Friday’s Church Times contains some interesting articles about the Brexit situation. One is by Philip North, the Bishop of Burnley. It’s behind a paywall but here is the relevant bit:
History suggests that, whenever there is economic uncertainty or recession, it is the poor who suffer disproportionately… It is the jobs of the low-paid that are the most vulnerable; it is those who depend on benefits who will suffer most from extended austerity; it is those who live with debt who have the most to fear.
We need to listen to the voices of the poor expressed in this referendum, because when we do, we will hear not ignorance, but grief…
They feel themselves to be abandoned by a metropolitan elite, who casually dismiss their concerns about the fast-changing nature of their communities as racism; abandoned by politicians, whose actions have subjected them to years of unrelenting austerity; abandoned by the big employers, whose workplace security has been replaced with zero-hours contracts, dull and unrewarding jobs, and, in far too many cases, the humiliation of foodbank dependency.
It is not surprising that a cleric observes this. Clergy are among the very few people with a professional education who live in our most poverty-stricken areas and work with the people there. Those who do are best placed to understand just how divided British society is.
For 40 years the rich have been getting richer and the poor have been getting poorer. This has been the case in many western democracies, but in the UK we might date the beginning at 1975, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, borrowed money from the International Monetary Fund. One of the conditions was abandoning the Government’s incomes policy, designed to control the distribution of wealth.
During the 40 years the gap between rich and poor has grown more quickly under some governments than under others, but it has always grown. Recessions, far from being reasons for helping those in most need, have produced bonanzas for the richest.
Traditional left-wing parties have moved to the right, thereby making it harder for the impoverished to know who to vote for. In Britain, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown supervised the transition. Much the same has happened in many other European countries.
The dominant theory to justify this systematic polarisation of wealth has been neo-liberal economics. This theory offers techniques for maximising wealth. The presuppositions behind it are that well-being depends on ever-increasing wealth, wealth is created by paid employment and governments can increase incentives by removing safety nets for the unemployed.
In this system measurable economic activities become the be-all and end-all of human well-being. Governments, armed with the statistics, think they know better than we do how well off we are.
For most of the last 40 years we have been told that the economy is growing and therefore we are better off. In years of recession, priority is given to re-establishing economic growth and we all (really just those least able to afford it) have to ‘tighten our belts’.
So the size of the economy becomes the top priority. It is calculated by the Gross National Product, a blunt instrument that merely adds up how much money we have all received and spent. It tells us nothing about quality of life. It tells us nothing about whether we are healthy, well fed, well educated or well housed. It tells us nothing about the distribution of the wealth, which is what really matters.
So for at least 40 years governments have been assuring the impoverished that they are trying to help them become richer by using techniques to make the economy grow. But even when it does, it doesn’t help those people. Whenever there is economic growth the beneficiaries are the richest, because according to neo-liberal economic policy those are the people who ‘contribute to the economy’ and ‘get the economy moving’. So the poor get poorer while being promised that one day, when the economic problems of the moment have been solved, all will be well. The promise is never fulfilled, and never will be as long as neo-liberal economics dictates policy.
In this way the plight of the communities to whom Philip North refers has been getting worse and worse. Their condition is hardly ever reported in newspapers or television programmes. Those who live outside them rarely come into contact with them. Politicians find that there are not enough votes in defending their interests.
Morally, this is topsy-turvy. The economy does not stay awake all night crying because it is hungry. The economy does not sit on the pavement, wrapped in a sleeping bag, asking passers-by for money. People do.
What is needed is public recognition that neo-liberal economics is not just flawed: it is immoral, evil. It treats extremes of poverty and deprivation as useful parts of the economic system, incentives to get a paid job. On the contrary, extremes of poverty and deprivation are not useful at all. They are signs of a society that has lost its sense of moral responsibility.
To rebuild a united and responsible society, we need to abandon the economic myths that have dominated the last 40 years. We need to replace them with a more direct, deliberate moral commitment to a caring society.