Archbishop of Canterbury criticises 'paranoid' Britain

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionRowan Williams: 'Gulf between rich and poor is growing'

The Archbishop of Canterbury has said he is disappointed by the direction the UK has taken in recent years.

Speaking to the BBC's Newsnight, Dr Rowan Williams raised concerns about the gap between rich and poor and the lack of cultural cohesion in the UK.

Dr Williams is stepping down as head of the Anglican Communion in December.

"There have been moments in the last decade and more when, perhaps, we might have been able to take a different line," he said.

He was referring to the way the British think and feel as a society and told Newsnight's Stephen Smith that British society had "put up the shutters" and retreated into "corporate paranoia" in the wake of terrorist threats.

A culture has developed, he said, in which people are fearful of those above and below on the social ladder and are becoming "fist-clenching, anxious, not generous".

Dr Williams said a "sense of hopelessness" had developed at the bottom levels of society.

"The gulf between the top and the bottom of the economic ladder has grown and is growing, that's not something we really tackled."

Anxiety of wealth

The interview was recorded as part of a BBC Newsnight film about the lessons modern Britain can learn from the works of Charles Dickens.

The central message of Dickens, he said, was that you have to let go of the anxiety that comes from the acquisition of wealth.

"You have to grow through generosity - that is, I think, the Dickens lesson that I would want to see etched in granite across the life of this country," said Dr Williams.

He said another lesson we could learn from Dickens was that the education system should teach people to use their imagination and emotions, rather than turning education into a "sausage machine" or "letting the box-ticking mentality take over."

"Without imagination you won't get people to understand that they're part of something bigger than themselves.

"The more you go down a narrowly utilitarian model of education, where you're just thinking about outcomes and ultimate profits and educating people for skills in the economy, the more you think like that, the less you actually equip people to belong, to work together, to have solidarity and vision for themselves as a group."

Dr Williams went on to say that it was too early to be cynical about Prime Minister David Cameron's idea of the Big Society.

"It contains within itself the hugely important sense of investing your value, your worth in the value, worth, happiness of your immediate community - so it's about building community, about getting beyond the bounds of selfishness and about taking local responsibilities."

Dr Williams said the misfortune was that this ideal came along at the same time as the economic crisis hit the UK and resources have since drained away.

Referring back to Charles Dickens and the writer's valuation of the "hard-working local doctor, imaginative teacher and nurse", Dr Williams argued that we do not value these professions enough and this attitude has not changed over the last 10 years.

Watch Stephen Smith's film on what modern Britain can learn from Charles Dickens on Newsnight, on Tuesday 29 May at 22:30 BST on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.

More on this story