The outspoken attack in the New Statesmen on the Coalition government by the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, was an indication in some quarters of the effects of the austerity programme. This was to be followed some days later by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope who claimed that if the British intervention in Libya continues any longer then Britain could need to deploy ships it used to defend home waters, indicating the dangerous way in which the armed forces are being continually overstretched. This was then followed by a briefing by Air Chief Marshal Sir Simon Bryant, who stated that morale within the Royal Air Force was “fragile.” To add further insult to injury, the head of the British Army, General Sir Peter Wall, announced that the withdrawal date from Afghanistan set at 2015 was far too premature.
All of this comes at a very unsettling time, with growing fears of civil unrest and strikes against the unpopular austerity policies of the government and now a situation where the police are facing cuts of 20% to their budget. This attack on the police has forced them to organize a protest to march through central London on 13th July. The intention is to send a clear signal to the coalition government about the growing anger within the rank and file of the police force. Paul Mckeever, chairman of the Police Federation, stated that the morale amongst frontline police officers was at “rock bottom.” The last time the police marched through central London it was against the previous Labour government in January 2008 in a dispute that involved 26,000 police officers over not receiving a 2.5% backdated pay rise.
Amid this growing unrest over the austerity cuts, the government has made sure that the monarchy will not be affected. In order to keep up appearances, the amount of funding that Prince Charles receives has risen by nearly 18%, which works out to be an extra £298,000. Taxpayers were however reassured by the BBC that this rise was to cover the affairs of Clarence House as well as the whole Royal family.
This announcement was made at a time when some of the lowest paid workers in Britain have only seen their pay rise by 27% over a period of thirty years, whilst the richest 10% within society have seen their incomes rise by nearly four times that amount during the same period. This has led to a growing gulf between the richest and poorest within society as well as the growing class divide bought to the fore by the on-going economic crisis. As the world economy stagnates and inflation in Britain hits 4.5%, living standards are being undermined as the ruling class attempt to place the full burden of the capitalist crisis onto the shoulders of the working class.
As the Greek ruling class pass their second round of austerity measures and rioting breaks out within central Athens, the British prime minister, David Cameron, vents his feelings towards public service workers and condemns the unions taking coordinated strike action on the 30th of June. “I would say to you: these strikes are wrong … for the good of the country. It's the changes we propose which are right.” But such condemnation falls on deaf years.
While Rowan Williams the Archbishop has come out condemning the austerity agenda of the millionaire coalition on the basis that “people did not vote for these policies,” it is what the Archbishop has left out that provides for more interesting reading. He has become distinctly aware of the dangers ahead. Above all, he sees the revolutionary potential within society that has been created by the events within the Middle East.
He goes onto say, “Digging a bit deeper, there are a good many on the left and right who sense that the tectonic plates of British - European? - politics are shifting. Managerial politics, attempting with shrinking success to negotiate life in the shadow of big finance, is not an attractive rallying point, whether it labels itself (New) Labour or Conservative. There is, in the middle of a lot of confusion, an increasingly audible plea for some basic thinking about democracy itself - and the urgency of this is underlined by what is happening in the Middle East and North Africa.”
Whilst in the past the Archbishop has dabbled in radical fringe politics in his youth, especially whilst studying at Cambridge, he now represents part of the Establishment. He is expressing concerns for the future of society if it continues on the present lines. There is a layer within the Establishment who are concerned about the effects of the cuts on traditional “middle England”. His concerns are also an attempt to appeal to these sections within society who are increasing disillusioned with the traditional parties and are becoming increasingly radicalized and becoming critical of capitalism and the market economy. God forbid! The archbishop is also attempting to make the church appear in touch with peoples’ problems. After all, the Church of England, the Tory Party at prayer, is in decline. The most recent statistics for the Church of England attendance show that despite the crisis, Sunday attendance has dropped by a further two per cent.
The Archbishop says very little that comprises of any real clarity in his article; rather it feels as though he has used the opportunity to spark a debate that would create a few media sound bites and to allow the general public to remember that the Church of England does still exist. Whilst he loosely applies a few terms such as “a community of communities”, he has no real answers. The more interesting commentary came from the media barrage that followed. The Financial Times article entitled “A pundit in purple” (9/6/11), explains:
“The Archbishop of Canterbury has every right to set out his views on matters of British politics, as he did this week in a leader in the New Statesman. Of course, he was not elected to office. But there is no convention (as there is for the monarch) that the head of Britain’s established church should stay above the political fray. Quite the reverse, in fact: as a member of the House of Lords, the Archbishop is directly responsible for scrutinizing government policy.”
The Financial Times goes on to chastise the Archbishop for his criticisms of the government’s speedy academies counter-reforms that have been proposed by Michael Gove, the secretary of state for education, as well as the lack of any actual listening by coalition ministers over National Health Service public “listening exercise”:
“More glaringly, under the British parliamentary system, it would be absurd to expect governments to enact only policies spelt out before an election. Events, from wars and earthquakes to hung parliaments, have a habit of disrupting the best-laid plans. Responding to changing circumstances in a timely matter does not reduce a government’s legitimacy. To govern is to choose, as elected representatives soon discover.”
Recently, the teaching union ATL has taken its first strike action in 127 years. This is a real reflection of the groundswell of opposition to the Coalition government from those who, at least in the past, saw themselves as moderate professionals, rather than trade union militants. It is a sign of the times. It is clear that those layers that would remain relatively inactive in a period of economic boom and class stagnation are now being drawn into industrial action. They are being drawn more closely to the more traditional working class. The more middle class layers are becoming more proletarianised. Our archbishop is certainly aware of this, which he sees as a dangerous development. Even “middle England” is being drawn towards the working class. It reflects a polarization in society.
David Cameron made his feelings towards the Archbishop unsurprisingly in much the same way as the Financial Times did, clearly stating that the archbishop was "free to express political views" but he "profoundly disagrees" with them.
As the war with Libya draws on, there is a continual danger of mission creep, as the military call it. “We will continue our mission until our mission succeeds and Colonel Gaddafi must get no other signal then that”, explained Dr. Liam Fox, Minister for Defense.
Machiavelli once commented in that, “Wars begin when you will, but they do not end when you please”, and the current wars within Afghanistan, Iraq and now in Libya are no expectation to the rule. This statement from Fox comes days after General Sir Peter Wall openly criticized the government’s premature deadline for bringing troops home from Helmand province at 2015.
The last several weeks has seen the battle lines drawn between the government and the heads of the leaders of the armed forces, all of whom are fighting to defend their own corners against any further reduction in MOD spending via governmental spending cuts. In a statement to parliament the cabinet minister for the MOD, Liam Fox estimated that the costs of the Libyan intervention could reach £260million. This was then to be contradicted by military defense “experts” stating that his figures bore “no resemblance to reality” and that the taxpayer bill would be closer to £1 billion. This is at a time when the capitalist system demands £6.2 billion in cuts to local government.
Liam Fox showed his contempt for the hierarchy of the armed forces that speak out against government agenda, in much the same way the Prime Minister did with the Archbishop of Canterbury, by stating:
“In a war you have got to be careful of the messaging you give to the other side,” he said. He then went onto comment that, “There is a time and a place for anyone in the armed forces to give ministers a message and they have a much greater chance of success in delivering it in the appropriate manner.”
In a recent report by Lord Levene, the issue of an overhaul of MOD administration was advocated in order to ensure that military chiefs are held accountable for their own budgets. The Levene report has recommended the removal of the head of the three individual service arms from the MOD defense board, to be replaced with only the chief of the defense staff. That appears to be an attempt to make savings and consolidate power into the office of a single chief, easier to pressurise. It appears to be part of the strategic defense review, which will outline the overall perspective for the future of the British armed forces. It would seem that the heads of the armed forces will pay a heavy price for their criticisms of the government’s austerity agenda. David Cameron made plain his feelings: “I’ll do the talking, you do the fighting.”
Clearly, these fractures and divisions, which have come to the surface, reveal the ferment within the ruling establishment. They reflect different options on how to proceed in this crisis-ridden situation and how best to take on the working class. These differences over tactics will turn into a chasm in the future, especially with the movement of the working class. As Lenin once explained, the first condition for revolution is a split in the ruling class. We are as yet at an early stage in the movement. But the storm clouds are gathering. As Marxists, we need to draw all the necessary conclusions.