Archbishop of Canterbury on 'Big Society'

Dr Rowan Williams

Dr Rowan Williams

In his Commemoration Oration at King's College London, on Monday,  the Archbishop of Canterbury welcomed the way the concept of the Big Society has opened up a serious debate on our political priorities, whilst acknowledging that 'it has suffered from a lack of definition about the means by which ideals can be realised'.

Dr Williams made particular reference to the far-reaching possibilities of the development of local co-operation and 'mutualism' throughout the entire spectrum of political action and stresses the interdependence of the local, the national and the international spheres.

The Archbishop suggested that theology has a key role to play in defining our need for a proper appreciation of 'character' and the notion of 'empathy' and that the pursuing of national goals without defining what sort of people we are or want to be cannot be of much value without this:

"If we live in a milieu where a great many signals discourage empathy and self-scrutiny, and thus emotional awareness, we shall develop habits of self-absorption, the urge for dominance, and short-term perspective.  Our motivation to change anything other than what we feel to be our immediate circumstances will be weak, because our sense of ourselves as continuous, reflective agents will be weak.  And the clear implication of all this is that without an education of the emotions – which means among other things the nurture of empathy – public or political life becomes simply a matter of managing the competition of egos with limited capacity to question themselves"

Whilst welcoming the relocation of political decision making the Archbishop urged that it needs to be related to considered thinking about how civic character is formed and how social relations are shaped. On this he affirms the visible communities of the established Church which, with its committed presence in every locality, has its own role in affirming the importance of civic responsibility:

"If the Church is actually nourishing empathy, mutual recognition, then it is nourishing people who will continue to ask difficult questions in the wider public sphere, questions – for example – about how the priorities are identified when cuts in public expenditure are discussed, about the supposed absolute imperative of continuous economic growth, or about levels of reward unconnected with competence in areas of the financial world."

On the international level Dr Williams stresses that whilst the Big Society vision recognises the dangers of excessive centralism in creating dependant rather than creative political culture, the answer cannot be found in reliance on the market, and we need also to consider that:

"A 'Big Society' model for international development will aim to strengthen not government in isolation but the self-confident nurturing of local political capacity through civil society that will in due course support a lasting participatory politics at national level.  What is required, in other words, is an engagement with the government of developing countries that will work seriously at building a healthy political culture through the encouragement of local initiative."

Dr Williams also urged support of microcredit institutions "the small-scale investment needed to give impetus to small businesses is best handled in this mode; and the running of microcredit schemes is itself a profoundly important learning vehicle for those involved". He also suggests the possibility of using revenue raised from a tax of financial transactions to "offer an integrated resource for local and co-operative ventures" and the revenue could be handled by a 'Big Society Bank'.

In speaking about the ideals of the 'Big Society' concept, the Archbishop emphasised that this does not mean we should be opposed to national infrastructures:

"Localism does not mean the dissolution of a complex national society – let alone a complex international network of societies – into isolated villages.  It means, for one thing, the familiar principle of 'subsidiarity', so important in Catholic social thought – the principle that decisions need to be taken at the appropriate level. "

He gave the example of the need for national resourcing and monitoring of factors such as health and education and, on an international level, the need for international regulation and monitoring of microfinance initiatives in order for them to have any sort of long-term value.

To read the text of the lecture see:

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