Our social contract is being rapidly re-drawn, and there are few spaces and opportunities for discussion, and little time for consideration or reflection. The defining political debate for the next few years concerns the relationship between the state, the market, the community and the individual – and as lines get drawn, and the consensus about the social contract alters, there are three features on which I would like us to reflect.
The stereotyping and stigmatisation of people who are poor
There has been an audible coarsening of the tone of discussion about people who live in poverty. While the poor and dispossessed have always been described as ‘other’ there is new tone which ignores evidence, assumes poor people have entirely separate and different motivations and desires, and clouds debate. The most overt example if this is the conflation of poverty and worklessness. Instead of acknowledging that half of all children living in poverty have a working parent, that many working families claim housing benefit, and that therefore state benefits are going to make life tolerable for very poorly paid people, a lazy discourse has developed which allows a low level of income to be seen as irrefutable evidence of idleness.
This coarsening then allows for some disturbing pieces of policy development, all based on an apparent assumption that poor people are either permanently infantilised or in other ways entirely different. The changes to housing benefit mean that someone on a low wage is required to remain living in a shared house, effectively a bed sit, until they are 35, not 25, as is currently the case. The pronouncements about housing benefit equate low pay with no work, and so in effect insult those who are poorly rewarded. And the desire to build a ‘big society’ fails repeatedly to acknowledge the vast contribution that very poor people make to community resilience. Any search for the springs of social solidarity will rapidly point to communities in which the poorest of the country support each other, and make the work of public services possible. Stereotyping and stigmatising people who have very little does not just coarsen our public debate in a profoundly un-Christian way, it also negates the major contribution made by poor people to the society in which we live.
Closely associated with this, and made possible by this discourse, is the willingness to use the threat of destitution as a means of driving behaviour change. To threaten the withholding of benefit is to threaten destitution. Such a threat, even were it tolerable in a civilised society, does not drive the desired behaviour, and indeed, the evidence suggests, will tend to do the opposite. But crucially, from a moral perspective, it applies sanctions to people living in poverty that cannot be applied to the rest of us.
Just as damaging is the current tendency to ignore the distance between those in poverty and those deemed to be well off. The Daily Telegraph headline the day after the CSR which claimed that ‘middle income people were paying more’ when the accompanying article described the top 15% of income earners, confuses the territory in an unhelpful way.
Careless criticism of the agencies of charitable and public support
It has become commonplace to dismiss the efforts of those who seek to help and build social solidarity.
This approach assumes that there are contributors to public expenditure and there are recipients of benefits from such expenditure. But in fact we all benefit from an education system, a health service, a benefits system that insures us against our own vulnerability. And we benefit not just on the occasions when we use these services, but because the services exist at all. Our lives are immeasurably happier, safer and more pleasant because there is limited evidence of destitution on our streets. Collective sharing of risk does not just insure us as individuals, it also enhances our society and makes it a better place in which to live. The development of common good is a worthy goal of public policy which goes far beyond the series of transactions to which the Welfare State can be glibly reduced.
Closely aligned to this is a willingness to castigate parts of the apparatus of state or philanthropic support, without necessarily considering the evidence that shapes these judgements. During his CSR Statement the Chancellor criticised housing associations for, in effect, housing the very poorest. Never mind that this might actually fulfil their charitable and philanthropic objectives, it was acceptable to dismiss these independent bodies as failures for their provision of housing to the poorest. So too it has become seen as normal to decry the complex system of support to people whose lives are very complicated, and to describe it as having failed. While JRF evidence does make it clear that we need a radical overhaul, this needs to be a carefully considered and planned one, and one that respects the knowledge and skills of those who use the system, as well as those who work in it.
Careless dismissal of institutions that support people in poverty can very quickly become dismissal of those people.
Failure to think about the future
So where are we now? The Government is committed to reducing public expenditure considerably over a short period of time. That in itself is a challenge. It is also committed to decentralising significantly, and ensuring that power is devolved to local and neighbourhood level. That is demanding. Changes need to be made with a scalpel not a chainsaw, otherwise the outcome of this major transformation will be increased poverty, more people in housing need, and a failure to address the most pressing social problems of our time.
The current benefits system is being overhauled in an effort to simplify it and make work pay. There is no question that the existing system is complex and there are very high financial disincentives to work for many. But there are problems that need ironing out with the Universal Credit, the new system.
The rate at which benefits are withdrawn in Universal Credit, and interaction with income tax and NI, means that some people are facing higher financial disincentives to earn than they did under the old system and many important areas are still to be resolved. So, whilst the Universal Credit could help take people out of poverty by making them more likely to enter jobs (especially short-hours ones), the risk is that the system does not help them to progress into work. We know that poorly paid insecure work does not provide lasting routes out of poverty.
However a flexible and sensitive welfare system is only one element in any anti-poverty strategy. Jobs need to pay enough, training needs to be available to allow for progression and we must remember the need for flexible and affordable child-care that enables parents to work. To make a real difference, we need to tackle poverty in a holistic and comprehensive manner. The way communities are shaped and built is also set to change. The planning system is being localised in a way that will make it easier for better off neighbourhoods to protect their environments, and will make it extremely difficult to build new housing. And the introduction of shorter term tenancies, while sometimes useful, will make it harder to build communities. There is a real risk that these new planning laws will increase segregation between the poor and everyone else.
All these changes are taking place during a period when the global challenges of our overheating planet and ageing population are becoming more and more pressing.
We know a number of things about the future. We can say with some confidence that:
Demography will follow its current trajectory – we will live longer, more of us will have disabilities and people with learning difficulties will more readily live into old age.
We will face shortages of carbon, oil and money over the next few decades.
What we don’t know is what will happen to the labour market and what it means for people in poverty although all the labour market projections suggest that the divide between the well off and the poorest will only increase, and that the rungs on the ladder of aspiration are disappearing fast.
As stewards of the planet we are also stewards of those who are in need, and the failure to account for the future, or to prepare for that future seems to me to be a breach of stewardship. A number of indicators point to just such a failure:
A benefits system that for decades has promoted work as the only alternative to poverty, even while recognising that more than half of all really poor children live in a household with a working adult. In other words, for them, work has not paid.
The use of the housing benefit lever to control expenditure, not to drive the building of new, greener housing
The long delayed failure to grapple with both the costs and the quality of long term care. (The appointment of Andrew Dilnot to lead this review makes me feel so much better), but it is a problem that has waited for a long time for adequate response.
All three of these weaknesses in our current discourse about poverty, inequality and the nature of the new social contract diminish the debate, and make the development of an ethical or moral framework for considering this contract inaccessible. Any new social contract should be based on an understanding of:
- The reality and complexity of people’s lives;
- An understanding of the common values, common desires and common needs of all people, whether poor or wealthy;
- A concern to consider evidence – from lived experience, from research, from practice, and to consider all of this in a framework which attends to what the future might hold, not a misplaced nostalgia for what the past might once have held.
Our social contract is always, and will always, be changing. But the damage to people who are already struggling is enormous, and the costs of this will be borne by future generations. We will all pay the long-term price for social change that is not managed in a way that protects the very poorest.
Understanding in the form of both compassion and evidence is essential if we are to live in a better society.
We begin by looking back to the recent financial crisis, and asking about its causes and about what light Christian theology should cast on them.
To some extent, as worldly wise economists observe, the crisis was just another bubble in the natural economic cycle of boom-and-bust, of ‘animal spirits’ getting out of control and over-reaching themselves, of hubris meeting nemesis. The story is so perennial that it has become the stuff of myths. For sure, hubris and imprudence are vices, but sin—like the poor—will always be with us until God’s kingdom comes. The credit crunch may be damaging, but it is a long way short of the End of the World. So let us meet the problem with christian patience rather than unchristian hysteria. That’s the first point.
Christian patience, however, should not amount to complacency. While it does not expect to eradicate sin, its faith in God and hope for the ultimate rectification of things nonetheless moves it into opposition. But what forms should this opposition take? In his book, Good Value,(1) the Anglican priest and former Chairman of HSBC, Stephen Green, argues that bankers—and the rest of us—need to expand our understanding of what is valuable beyond the mere maximisation of financial returns to shareholders. We need to recognise the value of such things as the healthy family lives of employees, loyalty within firms, trust between firms and customers, and the flourishing of local economies and communities. This may not be the sum of the Gospel, but it is surely part of it. Part of the Gospel involves liberating us from the enslaving idolatry of Mammon to recognise and appreciate other, relational dimensions of the flourishing that is proper to human creatures.
How might this expanded appreciation of human goods be brought about? Green finds grounds for hope in the fact that, in his experience, most people are aware that shareholder profit is not the beginning and end of value. Nevertheless, it remains true that institutions appear to find it difficult to pay much more than lip-service to goods that can’t be quantified and measured—in monetary terms.
Thus the Government, in its pursuit of ‘value-for-money’, has reduced Arts & Humanities departments in universities to justifying their existence in terms of their contribution to the tourist and entertainments industries. There is a crying need for the development of a robust account of non-economic goods that can be taken seriously by commercial firms and civil servants in the Treasury, and therefore by shareholders and the electorate.
A third point is made by John Reynolds in his contribution to the collection of essays recently edited by Rowan Williams and Larry Elliot.(2) Here he locates one of the causes of the financial crisis in the tendency of investment bankers to prefer short-term over long-term value; and he suggests as one reason for this the weakening of the social bonds between firms and their members. Those who work for banks are no longer partners but employees, who can be made redundant at will. Employees respond, quite reasonably, by making no emotional investment in the long-term future of the firm. If this analysis is anywhere close to the truth, then one challenge that the financial crisis poses is that of reversing the culture of reciprocal disloyalty between firms and their members. One could start by pointing out that while the freedom of a firm to shed employees at short notice might seem efficient, the long-term evils that mutual disloyalty breeds confound that appearance. Again, the fostering of mutual care and loyalty (a.k.a. ‘faithfulness’) is not the whole of the Gospel, but it is part it.
Prospect: the Coalition Government’s Cuts in Public Funding
One of the complaints made about current public discussion of the Government’s planned cuts in public funding concerns the media’s carelessness with the data, in particular its over-dramatisation of the issues and consequent feeding of anxiety and anger. The reasons for this, it seems to me, are complex and are not simply attributable to the ill-will of journalists. On this matter, it is important that Christians first play empathetic pastor lest they proceed to play moralistic prophet. One main reason for the hyperbolic and histrionic tendencies of the British press is the intense competition between too many newspapers, all of them based in a single city (London), for a shrinking market of readers. Advertising revenue is declining, with the result that fewer journalists are employed to produce more copy with less time.
Under such conditions, it is no surprise that journalistic carelessness is on the increase. In addition there is the fact that in Britain most newspapers are sold from newsstands, not by subscription, which means that copy-editors are under commercial pressure to attract consumers by screaming at them through headlines. Given these structural, economic conditions, it seems to me that the only way to raise standards of accuracy and interpretation is by means of regulation across the sector as a whole, so that no newspaper is disadvantaged by keeping its journalism honest, the playing-field being level. And since the press has signally failed to regulate itself effectively through various forms of Press Complaints Commission, the time has come for statutory regulation with serious powers of enforcement. Law is not a social luxury; and sometimes sin proves so intractable and socially damaging that only law can curb it effectively.
Naturally, the prospect of severe cuts in public funding raises worries about rising unemployment. Some reckon that the private sector will more than compensate for the loss of public sector jobs; but even if that does prove to be the case, some people will not be able to make the transition and will face many years without paid employment. Therefore, the Christian churches need to reacquaint themselves with the considerable literature that they generated during the economic downturn of the 1980s, much of which argued for the need to upgrade the social status of work that is worthwhile, even when it is not paid. While it is true that faith in God and in his calling can be a vital support for those who lack the esteem of their peers, it remains true that local and social esteem is enormously important, and the lack of it enormously painful. So the churches should also give some hard thought to the kinds of practical arrangements that are necessary to foster such social esteem.
Finally, the withdrawal of public funding raises questions about the future of the communal support of the poor. Christians, with their belief that humans are dependent and limited creatures, all subject to the grace, judgement, and calling of the same God, naturally adhere to some notion of social solidarity. Not everyone else does. Aristotelians, Nietzscheans, and Social Darwinists, for example, don’t have much time for the weak. The influential moral philosopher, John Harris, has recently announced that he does not regard humility as a virtue. Still, if Christians recognise that the stronger have a responsibility for the weaker—and that, since they will always be with us, we need to be patient with them—that still leaves open the pragmatic question of how best to aid the weak without infantilising them.
It also leaves open the question of what are the most efficacious means of keeping the rich invested in state support of the poor, and of whether the universal provision of welfare benefits is necessary for that. The groundswell of support for the creation of welfare state after the Second World War was considerably inspired by the experience of war, in which the upper and middle classes actually found themselves living alongside the poor, whether in the trenches of Picardy and Flanders or by opening their homes to evacuees. What will constitute comparable springs of solidarity in the first half of the 21st century?
Conclusion: Where is the Christianity in the Analysis and Assessment?
Not everything that is characteristic is distinctive. Something may be characteristic of Christianity—integral to it—without being distinctive. Whether it is distinctive is an accident of what it happens to be compared with. More important than distinctiveness, then, is integrity. It is important that Christian ethical analysis and assessment be properly integrated into the basic theological structure of the Christian world-view.
Let me conclude, then, by bringing right to the surface the ways in which the preceding analysis and assessment has been shaped by features of Christian theology and anthropology. First, faith in the one God who is creator of the world, and who loves it, leads the Christian (as it does the Jew and the Muslim) to view all human beings as fellow-creatures, deserving of due respect and care. Abrahamic monotheism generates human solidarity. To paraphrase I John 4.20a: he who claims to love God without loving his neighbour does not know what the word ‘God’ means.
Second, Christians do not collapse value—that is, human good or flourishing—into money. Money may be an instrumental good, but it is no more than that; and if it fails to serve other goods, among them relational ones such as faithfulness, then it ceases to be an instrument and becomes an obstacle.
Third, Christians take the presence and persistence of sin seriously, and are therefore do not become hysterical when its operations are exposed.
Fourth, acknowledging their own sinfulness and moral weakness, Christians will have sympathy even for those whose carelessness with the truth is the part-result of severe commercial pressures or whose poverty is partly due to their own habitual fecklessness.
Nevertheless, fifth and finally, the Resurrection and the eschatological hope that it inspires do not allow Christians to rest easy with sin, but encourage them to take up arms against it—if need be, by means of law.
(1) Stephen Green, Good Value: Reflections on Money, Morality, and an Uncertain World (London: Allen Lane, 2009).
(2) John Reynolds, “Investment Banking: The Inevitable Triumph of Incentives over Ethics”, in Crisis and Recovery: Ethics, Economics, and Justice (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010).
- Post-MPs’ expenses wave of revulsion and contempt for political class
- Politics of recession – always scratchy
- Shadows of coming election – heightened mania and increased tribalism.
All combined to produce a political ecology more malign than the sum of its parts.
- Post-expenses has eased a little, but not much
- We’ve had the election and technically, in terms of Parliamentary arithmetic, the coalition is set fair for 4 to 5 years (but to many it doesn’t feel like that)
But the politics of recession has been subsumed by the politics of cuts which is now the dominant weather-maker and MPs alleged personal extravagance and the stability or otherwise of the coalition, are affected by cuts and rumours of cuts. Politically, it feels like the equivalent of rumours of war in July 1914 between the assassination in Sarajevo and the outbreak of the Great War.
£80bn savings over 4 years is a huge task. And already it is difficult to remember the position we might have been in this autumn but for the fiscal and austerity strategy outlined in the Coalition’s June Budget.
- The pound could well be being buffeted downwards between the dollar and the euro.
- The triple-A credit rating could well have been downgrade.
- The sale of long-term gilts seriously problematic.
Not sure if it would have been quite IMF time – but it just might have been something on the way to a Greek predicament.
Very difficult now to take this line with the electorate, because it is both unknowable and unprovable.
You can’t have a control group – say the West Midlands – where the Brown government’s policies still prevail to see what the markets are doing to it and to show, thereby what we would all be receiving but for the planned fiscal adjustment (which is £20bn greater than that announced by the Labour government before its demise)
History is always like that; you couldn’t, in 1948, have left, say, Denmark outside NATO to see if Stalin really would have tried it on with his legendary Red Army.
The politics of cuts is contagious; it has a sibling virus – the politics of pessimism and the politics of pessimism produces the politics of ‘not me guv’, or ‘it’s all your fault; look at the legacy you left us.’ In other words, tribalism scapegoating and self-delusion. To darken the politic-social mood still more, we could well be facing a year or so of discontent, not just a winter. We all enjoy a bit of retro; but not this kind.
The very sensible Brendan Barber of the TUC reckons the decent majority will be sympathetic.
And this grim, dour Keming political ecology trumps all of Nick Clegg’s importance-of-being-earnest efforts to tell us what a glorious burst of political reform that awaits if only we go for AV and elect the bulk of the House of Lords. At such moments as now, this strikes many people as the politics of Pollyanna-ism at best, and a displacement activity for the naïve at worst.
Added to this, is that wonderful piece of social analysis we get from the musical The King and I – when Deborah Kerr unforgettably sings ‘Getting to know you.
Our coalition is no longer a government of strangers – but they are still adjusting to the other tribes funny little ways and battle rhythms. It’s emotionally so difficult for those whose ideologies and instincts place them on the rims of the coalition to left and right; it’s very close to the politics of the impossible. And when the cuts reach the abattoir stage by about this time next year, it could be unbearable for some.
All that said, I think the coalition will hold together. Why? Because if one of the parties to goes silly, tribal and self-indulgent to the point where it breaks up, the electorate won’t forgive them and will hammer them as soon as it gets a chance. Why? Because it will look, in today’s financial circumstances, like deserting your post under fire.
The Lib Dems are near certain to get hammered anyway in the Scottish and Welsh elections (and the English locals) next May. Their best – their only – chance is to hang in with the Coalition until 2014 or 2015 in the hope that fiscal rigour has morphed into the easement of relatively inflation-free growth.
If the benign scenario is made manifest, all sorts of interesting questions open up.
- We will feel, as a country, that the menu of future political choice really has opened up – and that coalitions, in certain circumstances, might be preferable to single-party government (even thought none of us actually voted for a coalition last May).
- If that is the case, would not the honourable thing for Cameron and Clegg to say, just before the 2010 Parliament is dissolved, that they are minded to carry on in coalition unless Labour gets an overall majority? At that point – even if the economic climate was relatively pleasingly benign – there would be a great deal of heaving and groaning on those rims.
How interesting – and unexpected – it all is. I don’t know about you, but I certainly have still to fully absorb the significance and the consequences of last May’s parliamentary arithmetic.
You will by now have noticed a huge gap in my musings. What of Labour?
Don’t write them off. Twice in my lifetime I’ve gone through ‘Must Labour lose?’ or ‘Can Labour ever win again’ phases, in the early 1960s and the late 1980s. Of course, Labour will form a government again. When? Impossible to say. Could be a while. It would, for example, be difficult for current Labour leaders to offer coalition to a Liberal Democratic Party led by Nick Clegg who really has managed to get up all their nostrils. But back they will be eventually.
The internal bloodletting at which Labour, historically, has been so brilliant, may not be too bad this time. Why? There are two main reasons.
- The differences between them are chiefly personal and factional rather than ideological.
- That £80bn off over 4 years is wonderfully uniting for Labour They are all against what they regard as butchery on such a grand scale.
A third helpful factor is that Tony and Gordon are slipping every further is that Tony and Gordon are slipping ever further into the hands of historians and where-are-they-now columns in newspapers. And it’s impossible to embark on illegal wars if you’re in opposition.
There are, no doubt, many other gaps in the picture I’ve been painting this lunchtime in our beloved Club. I hope some of you will now have a go at filling them.
But one thing is certain; retrospectively in just a few years’ time there will turn out to have been a huge omission in our conversation today which none of us has spotted. Somewhere on something a clock is ticking, and we can’t hear it.