Toby Helm and Julian Coman The Observer 24 June 2012
The archbishop of Canterbury has denounced David Cameron's "big society", saying that it comes across as aspirational waffle that was "designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable". The outspoken attack on the prime minister's flagship policy by Rowan Williams is contained in a new book, Faith in the Public Square, that is being prepared for publication. Passages from the book, obtained by the Observer, reflect the archbishop's deep frustration not just with the policies of Cameron's government and those of its Labour predecessors, but also with what he sees as the west's rampant materialism and unquestioning pursuit of economic growth. Williams also laments spiralling military expenditure, writing that "the adventure in Iraq and its cost in any number of ways seems to beggar the imagination".
But it is his suggestion that the big society – Cameron's personal vision of a more active civic society – is seen by people as a deliberate cover for plans to shrink the state that will be most controversial. On Saturday Cameron revealed he was considering scrapping most of the £1.8bn in housing benefits paid to 380,000 under-25s, worth an average of £90 a week, forcing them to support themselves or live with their parents. He also told the Mail on Sunday he might stop the £70-a-week dole money for the unemployed who refuse to try hard to find work.
Williams, who steps down in December writes: "Introduced in the runup to the last election as a major political idea for the coming generation, [it] has suffered from a lack of definition about the means by which such ideals can be realised. Big society rhetoric is all too often heard by many therefore as aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable."
He suggests that ministers have fuelled cynicism over the Cameron vision by failing to define what the role of citizens should be. "And if the big society is anything better than a slogan looking increasingly threadbare as we look at our society reeling under the impact of public spending cuts, then discussion on this subject has got to take on board some of those issues about what it is to be a citizen and where it is that we most deeply and helpfully acquire the resources of civic identity and dignity." A perception that the government is failing to prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable as it pursues growth has spread since the chancellor, George Osborne's, decision to end the top 50p rate of tax on incomes of more than £150,000 a year in his March budget.
In a powerful section questioning economic assumptions that govern modern societies, the archbishop takes issue with the idea that growth, defined as increasing production, is necessarily a good thing. "Practically speaking, at the individual and the national level, we have to question what we mean by growth," he writes. "The ability to produce more and more consumer goods (not to mention financial products) is in itself an entirely mechanical measure of wealth… By systematically depleting the resources of the planet, it systematically destroys the basis for long-term wellbeing. In a nutshell, it is investing in the wrong things."
No 10 said: "The launch of Big Society Capital in April is a concrete example of the government delivering on its plans – £600m to help create a funding model that is truly self-sustaining and that will help charities and social enterprises to play their part in building a bigger society."
He also calls for greater integration of Muslims living in Britain and insists they make their loyalty to "the nation state" rather than "the international Muslim community". "To suggest that the Muslim owes an overriding loyalty to the International Muslim Community [the Umma] is extremely worrying," he writes. "Muslims must make clear that their loyalty is straightforward modern political loyalty to the nation state."
Publisher Robin Baird-Smith said that the book was "a powerful, carefully reasoned rebuttal of Williams's critics. This is a book about religion in public life. “ a book of supreme importance."