Archbishop Vincent Nichols

Church leaders have been making waves criticising the Government’s latest moves to drive the poor into ever-greater poverty. Last week Archbishop Vincent Nichols, about to be made a cardinal, said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph:

Two things. One is that the basic safety net that was there to guarantee that people would not be left in hunger or in destitution has actually been torn apart. It no longer exists. And that is a real real dramatic crisis. And the second is that in this context the administration of social assistance I am told has become more and more punitive, so if applicants don’t get it right, then they have to wait, and they have to wait for ten days or two weeks with nothing… For a country of our affluence that quite frankly is a disgrace.

Protestants, not to be outdone, followed his lead.

Thursday’s Daily Mirror carried an article, 27 bishops slam David Cameron’s welfare reforms as creating a national crisis in unprecedented attack:

Britain is the world’s seventh largest economy and yet people are going hungry. Half a million people have visited foodbanks in the UK since last Easter and 5,500 people were admitted to hospital in the UK for malnutrition last year. One in five mothers report regularly skipping meals to better feed their children, and even more families are just one unexpected bill away from waking up with empty cupboards… Over half of people using food banks have been put in that situation by cutbacks to and failures in the benefit system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions.

In his reply to Nichols, David Cameron stated that

Archbishop Nichols’s claims that the basic safety net no longer exists are simply not true.

The Daily Telegraph summarises the Government’s position:

A source close to Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said the Archbishop seemed to be “ill informed… There is no evidence of a link between welfare reform and increased use of food banks. The idea that we stop people’s benefits because they get the paperwork wrong is mad. Sanctions are in place for a very good reason - if people claim benefits, but don’t play their part in trying to get a job, there should be consequences.

These are the words of people at the top who know how the system is supposed to work in theory, but refuse to admit what is happening on the ground. Thus the Government simply denies the problem. They know they can get away with it, because we live in an extremely divided society. Most people don’t personally know anyone who depends on food banks. Depending on who you are and where you live you may not see it happening, but happening it is.

The situation is extreme, in three ways:
  1. In the 1940s the Welfare State was set up to ensure that nobody endured the poverty that had been common in the Depression. Now, for the first time since then, increasing numbers are once again being driven to those extremes of poverty.
  2. When a major deterioration of living conditions takes place, governments normally make a reasonably credible response. They either deny that it is their responsibility, or do something to help, or explain why they cannot. In this case they are simply refusing to admit that it is happening at all. It is their job to know what is happening. They choose not to know.
  3. There is no effective political opposition. We look in vain for commitments by the Labour Party to reverse the welfare cuts and establish a living income for the disabled and unemployed. The Blair-Brown-Balls dynasty has successfully turned the Labour Party into a shadow of the Conservative Party, copying its policies without the intense colours but with basically the same shape. Unless there is a sudden upsurge of support for the Green Party the recent dramatic impoverishment of the poor looks set to continue until at least 2020.

On matters of sexual ethics church leaders continue to be a total disaster; on the matter of poverty they are to be congratulated on their willingness to speak out. But why is it that they can, when politicians don’t?

One reason must be the mismatch between public discourse and real life. The mass media rarely pay any attention to what goes on in the poorest neighbourhoods. As our society gets more and more polarised, politicians can more easily ignore the poor and imagine society is the way the media portray it – especially as most members of Parliament are now career politicians, not representatives of different communities. Churches, on the other hand, are in touch with ordinary people in every parish in the country. Paradoxically it is easier for Vincent Nichols to keep in touch with the plight of the poor than it is for David Cameron, who only reads statistics filtered by the kinds of people who fill in forms.

I think there is another reason, which to my mind is more interesting and more significant. It is about the limitations of secular, God-free accounts of society.

The Government wants everyone who can ‘work’ to do so, and as hard as they can. Why? Because the work needs to be done? No: ‘work’ simply means ‘doing anything that anyone is willing to pay for’ – the ATOS interviews make this absolutely clear. Everyone who can must ‘work’ because employing and being employed are now treated as ends in themselves.

If we ask what the Government is trying to achieve with this, the answers are about economic growth, innovation and competition against other countries. If we then ask why we need these things, nobody offers convincing answers. These government-decreed objectives are not based on any philosophy of the common good or the purpose of human life. Successive governments pursue them because they have inherited them and they have never thought to question them. The economy has become a replacement god, that to which we must constantly offer sacrifices whatever the cost.

So it turns out that in secular public discourse about society, once we have removed all references to the will of God we invent another god. This may seem unintended, but it is inevitable. Something has to be the ultimate objective, the vision that justifies everything we think worth doing. When we stop speculating about how God has designed us to live, all that is left is to ‘create our own values’, and that means accepting the values of the loudest voices. The voices who control the mass media. We end up deifying the self-interest of the ruling classes.

Religious traditions do offer accounts of the common good and the purpose of human life. They are characteristically based on theories about what kind of god made us, and for what purpose. They therefore have a stronger basis for judging what societies should be trying to achieve at any one time. Although sadly religious leaders often do not live up to this potential, in principle a religious philosophy of life can be independent of the self-interest of those governing. To put it at its simplest, secular accounts of society cannot appeal to objective values higher than the preferences of the ruling classes; religious accounts can.

Suppose we step outside the deification of the economy. Suppose we allow that wealth should not be an end in itself, but a means to doing what God has designed us to do – like, for example, meeting everyone’s needs. What is left of the Government’s economic policies? Suddenly they become pointless

The UK, overall, has far more wealth than it needs. The amount of work that needs to be done is far less than the current pattern of paid employment. Everybody’s needs could be met with a lot less money and a lot less work. We could spend more time enjoying ourselves and relaxing. We could once again become a civilised country.