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This is an archived website containing material relating to Dr Rowan Williams’ time as Archbishop of Canterbury, which ended on 31st December 2012

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Big Society and Public Investment

Archbishop speaking Following the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review, the Archbishop wrote in the Yorkshire Post and The Sun newspapers.  Dr John Sentamu, having listened to the Government's spending review, reflected on the impact of investment cuts on communities and families....

The Big Society

A man asked me recently: "What do you think of the Big Society?" So I told him: "The Big Society? The church has been doing it for over 2000 years!"

There is nothing new in a set of Government policies that looks to encourage individuals and voluntary groups to be enabled, to be engaged within our community, to care for one another.

The Church of England knows all about volunteering. More people do unpaid work for church groups than any other organization. Churchgoers contribute 23.2 million hours voluntary service each month in their local communities.

The Church of England alone provides activities outside church worship in the local community for over half a million children and young people aged under 16 years, and 38,000 young people aged 16 to 25 years. Over 136,000 volunteers run activity groups for young people which are sponsored by the Church of England.

The Church employs more youth workers than any other organization and is involved on a daily basis trying to make the lives of young people better. What I am trying to say is that the Church understands the importance of volunteering and being active in our communities. As one of my predecessors, Archbishop William Temple said, "The Church is the only organisation that exists for the wellbeing and fraternity of its non-members".

But what we must not forget that the state has responsibilities too.

There is a reason we pay our taxes. Whilst it is easy to pretend that much of our hard earned cash goes to fund expense fiddling MPs, disreputable casino-style banks or mad politically-correct quangoes for do-gooders – actually we should expect the state to run and fund strong public services, with our money.

How to raise that money is another question. I am not an economist, and I am not a politician, but to cut investment to vital public services, and to withdraw investment from communities, is madness.

You do not escape an economic downturn by cutting investment and by squashing aspirations.

The Government has signalled for a long time that cuts must be put in place to tackle the economic deficit. The Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) is the swinging axe that follows the cuddly blanket and soothing words of "The Big Society".

I know many people today will be afraid of what the Government cuts outlined in the CSR will mean for them and their families.

I think we would all accept that this is a difficult time for our country economically. There are difficult choices to be made, and real debates to be had about what is the best way forward. Debate, discussion and compromise can all be positive when those involved are conducting themselves in the right spirit. However we need to ensure that no-one is left behind.

The promotion of social justice

The promotion of social justice should be a primary moral imperative for any government, and for every publicly funded institution. For when the government puts the promotion of social justice at its heart, we can stand together as one nation, as one people in solidarity with each other, recognizing the dignity of all, and affording all fair and equal opportunities for access and services. Freedom, fraternity and informed choice must characterise our social fabric.

For the first time in many years we have a coalition government in place. We have politicians from different parties with differing views on many issues making public policy. It is not for me to judge whether the current coalition will be successful, or whether it is a good thing for people in Britain, but I would draw a comparison with the National Governments of the 1930s.

The coalition governments of the thirties had to deal with an unprecedented global economic downturn, due to the effects of the Wall Street Crash in the United States. It became known as 'The Great Depression'. These governments had to achieve several different, contradictory objectives by working together with those that had previously been their political opponents. But these individuals put aside past differences in order to do what they felt was best for the good of the country as a whole.

What were the key aims of the National Governments? Maintaining Britain's economic position by maintaining the pound; balancing the budget; and providing assistance and relief to tackle unemployment. You could argue these are the same aims that lie before our Parliamentarians today.

Perhaps we should reflect on three words that were common in the inter-war years. Duty. Service. Nationhood.

When was the last time you heard these three words in a modern political context? I would argue that we need to get back to a situation where we put the interests of others first. Where we think about the importance of public policy in creating strong communities and strengthening the country as a whole, in particular by looking out for those who are poor or vulnerable.

I still find it incredible that following the end of the Second World War, the country's politicians set out on one of the most radical social investment programmes ever seen. The Beveridge Report paved the way for the establishment of institutions that today we take for granted – the creation of a Welfare State, the creation of the NHS and the expansion of National Insurance.

Why did the politicians do this? Partly because they had the vision to see something radical had to be done, but also because these reforms were what the public wanted and needed.

The then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, said it was "the first time anyone had set out to embody the whole spirit of the Christian ethic in an Act of Parliament".

You may ask, were the recommendations of The Beveridge Report 'affordable' at the time? The country had suffered the severest of economic depressions during the 1930s and then had suffered the devastation of a second World War straight afterwards – if ever money had been short in history, this would have been it.

Politicians need to be responsible for our economic well-being in the present, while also looking to the needs we will have in the future.

Are our politicians genuinely looking towards a common good – or are they just looking out for what in electoral terms guarantees success? Democracy, after all, offers the possibility of success but never guarantees it.

Time will tell, but for hard working families – especially those living in the poorest communities – I think we should stand up and call on the state to play its part by investing in Britain's recovery.

What many who may face redundancies will not understand is why the banks who caused the credit crunch and the downturn, and had to be bailed out, are giving themselves huge bonuses. When will the Government have the guts to tackle the huge bank bonus culture. This is a gravy train that is running out of control. Urgent action is needed.

Versions of this article originally appeared in The Yorkshire Post and The Sun newspapers on 21st October 2010.


In April 2010, the Archbishop wrote in The News of the World on the need to invest in people and in public services.