Occupy London, Act II – Enter the Archbishop

Occupy London’s anti-capitalist campsite outside St Paul’s Cathedral has now been there for three weeks and seems dug in for the long haul. The Dean and Chapter and the wider leadership of the Church of England have been increasingly challenged by its presence, not simply in terms of how to respond to it as a physical ‘neighbour’ but what line to take about the morality of capitalism and the world of high finance.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, finally entered the fray early last week in a statement on the resignation of the Dean of St Paul’s, an article in the Financial Times, and an interview with BBC News. In these utterances he stressed the importance of addressing the urgent issues raised by the protesters, put forward some solutions of his own for doing so (notably the Tobin Tax), and conceded that the Church had failed ‘to square the circle of public interest and public protest’ in dealing with Occupy London.

How has the public reacted to the Archbishop’s belated intervention? In an attempt to answer this question, YouGov covered the Occupy London movement in its poll for today’s issue of The Sunday Times. A representative sample of 1,561 British adults aged 18 and over was interviewed online on 3 and 4 November 2011, and the results have been posted at:


Asked to rate how Williams had dealt with the Occupy London campsite and subsequent events at the Cathedral, 41% said that he had handled the matter badly, 26% well, with 33% expressing no opinion (rising to 57% of the 18-24s). The groups most critical of the Archbishop were Conservative voters (54%), men (48%), and the over-60s (53%).

It is hard to interpret these findings, since the question was rather unspecific, gave no context about Williams’s views or actions, and thus will have been answered from diverse perspectives. In particular, was he being criticized by interviewees for the fact that he had intervened at all or because he had sat on the fence for so long before declaring his hand or a combination of both reasons?

Some clues may be implicit in replies to the next question about whether, regardless of this instance, senior clergy should comment on political matters. 45% said that it was wrong for them to do so, including 56% of Conservatives and 52% of over-60s. 38% accepted that the Church had a contribution to make to political debates, increasing to 45% among Labourites and Liberal Democrats and 44% of Londoners and Scots. 16% did not know what to think.

44% wanted the Cathedral and the Corporation of London to take legal action to remove the campsite from outside St Paul’s, 3% less than the figure in YouGov’s poll of 27-28 October, since when the threat of legal action has (in fact) been temporarily lifted. Conservatives (67%), men (51%), and the over-60s (53%) especially favoured invoking the law. 38% opposed legal action, with 18% undecided.

Support for Occupy London’s protest outside St Paul’s was only 20%, well down on the 39% who had endorsed the aims of the protesters in a somewhat different question the week before. 26% had then opposed the movement, whereas in the current poll 46% were hostile to it, particularly Conservatives (75%) and the over-60s (60%). But one-third expressed no views.

It is probably the case that the public is tiring of such physical occupations, on account of their disruptive effects on everyday life and what Williams has described as the dramatic ‘cataract of unintended consequences’ at St Paul’s, but the public perhaps does often continue to share the frustrations about the morality of the financial system which gave rise to the occupations.

It is noteworthy that, in an ICM telephone poll for The Guardian on 21-23 October (after Occupy London commenced its sit-in around St Paul’s on 15 October), 51% of 1,003 adults agreed that the worldwide protests were ‘right to want to call time on a system that puts profit before people’, whereas 38% believed there is no practical alternative to capitalism.

The flames of discord in the affair seem likely to be fanned tomorrow (7 November) by the publication of a report from the St Paul’s Institute on the moral standards of the City of London. This is based upon a ComRes survey of 500 workers in the City’s financial institutions conducted during the summer.

The report, previewed in today’s The Independent on Sunday, was originally due to appear on 27 October but was deferred when Dr Giles Fraser, Director of the Institute, resigned from his post of Canon Chancellor at St Paul’s Cathedral, the first of three ‘victims’ of the controversy at the Cathedral to date.

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