Posted in politics

Made in Britain – what next?

Well, it's what we're good at making.
Just watching Evan Davis’s Made in Britain. Davis visits some of Britain’s industrial and manufacturing successes; he tries to correct the self-flagellation we tend to adopt when talking about our economy. And, yes, I can see his point about the way industry moves on, and the way in which the British economy has kept on moving into the high value areas: design and selling both make loads more money than running the factories. And it is nice to see a programme which isn’t completely downbeat about Britain – but … living in Hackney, it’s all too obvious that the successes he pulls out share one key factor – they don’t need so many people. Again and again, manufacturers wander around their factories pointing out that a process which used to need a small army can now be handled by one person.

Here in Hackney, lots of people are making a good living out of the new economy. Lots more are making no living at all. Britain is making more money, but as today’s numbers tell us, right now average take-home pay is on its way down, not up. My last post suggested that a Christian view of economic life, whatever else it might contain, had to start from looking at how well or how badly the poorest in society are treated. Reading today the Richard Bauckham’s The Bible in Politics, I was glad to find I was in reputable company. In the introduction to the second edition he says: ‘If the Bible has an economic preoccupation, it is with the plight of the poorest people’. The globalised economy that Evan Davis describes might not have been a disaster for GB plc, but it has been bad news for many of its now-unnecessary inhabitants.

And I wondered – what next? Right now, service industries do what the factories used to: provide unsatisfying low-paid jobs for a vast number of people. But that won’t last for ever. It was once agriculture, then it was manufacturing, now it’s Starbucks and call centres. If the pattern continues, those jobs too will be replaced – probably not by factories in Shanghai, but through increasing automation. I’m an example myself. I scarcely ever talk to anyone at my bank: I can do it all more easily online.

The what does everyone do? The money will continue to be made, even more of it, but it will flow into even fewer hands. And given the globalised nature of finance and power, it’s unlikely to become easier for governments, even if they want to, to reclaim that income for the poor by taxation. So what next? The other book I’m reading is Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx was Right. Many things I still don’t buy into, but Marx’s vision of human flourishing beyond capitalism is right on the button:

“production” in Marx’s work covers any self-fulfilling activity: playing the flute, savouring a peach, wrangling over Plato, dancing a reel, making a speech, engaging in politics, organising a birthday party for one’s children. It has no muscular, macho implications. When Marx speaks of production as the essence of humanity, he does not mean that the essence of humanity is packing sausages. Labour as we know it is an alienated form of what he calls “praxis”—an ancient Greek word meaning the kind of free, self-realising activity by which we transform the world.

Maybe we will be finally forced to look for something else, which isn’t about the continued increase of wealth – and start to think about what is the point of having it. Maybe we won’t have any choice but to question the ‘latest phase of the Enlightenment meta-narrative of progress’ (Bauckham’s description of globalisation as an ideology). But there are always choices. Dystopia or utopia? I think it’ll be one or the other – the middle way is disappearing ahead of us.

Posted in politics

‘The wages of sin is death’ – finding a life-work balance

Sin doesn’t pay well, but that doesn’t stop us. Setting aside when it’s just our weakness or badness, I’m also becoming more and more aware of the ways we’re caught up in sinful structures. I was talking today to someone who works in government. By definition, as a civil servant she is dedicated to enabling the lawful government fulfil its programme. You can’t get much more blameless than that. But she was telling me that the work she’s doing feels more and more shabby; as if there was no more pretence at a moral dimension to politics except for the purposes of political rhetoric.

We need prophets – to help us find a new balance, a way of living that isn’t taking the wages of sin. We need a new language – a way of talking about society which isn’t caught in the trap of assuming that markets are automatically good, or at worst neutral. You;d have thought we’d have worked that out after 2008, but I don’t think we have. There is no alternative because we haven’t found another way of thinking about how our society should operate.

We need prophets to point out to us the things we would otherwise miss, the ways in which we are still enmeshed in sin. Of course, you then have to know how to tell the true prophet from the false.  Terry Eagleton suggests (in a book entitled, incidentally, Why Marx was Right):

The true soothsayers of our time are not hairy, howling outcasts luridly foretelling the death of capitalism, but the experts hired by the transnational corporations to peer into the entrails of the system and assure its rulers that their profits are safe for another ten years. The prophet, by contrast, … denounces the greed, corruption and power-mongering of the present, warning us that unless we change our ways we might well have no future at all.

The prophets of our time are many and various – so many voices clamouring for attention. While I’m not completely convinced by Terry Eagleton’s attempt to rehabilitate Marx, I have become increasingly convinced that Christians should be thinking more critically and creatively about the basic ethical principles which should underlie any society of which we’re happy to be part.

It’s time for us to challenge – to challenge what? In the nineteenth century it was pretty obvious who was making the money, and who was suffering. Now it’s much more international, much more difficult to tie down. Look at Greece: the country has borrowed beyond its means, and now the citizens are being told to pay it back: but as they are saying very loudly, the ordinary people of Greece don’t feel as if they were the ones to benefit from the debts run up in their name.

We don’t need to know all the answers in order to speak prophetically; it’s enough to know that a way of running society which makes the poorest into the victims, which glorifies riches and power, which says there is no alternative to pleasing the financial markets even at the cost of abandoning the poorest and most marginalised: that’s not a Christian way of running a country. There is sin, and there is righteousness, in economics and politics as well as everything else. Economics is too complicated, too boring, too difficult for us to pay attention to. Politics is entertaining, and makes sure it stays that way at a certain knockabout level, but rarely does political debate engage with the deep (= complicated = boring) issues facing us.

Will the Big Society provide a framework for thinking differently? I’m sure that it’s not intended to lead to revolutionary ferment, at least in David Cameron’s mind, but it may be possible to use it that way nevertheless.

Posted in politics

It’s not about Nick Clegg! #Yes2AV for real politics (vote no for more ‘game show politics’)

FPTP: good for television, bad for people.

  • Designed to create a two party system and minimise the scope for representing the true variety of political opinions in the country.
  • Marginalises all minor parties – deliberately under-representing their voters so as to create the majority system.
  • Party leaders become quasi-presidential; party discipline quashes real discussion.
  • Creates climate in which compromise is failure and changing your mind is fatal.

AV: a step towards politics for real people

  • Politics of building consensus among a variety of viewpoints (just like the country as a whole).
  • Representation in Parliament of more diverse perspectives (just like the country as a whole).
  • Politicians who are better at negotiating and less keen on posturing (like the people we’d want to have as our managers).
  • Political recognition that running a country is not like a game show – this is real life, our lives.
Posted in Books, politics

Ill fares the Land, indeed

I’m becoming a bit of a Tony Judt junkie. After The Memory Chalet and Postwar, my eye was inevitably drawn towards Ill fares the Land: and though Postwar was a great book, this is the really timely one. It’s that rare thing, a concentrated outburst of intelligent anger – a true polemic. Judt doesn’t waste emotional energy in trashing his enemies, but rather challenges his friends to get off our collective backsides and do something. No doubt the fact that he was writing after his terminal diagnosis has something to do with it; without ever making the point crassly explicit, he’s saying ‘I won’t be around to do this – but it has to be done’.

It does have to be done – from every direction the call seems to come for a new way of doing politics which creates a new set of possibilities, new disagreements. We’ve had our fling with neo-liberalism, but as yet we don’t know what else to do, how else to look to run our societies. Tony Judt reminds us that the last time people thought the globalisation of trade had carried us beyond nationalism, the First World War was only a few years away. We have real work to do if the latest re-configuration of world power is not to create war – real shooting war – and not just in nasty dusty places a long way away. When people feel threatened, they retreat to where they feel safe, and get violent when that security feels threatened.

The way forward isn’t exactly the way back. The alternative to free market capitalism isn’t state socialism. Remember communitarianism? Tony Blair was pretty keen on it for a while: maybe it was his version of David Cameron’s Big Society – a genuine political idea. Communitarianism soon disappeared under the pressures of day to day politics, and possibly the attractions of the cash cow that the City of London was during the Blair years. Or maybe it was the cynicism that always looks for a base motive in any apparently high ideal – as particularly exhibited by the British press. As with so many things, the media can bring about their own prophecies of doom, gradually wearing down anything which tries to shift the terms of debate away from their preferred territory of deceit and scandal.

We need to change, to find a way of bringing values back into political debate as areas for argument and aspiration. But how do you rebuild trust? Only a common basis of values which it is assumed that all the parties hold, even while disagreeing about much else. Now that would be a really interesting exercise – to get leaders together from all parties and walks of life to try to define genuinely commonly held values. I wonder how many there would be?

Posted in politics

On the value of useless protest

It was a long, noisy, good-natured parade of protest that wound its way through London yesterday. The unions had handed out sort of vuvuzelas (remember the football World Cup?). The noise was pretty awful, but much better than the Socialist Workers trying to rally the crowd with the same slogan they’ve been using for the whole of my life (What do we want? A general strike! etc.). And there were a lot of people. I got to Trafalgar Square at about noon, and the head of the parade arrived soon afterwards. We finally joined in about 12:45, and there was no sign of it abating. When we finally got to Hyde Park (about 1:30 or so), apparently there were still thousands of people back on the Embankment who hadn’t even started to move. As many of the speakers pointed out, the Big Society was here in force: a huge number of people saying ‘no’ to the present government’s decimation of public services.

A note on decimation: it was originally the Roman punishment for a unit which failed in battle: 10% of the troops were selected for execution. Compare: “the 25 most disadvantaged councils according to the 2007 Index of Multiple Deprivation will see their budgets reduced by an average of 9.4 per cent in 2011/12”, while “the 25 least disadvantaged councils will have their budgets reduced by an average of 4.6 per cent”.

No, our march won’t stop the government from doing what they’ve planned. In a precise functional sense it was useless. But still more useless not to make your protest. We were marching for an alternative which won’t immediately happen, in political terms, but which needs to be made visible against the language of ‘there is no alternative’. Margaret Thatcher used to say that, I recall. She was wrong then, and David Cameron is wrong now. There are always alternatives, and the art of politics is in choosing them. Each has its dangers as well as its opportunities.

The decision to cut now, and cut deeply, was a choice not an inevitability. And 250,000 people were there to say it was a bad choice. UK government policy is demonstrating in practice exactly the same ideological commitment to the ‘small state’ that neo-liberals have held since the 1970s. Oh, was it those neo-liberals who also thought the market should be free to play with numbers however it felt fit? My goodness, so it was – and those numbers turned out to be minuses on all our bank accounts.

So if the ‘march for the alternative’ reminds us all for a little while that things could be different, maybe it prepares the ground for things to actually become different. That’s what I’m hoping.

Posted in Church of England, politics

Nearer my Neighbour to thee

I went to a briefing the other day for the Near Neighbours programme: that very rare bird, a funding programme being introduced, not cut. The details are interesting, especially for those of us in the areas covered – but the other thing that really stood out for me was that this shows in practice what the government’s ‘Big Society’ idea is meant to look like.

The programme uses a local network of providers (in this case Church of England parishes) and is designed to facilitate fairly low-key locally based projects which aim to

  1. develop positive relationships in multi-faith areas i.e. to help people from different faiths get to know and understand each other better.
  2. encourage people of different faiths, or no faith, to come together for initiatives that improve their local neighbourhood.

One of the things I’ve been wondering about is what the ‘Big Society’ agenda would look like if you were able to abstract it from the current (excessive, draconian) cuts in public expenditure. Near Neighbours I think is one answer, and quite an encouraging one. Compared to my experience of other, much much bigger, government funded projects, it seems genuinely to have got away from the dead hand of bureaucracy.

My previous experience was that governmental bodies wanted the third sector to be involved, but only on the condition that we started behaving like governmental bodies, with all the risk-aversion, caution and form-filling that involved. So the very qualities the government wanted from us – mobility, flexibility, responsiveness to local conditions – were the ones we were no longer allowed to show.

If this is different, it’s a very good thing. If it sets the tone for a different way of engaging with third sector partners, it’s a very good thing indeed. There’s no reason why a similar principle might not be used by a rather less parsimonious government on a much wider scale and for a much wider range of purposes. But of course there’s a risk: the less control you exercise, the less you can ensure that everything goes according to plan. Actually, I didn’t feel that really was the main concern; the key issue was to make sure nothing got in the papers. If the price to pay was a mediocre project with most of the money going on administration, monitoring and consultancy costs – well, so be it. Are the government really going to take that risk with anything more than small change? Maybe not – but even governmental small change makes quite a difference on the ground.


Posted in politics

Universal benefit?

The UK government is reforming welfare benefits. If anyone still used metal type, it would be worth keeping that phrase permanently set up. Benefits systems designed for the few – the few who survived to retirement, the few who were unable to work – have become a source of income (not much, of course) for the huge number of us who live longer, and keep on living with our illnesses rather than dying of them.

The question no-one wants to ask is this ‘What is the obligation of society as a whole to the poor and the ill – when there are so many of them?’ Much easier to moan about scroungers, or talk up the possibilities of levering people back into work. Neither of those are unimportant of course – but the way all other things are tackled will depend on the fundamental viewpoint. Are the poor and marginalised ‘us’, or are they ‘them’?

I have a suspicion that the present UK government wants to find out – to make people sign up as one of ‘us’: eager to work (and ready to take anything that’s offered); preferably not a single parent; definitely not fecklessly producing extra children without the means to feed them; not insisting on trying to live in expensive areas of the country (however long their families may have been there). ‘Them’ are of course the opposite: the ones who will have their benefits taken away for refusing work (any work? – will Muslims lose benefit for refusing to work in a pork packing factory?); the ones who won’t (in the words of a previous Tory minister) ‘get on their bikes’ in search of work.

I live among people who live on the edge of, or well into poverty. If only it were as simple as that to work out who are the deserving poor, and who are the others. The complexity of people’s’ lives, and the degree of damage that so many carry with them, make me doubtful whether the government’s moral analysis by way of benefit payments is likely to make much progress.

It seems to me there’s no choice; we have to start from the position that we are all ‘us’. In politics, that means that a genuinely universal benefit system is the only way to benefit all of us universally. Much of the government’s rhetoric is very positive, but I suspect an underlying morality of coercion which can only undermine whatever positive things overlay it, and conceal it from too much public view.