Holy water consecrates Cameron's big society

The coalition government's programme of cuts has in effect been blessed by a whole range of Christian denominations and groups, reports Eddie Ford

When David Cameron made his July 19 speech in Liverpool - heralded by some sad souls as an exercise in bold and innovative thinking - he was keen to promote the idea that “community groups” should be able to “direct” the provision of public services for the “common good”. Naturally, the prime minister was looking towards voluntary organisations and the churches - especially the latter - to provide the moral and economic foundation for his new ‘big society’, which we were reassured stands in contradistinction to rule by ‘big government’.

In particular, Cameron lauded the virtues of a ‘free schools’ programme - which in theory would see groups of presumably like-minded parents getting together to set up a school of their very own, free from the restrictions and bureaucracy of the ‘nanny state’. Naturally, under this arrangement, the enterprising and eminently confident parents would broker contracts with private ‘education providers’. For the likes of David Cameron, this is the sort of direct civic action that will generate and sustain the ‘big society’ - or “liberal society”, if you are the slightly invisible Nick Clegg and desperately want to stamp the Liberal Democrats’ imprimatur over the coalition government.

In that sense, of course, we already had intimations of the ‘big society’ from that famous communitarian and Catholic convert, Tony Blair - especially with his scheme for academy schools, some of which were quickly taken over by assorted religious fanatics with the relatively big bucks necessary for such an operation. The most notorious example are the four academies that comprise the Emmanuel Schools Foundation, started up the evangelical Christian and businessman, Peter Vardy (‘god’s used car salesman’, as he is widely known) and which quite unashamedly teach their pupils that biblical creationism is a legitimate “theory” and that evolution is a mere “faith position”.[1]

Of course, Cameron’s ‘big society’ is in many respects a not particularly convincing ideological cover for privatisation and cutbacks - even pure “Blairite dressing”, to use the scathing words of the rightwing Tory backbencher, David Davis, pushing for more savage and earlier cuts. However, it is also important for socialists and democrats to recognise that the ‘big society’, as proffered by David Cameron, represents a potential attack upon the principles of secularism and free speech: a threat that began with Blair’s academies and continues afresh with Cameron’s ‘free schools’.

Unsurprisingly then, Cameron’s vision - if you excuse the term - has had enthusiastic support from a wide range of Christian denominations and groups. Steve Clifford, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, was “delighted” that the prime minister “has recognised the incredible work community groups are already doing” and wants to “enthusiastically encourage churches to accept his invitation to get stuck in”. He promised to “not pass by on the other side”. Steve Chalke, a Baptist and founder of Faithworks and Oasis, is equally onside: “There are enormous opportunities for churches in all of this.” He said the church should be the “hub of its local community” and the “great thing is that that’s acknowledged. We will continue to do what we are doing and we will redouble our efforts,” he promised.

Michael Nazir-Ali, former bishop of Rochester, also welcomed what he called a “freer society”, where people are “enabled to work for their local communities”. Christians and Christian churches have “always been at the forefront of work in the community”. However, he said, “it is more and more important that in the delivery of what is needed by local communities, their beliefs and conscience are respected”. Ade Omooba, founder of the mainly black Christian Victory Group, boasts that the churches and Christian groups are “probably the biggest provider” of social aid, but complains that they are “discriminated against by government” because of their “distinctive Christian character” and in that spirit welcomes the big society as representing a change for the good.[2]

Rowan Williams, primate of the Church of England, was slightly more nuanced. He only gave Cameron’s big society what he called “two and a half cheers”, but, nevertheless, called the launch of the new policy a “watershed moment” in British politics if it is “pursued with imagination”.[3]

No such restraint from archbishop Vincent Nichols, leader of the Catholic church in England and Wales. Apparently, the archbishop “nearly fell off his chair” when he heard Cameron pledging to work for “the common good” in his speech. Nichols informed The Daily Telegraph, always eager to provide him with publicity, that this slogan “describes the political philosophy” of the English and Welsh Catholic church. He pointedly attacked the previous “too overarching” Labour administrations for trying to “create a state that provided everything” and praised the coalition government’s ‘new turn’ as a step in the right direction - quite literally. Or, as the Telegraph helpfully puts it, Cameron’s Liverpool speech hopefully signals a healthy move away from the previous “state socialism” - an unfortunate legacy which, as far as the newspaper is concerned, the Catholic church itself is partly responsible for: indeed, sometimes guilty of actually collaborating with the insidious forces of “socialism”.[4]

The Telegraph moans about how in the past Catholic bishops in UK were “notoriously slow” to criticise the last Labour government, even when - such as with education and gay adoption - it seemed to be “driven by a secularist and specifically anti-Catholic agenda”. Back then, we read, the “common good” was often interpreted as “episcopal support for Labour’s redistributionist policies” - as “made explicit” in the official Catholic document, Taxation for the common good, which “seemed to present high taxes as a desirable end in themselves”. But no more, happily concludes the Telegraph - so thank god for archbishop Vincent Nichols and his new co-thinker, Cameron, whose “non-ideological concept” of the ‘big society’ is predicated on a localism which has “much in common” with the “Catholic notion of subsidiarity, whereby decisions are devolved as much as possible”.

Pure hypocrisy, of course, when you consider the monstrously rigid and hierarchical Catholic church - the control-freakery of the Vatican puts New Labour to shame. The papacy has energetically striven to crush any theological-political dissent or deviation, especially the ‘liberation theology’ that came out of Latin America. So much for the sacred principles of “subsidiarity” then, as just about anything goes for the Vatican bureaucrats when it comes to asserting orthodoxy and dominance.

But with Cameron’s big society, Nichols, as with other Christian grandees, senses that the time is ready for the church to flex its muscles and once again get the ear of the government - a virtual impossibility with the last Labour administration, which for the archbishop had “lost contact” with the church despite Tony Blair’s Catholicism. In an extensive interview for the Telegraph - where else? - Nichols states that there could have been a “more thorough and genuine engagement” with the Labour government, if only it had been “less confrontational”: especially with regards to equality legislation or the “school admissions scrap”.[5]

This “scrap” involved the obviously non-confrontational Catholic church leading a crusade in 2006 against the plans by the then secretary for education, Alan Johnson, to introduce a quota for non-Catholic pupils at its schools. Nichols furiously denounced the idea as “insulting”, “divisive”, “ill thought-out” and “unworkable” - and mobilised over 2,000 head teachers from various Catholic schools in his anti-Johnson campaign. The plan was quietly scrapped.

However, thinks Nichols, with the new coalition government there is a “fresh attitude”: one that seems to “respect the integrity of what a faith group wants to do” and “respect its language”. This results in a situation, Nichols told the Telegraph, in which a “faith community coming into cooperation with others will not have to sing from their hymn sheet”. In the opinion of Nichols, this marks a significant “shift” from the Labour government - which required a “high degree of conformity to its own theories” and if they “clashed with those of a faith community then either the partnership came to an end or the faith group had to conform”.

It is worth dwelling on this Telegraph interview because of the light it inadvertently casts on the whole big society con trick. Nichols paradoxically claimed to believe the current age of austerity and cuts can “help to rebuild communities based on mutual support” and expressed the hope that faith groups can play a “key role” in this much needed reconstruction of society. Thankfully, he is convinced that the government finally sees “faith as a resource to be rediscovered”. In effect, the archbishop is providing a spiritual gloss for the government’s austerity drive - once liberated from the grubby materialist excesses of your Jobseekers Allowance or Incapacity Benefit, you will be able to enjoy the finer ‘spiritual’ qualities of life: like the loving “mutual support” of your community.

Perhaps ironically enough, before his appointment to the top job in the Roman Catholic church, Vincent Nichols was considered a bit of a liberal. But over time he has become increasingly conservative, to put it mildly. Some have unkindly suggested this has been due to the early career advice he received from archbishop Worlock to make himself more “Vatican-friendly” if he was to get ahead in the church hierarchy.[6] This conservatism has involved a strident defence of the Catholic church’s “traditional values”, which for Nichols clearly involves the suppression of viewpoints deemed ‘blasphemous’ or ‘sacrilegious’.

Hence his frequent Tory-style attacks on the BBC for what he calls “biased and hostile” programming. One of his major targets in 2005 was the animated cartoon-cum-sitcom, Popetown, billed by its producers as “Father Ted meets South Park” - which followed the idle doodles and scribblings of a school student during yet another boring lesson. His drawings depict the life of Father Nicholas, who lives in Vatican City and is charged with being the handler for the pope - portrayed as a complete drooling idiot with the emotional and mental maturity of a four-year-old. Other characters include a priest who is a sexual pervert and a trio of thoroughly corrupt cardinals who secretly run Popetown (ie, the Vatican) and endeavour to enrich themselves behind the back of the nincompoop pope.

The series was originally commissioned by BBC3, but, thanks to the hue and cry whipped up by the church (Vincent Nichols being one of the loudest voices of protest), Popetown was dropped from the scheduling without a single screening - on the grounds that it could “give offence” to “some” Catholics. However, the show received its premiere on New Zealand’s C4 television network a month later and has also been shown on Australian and German TV - and to this day is currently aired on several MTV channels, including in Latin America, Latvia and Estonia.

Similarly, a year earlier, Nichols had strongly criticised the Birmingham Repertory Theatre for showing the play Behzti (‘Dishonour’), which contained scenes of sexual abuse and murder in a Sikh temple. He echoed the views of the most conservative and patriarchal elements within the Sikh community, arguing that those who violently forced the play to close had acted in a “reasonable and measured way”. He insisted that Behzti “demeans the sacred places of every religion”, with its “deliberate, even if fictional, violation of the sacred place” - therefore “people of all faiths will be offended by this presentation”.

Archbishop Nichols may be an advocate of the big society, but not of free speech. As for gays and lesbians, there seems very little room - if any - for them in Nichols’s version. He has declared that when it comes to this matter he will take his “guide” from pope Benedict, who described homosexuality as a tendency towards an “intrinsic moral evil”. Homophobia pure and simple, in other words. Depending on who you are, the big society can look remarkably pinched and mean.

And, of course - whether we are talking about the Cameron or Nichols version - it is a deception: it offers up the illusion of democratic control from below, whilst in reality leaving power and influence in the hands of bourgeois politicians, businessmen, the rich and ... the churches - all of which are ultimately defenders of class rule. Needless to say, communists are the most militant or ‘fundamentalist’ defenders and upholders of the principles of secularism - which demands a strict separation of church and state, with the state giving no preferential treatment or privileges to any religion or faith. In other words, there should be absolute equality between all faiths and those who subscribe to none: freedom to practise religion, freedom not to practise religion. Principles which are under threat from the big society and those who think like archbishop Vincent Nichols.

Yes, in reply to David Cameron, the state bureaucracy acts as an oppressive weight on the working class - unresponsive, ineffective, intrusive and indifferent. Everyone knows it. Yes, spending your life dependent in some shape or form upon the state - or as a supplicant - is a humiliating prospect. Yes, we obviously live alienated and profoundly unsatisfactory lives - seemingly doomed to an existence of unfulfilment and chronic frustration. Yet the big society requires that the working class remains scattered and atomised, a non-class of essentially disparate and non-organised individuals and subordinates. But we will only get a ‘bigger society’ - a liberated, more human, society for the masses rather than the privileged few - by organising as a revolutionary class against the capitalist order on a world scale.


  1. Christian Today March 31 2009: www.christiantoday.com/article/archbishop.warns.against.embracing.secularism/22951.htm
  2. www.christiantoday.com/article/the.christian.response.to.david.camerons.big.society/26312-2.htm
  3. www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/religion/7907830/Dr-Rowan-Williams-Two-and-a-half-cheers-for-the-Big-Society.html
  4. The Daily Telegraph August 2.
  5. The Daily Telegraph August 1.
  6. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vincent_Nichols