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Archbishop issues letter to Party Leaders

Thursday 31st March 2005

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has issued a pre-election open letter, urging party leaders to avoid political campaigns based on the exploitation of fear.

Dr Williams argues that although negative campaign strategies may make headlines they do not determine the outcome of elections and that politicians should focus instead on offering long-term solutions to deep-rooted challenges.

Dr Williams goes on to identify four such issues: the environment, international development and the arms trade, youth and family policy, and criminal justice reform.

The full text of the open letter follows:

An open letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, to the leaders of political parties: General Election 2005.

Dear Party Leader,

Despite the best of intentions, election campaigns can quickly turn into a competition about who can most effectively frighten voters with the prospect of what "The Others" are going to do. Regrettably, there seems little reason to suppose that the forthcoming general election here will be immune from such temptation. Indeed, it already looks as though familiar anxieties over terrorism, asylum and immigration, and crime, are going to feature prominently in the contest.

Yet, like a lot of other people, I suspect that voters don't make up their minds primarily on the grounds of fear, and that this aspect of campaigning, while it certainly grabs headlines, may not be especially decisive. The technique is a bit too transparent and usually too over-the-top to be taken wholly seriously.

But it is certainly true that fear tends to drive a fair amount of the surrounding public argument and policy. I don't for a moment dispute the evil of modern terrorism or the need to combat it vigorously; but the problem with all the areas I mentioned is that fear makes us look first for defences - and for reactive, damage-limiting solutions. And the difficulty then is that such solutions can put deeper interests, rights and needs, individual and collective, at considerable risk.

I don't envy the task you and your colleagues face in trying to formulate responses to the real challenges here. But I hope you will seek to do so in ways that do not simply allow our fears to go unexamined.

Because there are things that really should make us tremble - rootlessness and alienation among some of our urban youth, the degradation of the environment, the downward spin into chaos and violence of large parts of the poorer world. And these simply don't lend themselves to defensive and short-term solutions.

I hope that the following may stimulate some thinking that will help to address such issues.

- First: What practical initiatives can be taken to halt and reverse our collective lack of international responsibility about the environment? What real support is available for something like the 'Contraction and Convergence' approach, under which pollution levies can be ploughed back into sustainable development for low-pollution economies? What arguments can you use to bring the USA to the table over these issues? And, prosaically, nearer home, what level of commitment is there to an enforceable code of practice for environmental audits of government offices and public services?

- Second: What are we really prepared to do about the long-term effects of irresponsible international economic policies and priorities, which serve to reinforce the instability that feeds violence in poorer nations? There are many issues involved here of which debt is probably the most familiar, but another blindingly obvious factor, as the Africa Commission has highlighted, is the arms trade. The sale of small arms in particular makes it easier to deploy child soldiers. How is this disgrace to be brought to an end? And what sustained investment can we promise to rehabilitate children already brutalised by these conflicts?

- Third: We worry about crime, yet we often seem not to notice that the present penal system is characterised by staggeringly high levels of reoffending. Do we want punishment to change anything? Are we investing enough in the possibilities of "restorative justice" and in first class education and rehabilitation facilities throughout the prison service? No one seems really convinced that we have a working system; building more prisons is no answer. Why not say so and propose a better way? Who's going to make history by offering a constructive alternative in penal policy, a plan that actually sets out to address offending behaviour?

- Fourth: The crime problem has a lot to do with a growing number of young people who are severely emotionally undernourished and culturally alienated. Ask anyone who works with children or young people in any city. The climate of chronic family instability, sexual chaos and exploitation, drug abuse and educational disadvantage is a lethal cocktail. To call for more public support for stable families and marriage is not in this context a bit of middle-class, Middle England nostalgia; it's life and death. To ask for public investment in skilled, properly resourced youth work is not begging for subsidised leisure; it's asking for basic human necessities. So what is the programme for fuller and better family support, fuller and better care for our children throughout society?

There are other issues that could be listed, of course. But these have something to do with the root causes of our presenting fears. Violent instability makes both terrorists and refugees. Poor provision for youth and an impossibly strained prison system breed crime.

Is all this just religious idealism, altruistic aspiration that can't be taken too seriously? Of course I'm concerned about these things chiefly because I'm a Christian who believes that the world is to be cherished, the innocent protected and human dignity preserved. But the Bible's vision of a properly functioning society is in fact deeply realistic. Sooner or later, injustice anywhere corrupts and kills a whole community. Ignore the needs or the dignity of another and you strike at your own life and dignity in the long run.

That's something worth being afraid of. But there are things we can do not just to defend but, as the prophet says, to build and to plant. As we head for the Election, this letter is a plea to see what you think can be built and planted in some of the most vulnerable situations in a vulnerable world.

Yours sincerely

+Rowan Cantuar

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