Well, if we had any suspicion about polls before, we certainly do now. And, if we needed any confirmation that politicians should tell us the truth and not play to the polls, we certainly have it now.

Like almost everyone else (including the Prime Minister), I expected another coalition and a bit of a mess for the months and years ahead – whichever party had won the right to form a government. I wondered how long we would continue to play ‘majority party’ games in a coalition world. And I pondered on what the role of the church would be under the rolling out of different scenarios.

wpid-Photo-29-Oct-2013-1402.jpgInterestingly (for me, at least), what I intended to write following the election has not been changed by the outcome. Whichever party had ‘won’, the church’s remit would have been the same: to pray for those who govern, to recognise the will of the people as expressed in the election (although that is more complicated to order under the first-past-the-post system), to hold government to account (along with others) by questioning both policy and implementation, to defend the weak and speak for those whose voice is silenced, and to model how leaders might show an openness to listen and learn – changing their mind when necessary and appropriate.

Given the competition to out-do each other in being ‘hard’ on some issues – both economic and social – this critique would have been equally valid whichever party had been elected to govern. The Labour Party would have been as open to this as will, now, the Conservative Party.

Politics is a brutal business, and there are many bruised casualties of last Thursday’s vote. Those who put themselves forward for public office deserve our thanks and not our opprobrium. But, a further casualty of this election campaign was truth. We get the politics we deserve – and we go along with processes in which politicians play the games we allow them to play. The trading of policies almost daily was embarrassing and, sometimes, confusing. The economy might well be the basis on which elections are won or lost, but much of the rhetoric on all sides was competitive obfuscating mirage – and apparently based on the assumption that a market society (as opposed to a market economy) is what we have all now settled for. If we have, we are stuffed.

This is where we need to continue pressing our politicians for the vision that fires their policies, and the basis of that vision. And it is where we need to keep on questioning whether the economy is there for people, or people there for the economy. There is a fundamental visionary distinction there, but it is not always clear whether that distinction is recognised.

The Prime Minister and his colleagues now deserve and need our prayers as he and they negotiate a raft of contentious issues and play the parliamentary numbers game. It is going to be an interesting ride, but I suspect it is not going to be a comfortable one … for anyone.

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Both before and since the welfare row that blew up recently – and with a minor excursus into who allows whom to contribute to the public discourse – I have been bothered by a missing question in most reportage. That question is: what is it all for? Put differently, what is the end to which welfare, taxation, work, profit, etc. is the means? This isn't a question of the function of any particular business, but the purpose of that business as a 'player' and shaper of wider society that is not neutral. I'll come back to this in a minute.

I was chatting to a (self-defined non-religious) business man recently about a massive problem that runs through our culture. With reference to Paul Kearns' The Value Motive and Kenneth Hopper & William Hopper's The Puritan Gift (which, in fact Paul put me on to), he considered that most business exists to make a profit – all well and good, pretty obvious, and totally valid. A business that does not make a profit won't exist at all. But, what is that profit for? Or, more precisely, for whom is that profit to be made – whom is it to serve? The business itself and those who own it or work for it, or wider society as a whole?

(Incidentally, these were broadly the questions behind speeches at the opening of new offices for the Pfarramt für Industrie und Wirtschaft in Basel last Thursday evening. And, even more incidentally, it is the question Aristotle puts at the heat of his ethics: telos, or the goal/end desired.)

At the beginning of his book A Public Faith, Miroslav Volf makes an observation that is pertinent here, describing Max Weber's view on the modern 'market':

If you play the game, you've got to play it by preset rules, which in the case of the market means that you must maximise profit; these rules, and not moral considerations, determine how the game is played. (p.14)

But, this simply points to the modern lie that has been conveniently assumed to be incontrovertibly obvious: the market dictates how we must follow it. This is nonsense. People drive markets by the choices they make. If profit is the ultimate goal – as opposed to a penultimate goal, a means to a greater end – then it is so because we have decided it should be so. There is nothing inevitable about this. Human agency, human responsibility and human choices dictate how markets are shaped, to what ends they are directed, and what values underlie them.

So, to go back to the original question, we must ask what is the point of it all. Christians (but not exclusively, of course) will argue that profit should be made, not as an end in itself, but in order to serve the common good of people and the planet. That is, economics should serve anthropology and not vice versa. We work to live, not live to work (although an argument can be made that human beings do live to work – which raises questions about those who refuse to work and how a moral society treats those who are unable to work).

And this is where some of us have a problem. Why is it a moral matter that poor people should be squeezed until they bleed – incentivised by being made poorer or more pressurised – whilst the same moral imperative ceases to apply to those who have the resources to play the system, get others to pay for their failures and get away with self-preservation as a sanction-free 'good'? Bankers and politicians got us into the catastrophic financial crisis of the last six years, but they seem not to be paying: the tax payers – including the poorer and squeezed ones – are paying for mistakes made by the rich. And the bonuses keep being paid. If the poor fail, they are disgraced and humiliated; if the powerful fail, they must be incentivised whilst others pay for their failure. Big-time tax evaders are not ritually humiliated in the press.

Is this justice?

Well, the point is not to relativise justice, but to ask what the point of profit is. If business put economics into an anthropological framework, asking whom this whole project is supposed to be for, it would find itself framing its language and choices differently. 'Corporate social responsibility' should not be a useful add-on, making people feel better about themselves (again, as an end in itself), but should be an integral purpose that shapes decisions about people.

In other words, profit should make society better and enable all people to flourish in a society for which we all take responsibility. A Christian theological anthropology can say nothing less.

And, ultimately, markets do not dictate anything. The people who create and shape markets do. And they do so according to assumptions they hold about human and economic purpose. People are responsible, not abstracted or personified dynamics behind which people can hide.

So, being pro-business, pro-work, pro-profit and pro-value, I simply ask where welfare and profit and taxation fit in to which anthropological ends we have decided to choose?

 

Going to university back in 1976 opened a new world to me. Never really having the confidence to read widely or expand my interests beyond finding intellectual endorsement for my evangelical faith, I was compelled to read books I had not previously encountered.

My German teacher – probably deeply irritated by me, my seriousness and my questions – had got me to read Dante's Inferno and, with a group of German Assistent/innen, to see a Bertolt Brecht play in Manchester. It was The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, a powerful parody of the rise of Hitler, and a play I would return to many times. But, that was probably as far as I went.

In my first year in Bradford, really wanting to concentrate on becoming a translator, I opted for a course on European Literature and Thought. This opened me up to writers such as Sigmund Freud, Guiseppe di Lampedusa, Arthur Koestler, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Günther Grass, and many others. The text that gripped me, however, was The Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

My knowledge of history was neither deep nor wide. It still isn't, but I am trying…

It did seem striking, though, that 1848 was a pivotal year in European and, therefore, world history. Among many other things – such as revolutions in parts of Europe (and the Enlightenment bedding in following more than half a century after the French Revolution) – various types of slavery were being both challenged and protected… and both on grounds of economics, property and a perverse anthropology.

Marx and Engels berated the commodification of human beings in the industrialising worlds of mass-production, challenging the right of a capitalist elite to protect its own interests by enslaving the proletariat – those who actually made the stuff despite being alienated from it – in meaningless work from which they derived no profit and yet which imprisoned them in soulless and degrading labour.

At the same time Abraham Lincoln (yes, I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Lincoln) made his first public political move against slavery in the United States, recognising that thus far “he had not delivered a single speech on the issue of slavery or initiated anything to promote the issue” (p.127). He subsequently drafted a proposal for the gradual emancipation of slaves in Washington DC. He eventually lost, remarking with pragmatic political realism: “Finding that I was abandoned by my former backers and having little personal influence, I dropped the matter knowing it was useless to prosecute the business at that time.” (P.129)

Slavery takes many forms and is always conditioned by the particular cultural, political and economic shape of particular societies. In the US it was the issue that was dividing the country and would lead to the bloodshed of the Civil War only a few years later. Yet, most proponents of slavery there argued in favour of their proprietorial economic rights to own and trade people as commodities. In Europe it looked different. But, in both contexts the economics and politics were undergirded by often unarticulated anthropologies – maybe theological anthropologies – that made assumptions about the nature of human beings whilst avoiding facing the consequences of those assumptions.

Now, this is not to read back into past times the wise hindsight of the present. It is, however, to recognise that if such battles were being fought on different continents – and I haven't space to get on to the British Empire – over the nature of what is means to be human, then progress made in some quarters has not diminished the continuing importance of the fundamental question even today.

The 'rights' culture we now inhabit is both positive and negative. It poses some of the right questions whilst running into the sand when it comes to taking seriously the consistency of implications – for example, in establishing which rights have priority when the rights of different people clash directly. It is a lawyer's dream. Yet, underlying this is the nagging question of why we think that people matter in the first place. If the ethical tenet of “you can't get an 'ought' from an 'is' holds water, then the mere fact of human existence cannot of itself demand any moral imperative. That is to say, the mere fact of human existence cannot of itself – clear of un-argued for assumptions about why – demand a particular crediting of human life with inherent value or significance. We simply import other assumptions in reaching a conclusion with which we have actually started.

1848 was a pivotal year. There must be a book somewhere that looks at that year synchronously across the globe, recognising the contingencies of political, economic and anthropological (and theological) thought and argument. If not, someone should write one. (If I had Internet access while writing this, I would google it and look cleverer than I am. But, I don't!)

What is clear, however, is that the same questions that racked people like Marx, Engels and Lincoln – although they could not be thought to share the same political ground – have not gone away. If you think they have, then ask a trafficked East European teenager who finds herself in the lands of the free traded for sex, money and power.

 

Why do I keep banging on about poverty? Good question – and one I have been asked several times recently in relation to this blog and other writings.

One answer goes back to that haunting verse in Proverbs (31:8) that formed the title of a book many years ago about the failure of the German church in the 1930s: “Open your mouth for the dumb.” In other words, give a voice to those who have no voice, or whose voice is silenced for some reason or other. To not give such a voice is not to be neutral – it is to silence a voice that needs to be heard.

Hence the banging on about welfare cuts and their effects on the lives of individuals, families and communities.

So, last week, as part of a deanery visit, I met the director of a Children's Centre. The biggest concern: increasing numbers of families going hungry and needing help from diminishing food banks.

This is civilised Britain in the twenty first century. Increasing numbers of people – families – needing help with basics such as simple food. The demands are becoming greater than the supply. We used to associate organisations like Save the Children with Africa; now they are being associated with here.

During our conversation last week I heard about the impact of deprivation and the welfare cuts on:

  • Food banks
  • Families who are being caught in the 'bedroom tax' trap
  • Families who live in 'deprivation postcodes' in otherwise prosperous areas
  • Families which, now that the last laundrette has closed and washing machines don't count any longer for emergency provision, work out how to keep themselves and their children clothed, clean and dignified.

I also heard how those who tried to live on £1 per day during Lent (with Christian Aid) found it increasingly hard to eat anything good. Cheap biscuits fill the stomach when an apple cannot be afforded.

This is the real human cost of austerity. Churches and other organisations are resourcing individuals, families and communities with food and other material aid: the question is why this should be necessary in an affluent and civilised country.

 

Sometimes I lose the will to write anything. A full and demanding diary doesn't exactly help, but then a pile of events coincide to leave me wondering if anything is worth saying. Say something – anything – and you get a shedload of stuff back for which there is little time to respond properly or appropriately. Read on and you'll probably wish I'd heeded my own caution.

Welfare cuts bite harder in the north than the south of England. Not exactly a surprise. But, the north doesn't really count, does it? The City counts… because the destruction of our manufacturing base, the lack of job opportunities, the creation of a service economy and our complete dependence on financial services and banking means that nothing else can take priority. The market economy has led to the market society in which people serve money and not the other way round.

The Church of England publishes a report on marriage which provokes scorn from all sides. And again we find ourselves reacting to the agenda rather than setting it. It is well nigh impossible to have a rational and respectful conversation about marriage, etc. when positions are polarised. It probably doesn't help when the Church pronounces in a context where everybody else is conversing. Culture change needed.

But, back to big news. Margaret Thatcher is dead. Is there anything further to be said? Why she is being given special treatment in death is beyond me. Does this now set a precedent for other dying former Prime Ministers: Tony Blair, David Cameron, Gordon Brown? There is something worrying about this whole phenomenon – and a million other commentators have speculated on what that might be.

However, my problem has not to do with whether or not we should speak ill of the dead, nor about whether public figures should expect a criticism-free ride on their demise. My problem is two-fold: the selective lionisation of her (and the demonisation of anyone who disagrees) by the right, and the angry demonisation of her (and anyone who disagrees) by the left. Let me explain.

I grew up in Liverpool. I am no stranger to the damage Thatcher did to the lives and communities of millions of people in this country. I was not surprised that members of her Cabinet suggested simply abandoning Liverpool and walking away. I still cannot understand how later governments can penalise people for not having jobs where jobs are not to be had – 7 people to every 1 job in Bradford, for example. One reason jobs are not to be had is because Thatcher's destruction of manufacturing and her ideologically-driven war against unions (not without some justification – although I was a union member at GCHQ when she banned the unions and removed our employment rights as a gift to Ronald Reagan) devastated communities in the north without laying the ground for anything to take their place. Obsessive and ideological deregulation of the City has led us directly to where we are today and that link should never be lost.

In other words, I am no fan of Margaret Thatcher's politics or most of what her governments did. Yet, I fear the response of some to her death says more about them than about her. If you argue that she created a nasty, impersonal and unjust society, you don't have to prove it by being nasty, impersonal and unjust. Seeing some of the vitriol aimed at this dead woman, you have to wonder at the character of the vitriol-aimers. Sure, people can protest (even if they weren't even born when she was in power; we still live with the consequences of her change to British politics, economics, society and culture). But, I do wonder what protest is expected to achieve. He time for this was when she left power, not when she dies at 87.

I started to write: “Wouldn't a more appropriate response be for her opponents simply to respect her demise by silently ignoring all the ceremony and debate, the put their efforts into opposing the pernicious policies of her political children today? Or donating a day to filling food banks, etc.?” But, then I remembered that public figures are subject in death as in life to public comment and scrutiny. That said, however, the evidence that she created a nasty, vitriolic, dehumanising and utterly divided culture and society is to be seen in the response her death has provoked.

I wish her family well as they mourn the loss of a mother, etc. But, I will put my energies into sorting out the present human mess rather than wasting it in pointless protest about someone who by definition cannot do anything about it. The appropriate response to her policies is to work to ensure we create a better, kinder, more just society for our children and grandchildren – and that will involve a rejection of divisiveness, commodification of people, nastiness and misplaced vitriol.

(And I think Jonathan Freedland has probably got it about right.)

 

Today a letter has been published in the Financial Times and, probably, other newspapers around the world, signed by 80 of the world's religious leaders and urging G8 governments not to drop the Millennium Development Goal ball with 1000 days to go. Here is the text of the press release:

Religious leaders from across the G8 countries have called on Heads of Government to follow the UK in fulfilling existing commitments to spend 0.7% of national income on aid, in a letter to the Financial Times. From today, the 79 signatories including the Archbishop of Canterbury, point out, 1000 days remain to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the 2015 deadline.

With a focus on tax, trade and transparency, the religious leaders argue, the UK Presidency of the G8 has the potential to advance the MDG agenda in ways that strike at the underlying causes of poverty, in particular by ensuring the wealth created by developing countries is not lost through unfair tax practices, a lack of transparency or a failure to secure the benefits of trade for developing countries.

“Meeting the remaining targets, while challenging, is possible – but only if governments do not waver from the moral and political commitments made over a decade ago,” the letter stresses.

The Rt Rev Nick Baines, Bishop of Bradford said: “With only 1000 days left to achieve the Millennium Development Goals set by the UN, it is imperative that the G8 Heads of Government set the pace and do not allow this to fail. I shall be tweeting my support using #1000DaysToGo and hoping the flood of comments encourages governments not to waver.”

They argue for a G8 Convention on Tax Transparency committing signatory countries to prevent individuals and companies from hiding wealth so that it is untraceable. Further, they call on the G8 to press for greater financial transparency from governments of developing countries so citizens can hold their governments to account for the money they spend.

“Development is working but challenges remain,” the letter points out. “The number of people living in extreme poverty has been halved ahead of time and 14,000 fewer children die each day than in 1990. Yet one in eight people still go to bed hungry every night and more than 2 million die of malnutrition each year.”

The financial crisis may be a reason but is not an excuse for hesitation or deferral, the letter states. “Reaching a purposeful consensus on these areas won't be easy. But, if the political will and moral leadership is forthcoming, this year's G8 could help to create an environment that encourages the conditions for inclusive, equitable and sustainable economic growth – conditions that are desperately needed if we are to realise the MDGs and even greater things beyond.”

And here is the text of the letter itself:

To G8 Heads of Government,

Today marks the start of the 1000 day countdown to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the 2015 deadline. It is an appropriate moment to pause and to reflect on progress to date.

Development is working. But challenges remain. The number of people living in extreme poverty has been halved ahead of time and 14,000 fewer children die each day than in 1990. Yet 1 in 8 people still go to bed hungry every night and over 2 million die of malnutrition each year.

Even as conversations accelerate as to what ought to replace the MDGs, we should not slacken our efforts towards realising existing goals. Meeting the remaining targets, while challenging, is possible – but only if governments do not waiver from the moral and political commitments made over a decade ago.

Thirteen years on from the start of the Millennium the values and principles that drive these goals are as imperative as ever. The financial crisis may be a reason but is not an excuse for hesitation or deferral. The MDGs remind us that in addition to providing for the well being of our own societies, we have a collective responsibility to uphold human dignity and the common good at the global level. Each individual has a value that can never be lost and must never be ignored.

With a focus on tax, trade and transparency, the UK Presidency of the G8 this year has the potential to advance the MDG agenda in ways that strike at the underlying causes of poverty, in particular by ensuring the wealth created by developing countries is not lost through unfair tax practices, a lack of transparency or a failure to secure the benefits of trade for developing countries.

As religious leaders from across the G8 we recommend that our Heads of Government take the following actions when they meet in June. First, fulfil existing commitments to spend 0.7% of national income on aid. Secondly, launch a G8 Convention on Tax Transparency committing signatory countries to prevent individuals and companies from hiding wealth so that it’s untraceable. Thirdly, press for greater financial transparency from governments of developing countries so that the citizens of these countries can hold their governments to account for the money they spend.

Reaching a purposeful consensus on these areas won’t be easy. But, if the political will and moral leadership is forthcoming, this year’s G8 could help to create an environment that encourages the conditions for inclusive, equitable and sustainable economic growth – conditions that are desperately needed if we are to realise the MDGs and even greater things beyond.

Anyone can join in the associated Twitter campaign.

Since 2005 the has been a religious leaders' summit held immediately prior to each G8 meeting in the host country. This year we have decided to try a different approach to raise consciousness and make representation to governments.

 

This is the text of an article in Public Servant magazine. I would like to have written something more substantial, but the word limit (which was perfectly reasonable) was limited. As it were.

Paying excessive attention to 'efficiency' and function militates against good overall care. The values that are supposed to ensure people are well-treated get subsumed.

We live in an age of fundamental suspicion. One could argue that fifty years ago the default position of most citizens was to trust unless given evidence that trust should be withheld; now the default is to suspect everyone, trust no one and deny everyone’s integrity.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that this is reflected in the culture developed in our public institutions. Couple this with a media that hears a politician sneeze and accuses him of deliberately trying to infect the vulnerable, and you have got a vicious circle of suspicion.

But, if that isn't enough, we then create a culture of competitiveness and 'efficiency' that uncritically assumes that the only measurement of 'the good' is financial. Hence, the NHS, for example, bounces from centralisation to localisation and back, education abandons local accountability and cedes power to the Secretary of State in Westminster (whilst thinking it is gaining greater autonomy – but see what happens if an academy struggles or the said Minister changes his fancy), and vast sums of money are spent in ideologically-driven yo-yo re-engineering.

If only there was a basic understanding of the difference between 'efficiency' and 'effectiveness', we might be in a better place.

In other words, we now have a deep cultural problem across our society – a functionalism that compromises public service. The cultural associations run deep and to question them is not easy to do – not least because they quickly assume the status of 'orthodoxy', from which heretics find themselves dismissed with ridicule.

Changing this situation cannot be easy and, by definition, solutions will necessarily be long-term and complex. It is possible that some of our systems might have to collapse before the construction of something more coherent and effective becomes possible.

For example, is it any surprise that health visitors find themselves hot-desking in an attempt to reduce rental costs for offices, but then lose the very context that allows for ready exchange of information, informal mutual encouragement or advice, joined-up consultation on particular cases or issues? The 'human' stuff always finds less value than what can appear on a balance sheet.

And, of course, this sort of thinking derives from a confusion of ends and means. If the end is to reduce costs (finance-driven), then the exercise becomes merely functional. If, however, the end is to enhance service to real people – to which end finance is a means – then different values might apply and priorities be set. This is not to deny the need for financial probity and wisdom, but it is to ask what the end is to which the finance becomes the means of getting there.

Somehow this situation requires a rejection of the sort of box-ticking mentality that leads to hospitals losing the plot. If the Francis report exposes anything, it is that paying obsessive attention to the engineering (form filling, box ticking, time accounting) militates against good overall care because the means become the end. The people get lost. The values that are supposed to ensure that people are well treated as dignified human beings get subsumed – not deliberately, but at the level of assumption in the complex dynamics of making sense out of chaos) – into something different. And when this happens bad practice becomes inevitable.

Naturally, recovering a culture of trust, integrity and clarity about what constitute ends and means is no easy task. It requires the political will to change the vocabulary of public rhetoric. It demands an open and constructive public debate about what is the end to which we aspire and for which the money we pay is intended to be a means. And this will need a re-articulation of what might untrendily be called 'anthropology': how to enable people to flourish.