The devil is in the detail for Archbishop Williams

There’s nothing like a political bun-fight and they are made all the more interesting when the main combatant – in this case, Archbishop Rowan Williams – is able to call on a higher power to damn not only the Government, but the political class as a whole.

Leaping into the ring, the Archbishop has well and truly stuck the boot in, lashing out at the coalition for making radical reforms without a mandate, and slamming the opposition for failing to devise or articulate an alternative to the cuts and the foundation-shaking policies in health and in education.

The response so far to his article in the New Statesman has generated a passionate response from the Prime Minister and some stinging comments from his backbenchers, suggesting Williams is an unwelcome visitor on the sacred turf marked ‘party politics’.

His words were undoubtedly designed to provoke – this was a carefully constructed piece written by his own hand, not an interview (where even the most disciplined guard can be accidentally dropped).

Of course, if you are anything close to left-of-centre, it’s easy to be drawn to Williams’ critique of the coalition, but his scatter-gun approach makes it difficult to unreservedly rally to his cause.

It seems a bit too simplistic and unthinking, for example, to jump on the bandwagon which slates the opposition for keeping their policy powder dry – if opposition is not the time for reflection and prolonged analysis, then when is? And you would be a pretty foolish opposition to set out policies with any certainty when the next election is four years away – who knows what the landscape will look like in 2015?

What is most odd – and what seriously weakens his position – is that Williams himself seems to be lacking in ideas, or at least ideas which could be described as concrete, tangible or even – to be honest – understandable.

He talks of re-inventing co-operation and syndicalism, but doesn’t bother to explain how; he asks for ‘better communication’ of ‘strategic imperatives’ – whatever that means; he dismisses ‘managerial politics’ and ‘associational socialism’ – phrases familiar perhaps to him and the small number of people who actually read the New Statesman, but pretty meaningless to your average man in the pew.

This is a missed opportunity. Unencumbered by the demands of political reality, Williams and the Church he represents, are ideally positioned to set out a clear and precise vision of public policy.

The criticism he makes of the left for not developing an alternative is precisely the vacuum that he – and the considerable resources his Church commands – should occupy.

But it should not be filled with bluster and brickbats – they serve only the needs of radio phone-ins and political chat shows. Nor should the gap be plugged with abstractions and theories alone. What we need are ideas that can be applied in the real world.

While Archbishop Williams may well have painted an accurate picture of the devil, but what we now need from him is the detail.


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