Magazine article The Spectator

New Labour, New Establishment

Magazine article The Spectator

New Labour, New Establishment

Article excerpt

BENEATH the mystic device of Power to the People, Tony Blair is actively devolving decision-making to those it most closely affects. Good Mr Blair, enlightened Mr Blair, what a calumny it surely must be to say that he is drunk with power, when his instinct is so clearly to surrender it.

But is that really his instinct? Consider another area of governance which was supposed to have been devolved 20 years ago. The Prime Minister has refused to accept as the next Bishop of Liverpool either of the two names offered by the Church of England until he has seen the full list of candidates.

If Mrs Thatcher had tried it, she would have been engulfed by protest. On the two occasions when she is thought to have exercised her right to opt for the Church's second choice rather than its first, you would have thought she had attempted a massacre of the firstborn. Now, Mr Blair has out-Thatchered Thatcher. Almost certainly (it cannot be conclusively proved, since this is supposedly a secret process, so leaks can always be denied), he is the first prime minister to turn down both the Church's suggested names and ask to see more, under the compromise agreed two decades ago by the then prime minister, James Callaghan.

Theoretically, he is within his rights. His action, all the same, effectively nullifies the agreement and asserts the Prime Minister's constitutional right to choose exactly whom he likes. The only comment on Mr Blair's authoritarian behaviour I was able to elicit from official Church sources was cryptic: `Prime ministers have exercised their responsibilities in a variety of ways.' I repeat: if any Tory had tried it, there would have been hell to pay. And yet this time there is hardly a squeak of protest. Why?

One reason, undoubtedly, is that most of the bishops of the Church of England voted Labour and will do nothing to make Mr Hague's job of undermining the government any easier. The second reason is that in any constitutional battle between Church and State, the State is going to win hands down. The one word nearly every Church of England bishop dreads (only slightly less than 'bankruptcy') is 'disestablishment'. Annoy a prime minister with `constitutional reform' emblazoned on his heart and who knows what might happen in the end?

And this brings us, precisely, to the real question, and one which nobody has so far asked: why, when the Prime Minister is quite prepared to 'modernise' the British constitution with such reckless abandon including, it seems, the monarchy itself does he reactivate the extraordinary anachronism (much stranger, if you think about it, than a hereditary legislature, which actually functions rather well) whereby it is he and not the authorities of the Church of England, or even the Church's 'governor', the monarch, who decides who shall and who shall not be the next Bishop of Liverpool?

And why, when he is so very anxious to rationalise the House of Lords by excluding hereditary peers on the grounds that they are unrepresentative of the people, does he intend to leave untouched the rights of no fewer than 30 bishops of the Church of England to sit and vote in it, when no other religious body has such a privilege, and when the Church of England now attracts less than 3 per cent of the population to church on Sundays - less than the Catholic Church, which presently has no representation at all, except for a few elderly hereditary peers like the Duke of Norfolk, whom Mr Blair is now intent on removing?

Mr Blair, as it happens, comes nearer to embodying in his person the original rationale of the establishment by law of the Anglican Church than any other prime minister this century, except Harold Macmillan. …

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