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The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has courted controversy by criticizing the coalition government of David Cameron.
Writing in an issue of the New Statesman that he guest-edited, Williams said that “[w]ith remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted.” Using the Education Bill as an example, he lamented the fact that many of the government’s policies were never discussed in the context of an electoral debate.
He also expressed concern that the government’s rush to transfer more responsibilities to the private sector could result in inequality and called on the government to decide which services were in need of “cast-iron guarantees of nationwide standards, parity and continuity” and then determine how those guarantees could be met even in a difficult financial climate.
Ministers were quick to respond to Williams’ article. Speaking during a press conference in Northern Ireland, Prime Minister David Cameron said that, although he supported the archbishop’s right to make political interventions, “I profoundly disagree with many of the views that he has expressed, particularly on issues like debt and welfare and education.”
Business Secretary Vince Cable also came to the government’s defense, telling Sky News that “[t]he two parties of the coalition got substantially more than half the total vote at the last election and the public knew that we were going to have to embark on very difficult changes, connected with sorting out the massive budget deficit problem.”
Williams’ comments have received a mixed reception from other religious leaders. The Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, came out in support of him, telling the Oxford Mail that he was right to “put his head on the block.” Pritchard went on to say that “[t]here are cuts of all kinds of social provision, including social care and youth work. Social care is being pared back for vulnerable, housebound people and that is something I very much regret.”
On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, expressed support for Cameron’s government, saying that many Catholics believed that there was “a genuine moral agenda” behind the coalition’s program.
Williams’ intervention is simply the latest in a string of political interventions by Archbishops of Canterbury that stretch all the way back to St. Thomas Becket in the 12th century. More recently, Robert Runcie famously clashed with Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s over a range of issues, including the Falklands War and urban poverty.