Lecture by the Rt Rev Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford
New Labour has made ethics a central feature of its approach to Government. It has sought to provide an “ethical foreign policy” and it wants to set the market within a wider political framework of social justice. It is also well known that a number of influential members of the Cabinet have long been members of the Christian Socialist Movement, including the Prime Minister himself.
At the same time, perhaps in reaction to this, William Hague recently made a major speech to the Conservative Christian Fellowship at which he initiated a project to listen to British churches and in which he stressed the ethical tradition of the Conservative Party, drawing on the role models of people like William Wilberforce, Lord Shaftsbury and Ian McLeod. In an allegedly secular society this is in one way all rather surprising. Yet every political philosophy is rooted in a set of values; and those values will express, consciously or unconsciously, a particular understanding of what it is to be a human being in society. In short, any serious discussion of politics inevitably raises questions of values and these lead into issues of religion, or at least of a philosophy of life. My concern is whether a Christian understanding of what it is to be a human being in society points inexorably to any particular political philosophy or party. Or, to put it in terms of where we are now, whether a Christian perspective on existence has anything distinctive to say about what is now happening at Westminster.
I am of course well aware of the hazards of this exercise. It is all too easy simply to designate one's own political stance as Christian, when in fact there is no obviously logical and consistent link between Christian faith and that political commitment. Almost every political philosophy from extreme egalitarianism on the one hand to absolute monarchy on the other has in its time been claimed in the name of Christianity. It was a priest, John Ball, who led the Peasants’ Revolt with the refrain, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”, whilst right-wing rulers such as Pinochet who have looked to the Church for support are numerous. But however foolish the attempt might seem, and so fraught with the possibility of self-deception, it has to be attempted. One of the great advances in recent weeks has been the clear acknowledgement by William Hague that Christianity does entail a political commitment. As he put it:
While I make no claim to being a Biblical scholar, it does seem clear to me that the doctrines of Creation and Incarnation which are central to the Christian faith declare that God is engaged with and cares for the world which he has created and wants human beings to do the same.
Because of this, as he said, “I believe that it is right for Christians, both clergy and laity, to take an active part in political debate and political activity.” Of course he also stressed that “no politician and no political party has a copyright on Scripture.” But in contrast to what seemed to be Margaret Thatcher’s position, he recognises that Christian faith cannot be confined to the inner or private sphere. I hope to indicate what I believe does constitute a distinctively Christian approach to the political realm, but first I want to look at the stated policy of New Labour in its own terms.
As we all know New Labour has abandoned the most widespread concept of Socialism, the public ownership of the means of production and exchange. It has accepted as axiomatic the fact that in almost every sphere, private ownership and private initiative will be more effective in producing goods and delivering services. Furthermore, it has accepted that at least for its first two years in office, there will be no rise in income tax. In fact the Government has used a wide variety of alternatives to income tax to raise public finance. Of the £333 billion being raised through taxation of various kinds, only £85 billion of this is coming from income tax. But the basic idea of social democracy – the re-distribution of wealth through progressive income tax - is not part of the present Government’s policy. So what is left?
In the Queen’s Speech on the 24th November one concept more than any other dominates, modernisation. The word modernisation or its cognates appears ten times in a brief document, and this is not counting related ideas like reform. But modernisation, to make any sense at all, is a means to an end. It is dropping or changing what is out of date to achieve something better. But what is that better? There is usually the implication that this something better will be more efficient, more effective. But again, this poses the further question about more efficient or effective in achieving what? The concept of modernisation by itself is a vacuous notion. It has point only in relation to some worthwhile goal, some vision of what society should be. The Lord Chancellor wanted to drop the custom of wearing a heavy wig on the woolsack because it was uncomfortable and seemed archaic. Being more comfortable is at least a clearly stated aim. But when it comes to the major areas in which modernisation is put forward as a key policy, it is not always clear what is being aimed at.
The Queen’s Speech also makes it clear that the present Government is pro business. It talks about a partnership with business. It stresses the need for sound public finance, twice it refers to improving competitiveness. After the publication of the Government White Paper on Competitiveness, Will Hutton wrote: “After this week, we now know the main contours of Labour’s economic and industrial policy. Not laissez-faire, pro-market; not command-and-control corporatism and picking winners, but fostering and encouraging.”
I am not anti business, or anti the market. Far from it. In A Gospel for the Rich? published in 1992 I argued for a certain congruity between values inherent in a market system and the Christian faith. But the point I made then and I would want to repeat now, in relation to both New Labour and William Hague’s evolving Christian philosophy, is this: the market, as we have it, as it is operated, cannot be regarded simply as a neutral mechanism which will equally benefit everyone who plays according to its rules. It may be true that a market in its earliest, simplest expression operates on a level playing field. A peasant takes eggs to market and buys some leather shoes. But the market as it actually operates is dominated by capital, that is human beings and institutions with money, who can determine what is produced and how it is to be marketed. It is operated by human beings who, and I say this without any sense of moral judgement, pursue their own interests. Moreover, although those human beings are certainly capable of altruism, when it comes to industrial or commercial life we have the same paradox as we have in patriotism, individual unselfishness can be transmuted into corporate selfishness. The individual’s devoted work for and loyalty to his company, his or her unstinting service, makes that company more formidable in achieving its own goals in a world where there are bound to be winners and losers. Shakespeare’s sentiment in A Winter’s Tale, “Ye precious winners all”, is a comforting thought, but in the actual world there are losers, not only companies that go bust because they lose their share of the market, but whole groups of people, even societies, that fail to share in the increasing prosperity.
For the first 70 years of this century the worst excesses of capitalism were to some extent softened by the countervailing power of the Trade Union Movement. The threat to withdraw labour helped to balance the unbridled power of capital. Today we live in a very different world, one in which shares are very widely held, not least through pension funds, and the unions are not the force they once were. But it would be a mistake to think that the market left to itself will benefit all equally or that the power of capital is deployed for the benefit of everyone.
It is said that the so-called “third way”, by which New Labour seeks to achieve social objectives within the economic system inherited from the previous Government, amounts to a form of regulated capitalism. Capitalism has long been regulated, not least through anti-monopoly laws. The development of anti-monopoly laws in response to the growth of “big business” are themselves an interesting indication of what is necessary and why. Some of us when we played monopoly as children were not content until we owned every property on the board and had developed them first with four green houses and then with red hotels. There is an insatiable human demand for more and more. If we are Thomas Traherne, we see in this an unslaked thirst for that reality which alone can give us more and more: the divine. But in most of us the desire actually takes shape through different forms of human aggrandisement. We are imperialists by nature, wanting to expand, to take things over; if not countries, then religious, ideological or cultural space. It is absurd to demonise capitalism, as did the old left. It is dangerous to idolise it as some do still. But what of the attitude of the present government towards it? What is needed is an unblinkered realism not the romantic enthusiasm of a new convert or a collusive mutual deception. Governments should encourage business. We all depend upon it. Many of our companies are very fine indeed and operating with the highest standards. But do not let us be under any illusions about this. Given its head it will relentlessly pursue its own interests, interests which will not necessarily be in the best interests of the community as a whole. Many companies have now gone in for the stakeholder concept, and as part of that they acknowledge the legitimate claims of the wider community, including the environment. But this is mainly due to the fact that there are now many laws which ensure companies take environmental issues seriously.
Should we judge a man – or a political party – by the company he keeps? Marxists believe so. You stand with some, against others. Christians also believe it. Why else did God come amongst us in the person of his Son, except to keep our company, to stand in solidarity with us? Further, the gospels make it clear that he went out of his way to seek the company of, to eat with, the marginalised – and he died between two thieves on a cross. You cannot read the New Testament without some disturbing sense that the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor and those who come in on their shirt-tails.
We are not determined by the cultural context in which we live and move and have our being, but it always shapes us. It affects our attitudes and outlook. That is the central conviction behind liberation theology: theology done by the poor of the third world in a context of struggle to take responsibility for their own lives and shape their communities as signs of justice to face up to the injustice of their wider societies. If we mix primarily with financiers and business people we will take on the hues of financiers and business people. If we live in North Oxford, as I do, have to face the fact that this will affect the way we view the world. We will fail to experience what millions of people in our society experience. Faith in the City was published in 1985. In the introduction the authors reported that they were deeply shocked by what they experienced on our housing estates. “We have to report that we have been deeply disturbed by what we have seen and heard”. They went on to indicate the human consequences of unemployment, the physical decay and the social disintegration of so many of our estates – the poverty, the powerlessness and the polarisation between these communities and our wider society. After 1985 action was taken by both the then government and the Church, but Staying in the City, an analysis of the situation ten years on, concluded “urban deprivation is, generally speaking, as bad if not worse than it was ten years ago, posing a growing threat to the social and economic health of the nation as a whole”. The present government has again addressed the issues outlined in these reports. But few would suggest that there has as yet been a decisive change for the better.
The fact that there is more political consensus in this country now than there has been for generations is not an unmixed blessing. That consensus probably embraces two thirds of the country. There still remains a third. Governments get elected by a minority of the electorate, hardly more than 40%. Many of those in the most deprived areas do not vote. The situation in the United States is even more extreme, where the President is elected by well under 40% of the population, where two thirds of the country prosper mightily but in which 20% live in a poverty far more degrading than that of India.
None of this is meant to question the sincerity of those who are now trying to tackle this problem, through various policies. It is simply to say that a centre-left government – whether now or in the future in some kind of continuing alliance with the Liberal Democrats – is still a central government, looking for support through the majority of moderately achieving people, keeping close to business, including the Press. In 1997, Labour won more votes than the Conservatives from the middle class and from home owners for the first time in its history. But, if the title Labour Party has any meaning at all, the Government must above all bear in mind those who are not middle class or home owners. In his Economic and Social Research Council annual lecture Professor Marquand wrote of the Government that “in place of an ideology or myth it has a rhetoric – an a-historical (not to say anti-historical) rhetoric of use, novelty and a curious abstract Future.” He argued that “it lacks emotional and moral resonance.” That may be too harsh a judgement. But it will be important to keep on testing that rhetoric in relation to the reality of what is being achieved by particular policies. The Prime Minister has stated that the test of his government will be whether after their term of office, the poverty, powerlessness and deprivation of our worst estates has been radically changed. That is a fair yardstick. Through all the ups and downs of the years ahead we must keep returning to it.
It has recently been argued by Paul Vallely that the present government’s policy is best seen in terms of Catholic social teaching, particularly the concept of the common good, which was in fact the title of the pre-election booklet provided by the Roman Catholic Bishops of England and Wales. It is not an exclusively Roman Catholic term. Week by week Anglicans pray at the Eucharist for the common good.
It is one of those platitudes that is worth some serious reflection. For example it brings out the key responsibility of government for society as a whole. It does not of itself commit a government to a particular economic strategy. Privatisation of some parts of the transport system might for example be in the public interest, as has been the case with coach services from Oxford to London. Some kind of internal market, as in the National Health Service, could be an appropriate means. But whatever the method, privatisation or public ownership, the responsibility remains that of the elected government to ensure that the good of all members of society is served. From this point of view government should have no qualms about at once encouraging business and regulating it; about promoting wealth creation and raising taxes to ensure that the needs of the most needy are adequately met. Business does not have a responsibility for the common good – governments do.
As has been well put by Andrew Marr:
In a world knotted together by free trade and shaped by great corporations, the main job of democratic politics is to be life’s countervailing force – requiring decent working conditions, trust-busting, liquidating monopolies, taxing enough to pay for health, education and a decent environment, protecting the public against the reckless commercialisation of new scientific discoveries and making polluters pay. There is a necessary, essential tension and argument between politics and commerce; if there isn’t, politics has no purpose.
Sooner rather than later the government will need to look again at the question of taxation. Taxation appears to be a bad word for the central England that elected New Labour. But when all the savings have been made, when all inefficiency has been rooted out, when new more focused and effective policies have been put into practice, it is difficult to see how we can get real change without more money being put into education, health and the social services. None of us want money that is taken from us by taxation to be used inefficiently, still less wasted through corruption. Corruption needs to be eliminated and efficiency enhanced. But when all that is said and done, taxation is a good thing, not simply a burden to be grudgingly borne. Taxation ensures that what we want in our best moments is carried out with consistency even in our worst ones. In our best moments we contribute to charities. But the needs of the needy cannot be allowed to depend upon whim. Taxation ensures that what is necessary for the common good - the health, education and well-being of the whole of our society - is carried through, whatever the moods of particularly individuals at particular times. Taxation is a sign of social solidarity, of being a society.
In a Christian approach to politics there is both a realist and a radical strain. Realism, associated first with St Augustine, takes seriously the brutal aspect of life, seeking to temper it. A good example is the Lutheran attitude to the State. On this view the State is regarded as both a consequence of human brutality and a remedy for it. In the garden of Eden there was no coercive government. God ruled the world by the moving of one finger. It is because of our human fall into violence that we need a coercive State at all. The State keeps violence within bounds, as Luther put it, it acts like a cage to stop us human tigers tearing one another apart. It was the great modern Christian realist, the American thinker Reinhold Niebuhr, who pointed out that if there anything that needs a cage, it is government, for all governments are potentially tyrannical. We need all the checks and balances that democratic societies provide. The case for democracy, as he argued in his classic Children of Light and Children of Darkness, is not so much human freedom as the need to check human inhumanity. So, as he put it:
Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible. Man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.
The realist tradition works with self interest, both in its individual and corporate forms, harnessing it for wealth creation. No doubt in the garden of Eden there were only cooperative ventures. But economic self-interest has entered the world and a regulated market, allowing genuine competition, enables the common good to be served through the clashes and adjustments of corporate aggrandisement.
The radical strain in a Christian approach to politics springs from the New Testament conviction that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the longed-for new age, the just and gentle rule of God, has somehow been made present in human life: that even now, through the power of the Holy Spirit, human beings can live as though the end, in which all will be transformed, is anticipated.
There is an inescapable tension in a Christian approach to politics because we live between the times. As the affirmation of the Eucharist puts it:
Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again
The old realities remain. We have to come to terms with them and work with them. Yet at the same time, even now we can live in the light of that new order in which all will be included, the great feast of life at which all will sit at the table. Perhaps we should rule out as sub-Christian only those approaches to politics which fail to acknowledge one or other of these poles: forms of conservatism which simply offer resignation to what always has been with no hope of change, and forms of radicalism which seek to live as though the brutal realities of life have already been done away with. I believe that the present government lives with this tension, even though they would not express it as I have done. Working with the realities, particularly the realities of the economic order, they are at the same time seeking to include those who are at present excluded. The question which must be asked, not just at the end of their final term of office but all the way along the line, is whether its policies really are building up the common good. And because there is no neutral ground and because those who are able to work the system to their own advantage can be relied upon to do so, the question must be asked from the standpoint of those who are at present excluded and marginalised. A Labour government may give up a policy of common ownership; it may down-play a policy of wealth distribution but it cannot give up asking the question about the common good from the standpoint of those least able to stand up for themselves.