LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s most senior church leader accused the coalition government of causing widespread anxiety over “radical, long-term” austerity policies that it had not spelled out to voters before last year’s election.
Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church of England, made the comments in an article in the New Statesman this week.
Prime Minister David Cameron said Williams was free to speak out but added that he profoundly disagreed with his comments.
“With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted,” wrote Williams.
“At the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context,” he added in an edition of the magazine he had guest-edited.
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government in May 2010 after an inconclusive election. It is Britain’s first coalition government since the end of World War Two in 1945.
Cameron’s government has announced radical reforms of the state-funded health service and education in its first year. It has also started an austerity drive that will cut spending in most government departments by a fifth.
“Government badly needs to hear just how much plain fear there is around such questions at present,” Williams wrote.
It is unusual but not unprecedented for an Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual leader of the 80-million strong worldwide Anglican Communion, to speak out on political issues.
A previous archbishop, Robert Runcie, fell out with Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in the 1980s over what he saw as the social and wealth divide in Britain’s inner cities.
Britain is a largely secular nation where historic ties between the Church of England and the Conservative party have frayed.
Cameron defended the substance of his coalition’s policies and their inspiration.
“I have never been one to say that the Church has to fight shy of making political interventions,” Cameron told reporters during a visit to Northern Ireland.
“I don’t think it is right for people and our country if we give up on paying down our debts and just pass that down to our children. I don’t see anything good or even moral in that approach,” he added.
Commentators said they did not think that Williams’ headline-grabbing foray into politics would sway many Britons.
“His voice will appeal to those who were already sceptical about the Cameron project,” said Andrew Hawkins, chairman of pollsters ComRes. “For most people, the country is in a hole and Cameron is trying to get us out of it,” he added.
Additional reporting by Keith Weir, editing by Mark Heinrich