Bishops say British democracy is failing, immigration debate is ‘racist’

The Church of England made a rare foray into politics on Tuesday, less than three months before a national election, warning that British democracy was failing and the immigration debate had acquired a racist undercurrent.

Its comments, published in a booklet for Christians, irked some politicians who believe the Church should stay out of politics, and prompted Prime Minister David Cameron to defend his welfare reform programme after bishops raised concerns that some of the language used to advocate it was divisive.

The Church said it had every right to speak out, stressed it wasn’t urging people to support any particular party, and said it wanted to draw attention to Britain’s “almost moribund political culture.”

“Our country is hungry for a new approach to political life that will change the political weather,” it said.

“No such thing is yet on offer for 2015, though this may be an election that sows the seeds from which a new narrative might emerge. Or it may be an election which confirms people in cynicism and despair.”

The election will be held May 7. Cameron’s Conservatives are narrowly behind or level with the opposition Labour Party in most opinion polls.

Some polls suggest large numbers of voters will abandon both in favour of more radical left or right-wing parties such as the Green Party or the anti-EU UK Independence Party.

“Numerous polls show that a majority of people think that it will make no difference whichever party is in power,” the bishops wrote. “Our democracy is failing because successive administrations have done little to address the trends which are most influential in shaping ordinary people’s lives.”

Two of the biggest pre-election issues are Britain’s sizeable budget deficit and immigration. In both debates, the language is dangerously divisive, the bishops said.

“The way we talk about migration, with ethnically identifiable communities being treated as ‘the problem’ has, deliberately or inadvertently, created an ugly undercurrent of racism in every debate about immigration,” they wrote.

On the economics debate, they complained that a narrative describing people living on welfare as “undeserving” deterred people from offering neighbourly help.

Nadine Dorries, a lawmaker from Cameron’s party, accused the Church of having a left-wing bias.

“The Church is always silent when people are seeking its voice, and yet seems to be very keen to dive in on political issues when actually no one is asking it to,” she told BBC radio.