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No doubt the Archbishop of Canterbury will get the pillorying he often gets when he says anything vaguely thoughtful.  It's a deeply sad fact of life that we all claim we want sincere leaders who say what they really feel but then join in the general ridicule when we get one who does exactly that.

No doubt the Archbishop of Canterbury will get the pillorying he often gets when he says anything vaguely thoughtful.  It's a deeply sad fact of life that we all claim we want sincere leaders who say what they really feel but then join in the general ridicule when we get one who does exactly that.

And it is easy to attack as naive and tokenistic his suggestion today that the richest and most powerful people in the UK should be legally obliged to spend two hours doing voluntary work each year with the poorest and least powerful.  But he was clearly raising this as an idea to illustrate a much broader principle (obviously very appropriate to a Maundy Thursday) that power and wealth has a habit of insulating people from the real world impact of their decisions. 

Anyone with an element of self-questioning who has worked in very powerful or wealthy organisations will have been struck by the blasé way decisions are sometimes taken which can significantly change the lives of many thousands or even millions.  It is not that the people taking the decisions are bad or uncaring people, it is simply that in the high pressure, fast-paced cocoon of the powerful there is often little space, imperative or time to think through the full implications of what is being decided. 

There is often also a very strong "path dependency" amongst the powerful where a big decision is taken leading to lots of complex smaller decisions with unforeseen consequences but which cannot be altered without challenging the original big decision. By that stage, however, it is usually too late or too disruptive to raise such a challenge.

So Williams is right when he says that the idea of such a law is maybe only "a nice fantasy to mull over during the holiday weekend" but he is also right to say that we need mechanisms to "remind our leaders of what the needs really are at grassroots level, so that those needs can never again be just remote statistics".

I was struck in part by the Archbishop's comments because here at the RSA we are developing a mentoring scheme for our Fellows to support less well-off students in Further Education.  Our aim is to develop a genuinely meaningful scheme that delivers well-trained mentors paired with the right students on the basis of an ongoing supportive relationship throughout their education and into their working-life.  It got me wondering how many other civil society bodies that can draw on a large base of highly skilled and succesful members do a similar thing with the same level of commitment.  My suspicion is not enough.  I hope we can do further research to confirm whether my suspicions are correct while also developing the RSA scheme itself.

So if I have any quibble with the Archbishop, it is maybe that his idea might not be demanding enough nor reach far enough down the scale of the rich and powerful to really make a difference. The principle, however, is more than worthy of support.  I fear tomorrow's papers may not be quite so sympathetic.

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