – is not a million miles away from the ‘Blue Labour’ ideal of a Labour party promoting more nationalist, conservative values, and eschewing over-competitive capitalism in favour of corporatism and co-operatives. Whilst the Archbishop wants a united Britain ‘in faithfulness, fairness, pity and generosity,’ Maurice Glasman, in founding Blue Labour, called for ‘a new politics of reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity.’

Ed Miliband (like me) is not a fully paid-up Blue Labour-ite. Glasman’s controversial views on immigration, trade unions and education are far too right-wing for most party activists. However, he has been described as Miliband’s ‘guru,’ and his appointment as a peer very deliberately showed Glasman’s growing importance within Labour.

So the bishops and the opposition are in general agreement. Furthermore, Rowan Williams has spoken out about his dislike of the Coalition Government; in June, he went further in criticising public spending cuts than Miliband has dared. In the short-term, this was bad for Labour – Miliband was shown up as being impotent, and cowardly, over-shadowed by a softly-spoken bearded vicar.
However, might Williams’ all but explicit support become an asset for Labour? In my view, it will, for two reasons. Firstly, Church leaders can say things that politicians cannot – they can talk about morals without being accused of hypocrisy or paternalism, for example. In Miliband’s case, he is even more restricted than most MPs; the nickname ‘Red Ed’ still seems to haunt him, and he dares not discuss leftist policies for fear of it coming back. Archbishops, precisely because they are by definition establishment figures, can propose more radical solutions without being labelled as revolutionary. Miliband could hope that Williams’s support for these policies will ‘detoxify’ them – if that quiet, greying priest believes in them, how can they be dangerous?

The second point is that Williams can reach people that Miliband (and every Labour leader save Blair) never could. The Anglican communion, in Britain at least, is filled by middle-class, elderly social conservatives; these are precisely the people that tune out (or worse) whenever Miliband appears, and just as importantly, they are people that can be counted upon to vote. A Daily Mail article suggested that atheistic Miliband’s ‘laissez-faire attitude to religion might play well with today’s faithless youth,’ but this hold vice versa: Rowan Williams’ piety is sure to help convert the old and old-fashioned to social democracy.

In short, Dr. Williams is a new Tony Blair – charismatic, devout, upper-middle class and trusted by ‘Middle England.’ He may be just what Ed Miliband needs.

Originally posted here on The Collected Thoughts of a Pretentious Teenager.

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