Analysis: Bishops point the finger

As the nation wrings its hands wondering who to blame for the recession, the Church of England has pointed its finger - at the government.

Senior bishops' attacks on Labour's allegedly immoral attitude towards the poor, family breakdown and debt reflect a deep unease about the credit-heavy society we lived in.

The comments came after Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams led the way last week with the simile of the festive week.

He said Labour's decision to hike up public borrowing to combat the recession was "like an addict returning to the drug".

That opened the floodgates as other senior members of the Church rushed to widen the attack, which now includes fundamental pillars of the Labour government.

Labour MPs responded by defending their party's record. The poor have got poorer and the rich richer, the bishops argued. MPs responded: What about working tax credits? Reductions in child poverty? The education maintenance allowance?

There was a genuine frustration to be seen among those leaping to the government's defence. Couldn't the Church realise Labour had done its best?

But as Treasury committee chairman John McFall admitted, their claims contained a "kernel of truth".

And it was this uncertainty about whether the government could or should have done more which made it so easy for Labour to completely shake off the bishops' comments.

This is not the time to enter into a lengthy post-mortem over the corpse of the British economy's boom.

The greed of City financiers, the willingness of households to assume unrealistic debt, the government's utter failure to regulate the market.

All these played a role in getting us into the mess we currently face.

Academics will argue for years over who should have done what to prevent it from happening. They still haven't finished analysing the great depression of the 1930s, after all. So it's difficult to pass judgment quickly with any real authority.

That hasn't stopped the Church, which has made clear its opinion in no uncertain terms.

Bishop of Hulme Rt Rev Stephen Lowe said the government had been "morally suspect and morally feeble".

Manchester's bishop Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch accused the government of being "beguiled by money".

And Bishop of Durham Rt Rev Tom Wright described a "sense of hopelessness" pervading Britain today.

Together these represent the Church coming out of its corner and squarely taking on the government.

Sometimes a religious establishment's got to do what a religious establishment's got to do. Its whole purpose is to provide a moral voice for the nation, one which is not afraid to speak up over society's problems.

And this is far from unprecedented. Anyone with a smattering of history will know the Church of England has been involved in politics a fair bit in its 450-year existence.

But in the modern context coming out in such a coherent and apparently organised way represents a powerful planned assault on the government.

And with the winner of the next general election far from clear it is highly possible the Church's comments could have a powerful impact on public opinion.

Fortunately for them its the Conservatives who appear to have the Church's backing. David Cameron's description of a 'broken Britain' plays perfectly with the description offered by the Anglican religious leaders this Christmas.

Cameron will be hoping to persuade voters their natural instinct to blame the government for the recession is the right one.

And there is no doubting this fundamental question of responsibility will decide whether the Tory leader kicks Gordon Brown out of Downing Street in the next 18 months or not.

Was it the "immoral" Labour government, motivated by votes and selfishly riding the waves of an unsustainable economic boom?

Or was it, as ministers argue, the result of global economic pressures which are affecting countries all around the world? And has Britain's low public borrowing and stable interest rate regime prepared it for the troubles ahead?

Every voter will have to decide whose argument they back. By coming out in force this festive season the Church has used its highest-profile time of year, when people really listen to its opinion, to wholeheartedly condemn the government.

Those who prefer Britain's religious leaders to keep out of politics will be frustrated - but the wide-ranging problems which contributed to our current economic predicament are justification enough for the Church's intervention.

Merry Christmas, Gordon.

Alex Stevenson


Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.