Archbishop of Canterbury delighted with the Big Society – and the mainstream media are mute
But it ought not to be: in fact, praise of a principal policy of a Conservative government by the Archbishop of Canterbury is quite distinctly a man-bites-dog story, eminently worthy of reporting. In a speech entitled ‘Big Society - Small World?’, Dr Rowan Williams firmly embraced the way the concept of the Big Society has opened up a serious debate on our political priorities, whilst acknowledging that it is as nebulous as the Holy Trinity, having ‘suffered from a lack of definition about the means by which ideals can be realised'. The whole speech merits reading, but you will need to concentrate, for it is an academic lecture delivered in an academic institution: it is characteristically irreducible to sound-bites and slogans.
The Archbishop praised the conceptual foundations of the Big Society, which have perhaps been most eloquently articulated by Dr Philip Blond at ResPublica; in particular, he emphasised the far-reaching possibilities of the development of local co-operation and 'mutualism' throughout the entire spectrum of political action, and stressed the interdependence of the local, the national and the international spheres.
Dr Williams suggested that theology has a key role to play in defining our need for a proper appreciation of 'character' and the notion of 'empathy' and that the pursuing of national goals without defining what sort of people we are or want to be cannot be of much value without this:
"If we live in a milieu where a great many signals discourage empathy and self-scrutiny, and thus emotional awareness, we shall develop habits of self-absorption, the urge for dominance, and short-term perspective. Our motivation to change anything other than what we feel to be our immediate circumstances will be weak, because our sense of ourselves as continuous, reflective agents will be weak. And the clear implication of all this is that without an education of the emotions – which means among other things the nurture of empathy – public or political life becomes simply a matter of managing the competition of egos with limited capacity to question themselves"Whilst welcoming localism – that is, lauding the thesis of Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell – the Archbishop quite reasonably urges that the relocation of governance is not simply a bureaucratic shift: it needs to be related to considered thinking about how civic character is formed and how social relations are shaped. On this, he affirms the visible communities of the established Church which, with its committed presence in every locality, has its own role in affirming the importance of civic responsibility:
"If the Church is actually nourishing empathy, mutual recognition, then it is nourishing people who will continue to ask difficult questions in the wider public sphere, questions – for example – about how the priorities are identified when cuts in public expenditure are discussed, about the supposed absolute imperative of continuous economic growth, or about levels of reward unconnected with competence in areas of the financial world."Why is “Archbishop agrees with Tory right-wingers” not news-worthy?
On the international level, Dr Williams stressed that whilst the Big Society vision recognises the dangers of excessive centralism in creating dependent rather than creative political culture, the answer cannot be found in reliance on the market, and we need also to consider that:
"A 'Big Society' model for international development will aim to strengthen not government in isolation but the self-confident nurturing of local political capacity through civil society that will in due course support a lasting participatory politics at national level. What is required, in other words, is an engagement with the government of developing countries that will work seriously at building a healthy political culture through the encouragement of local initiative."This is perfectly in tune with David Cameron’s ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ agenda; it is contiguous with Dr Blond and Pope Benedict XVI.
Dr Williams also urged support of microcredit institutions: "...the small-scale investment needed to give impetus to small businesses is best handled in this mode; and the running of microcredit schemes is itself a profoundly important learning vehicle for those involved". He also suggests the possibility of using revenue raised from a tax of financial transactions to ‘offer an integrated resource for local and co-operative ventures’ and the revenue could be handled by a 'Big Society Bank'.
In speaking about the ideals of the 'Big Society' concept, the Archbishop emphasises that this does not mean we should be opposed to national infrastructures:
"Localism does not mean the dissolution of a complex national society – let alone a complex international network of societies – into isolated villages. It means, for one thing, the familiar principle of 'subsidiarity', so important in Catholic social thought – the principle that decisions need to be taken at the appropriate level."He gives the example of the need for national resourcing and monitoring of factors such as health and education and, on an international level, the need for international regulation and monitoring of microfinance initiatives in order for them to have any sort of long-term value. He concludes with an exposition of the religio-political and politico-philosophical opportunities presented by the Big Society:
“My concern is that we use this opportunity to the full – and particularly that we do not treat the enthusiasm around some sorts of localism simply as a vehicle for disparaging the state level of action to secure the vulnerable, nationally and internationally. It is welcome that there is a concern to think about relocating power; but, as we have seen, for this to work well depends on being reasonably clear as to what you want power to do – which includes the ‘backwash effect’ of serious localism in re-energising national and international policy, to the extent that it is building real civic virtue.”Lefty Archbishop embraces Tory Right? Lambeth Palace lauds Conservative Party policy? Anglican Church affirms Catholic Social Teaching? His Grace cannot remember the last time there was complete accord between Downing Street, Lambeth Palace and Rome. But not a mention in the media – not even by the religion reporters of The Telegraph or The Times: once again, the facts are completely ignored: the Archbishop of Canterbury is muted; the Established Church sidelined.
And His Grace does not think this is entirely down to wars and rumours of war; or because flood, famine and fire have stolen the spotlight. It is deliberate and purposeful, and that purpose is clear to those who have ears.