Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Can Churches Help Put the Heart back into British Politics?

Much of what is good in British politics, both on the Left and Right wings, was originally inspired by Christianity. But following the New Labour project of 1997-2010, the old definitions of Left and Right have become confused: is there any fundamental difference between political parties apart from the financial incentives they offer varying voter groups? And does that matter?

One way of analysing the Coalition victory is that Labour lost the election, but neither the Lib Dems nor the Conservatives quite won it. Now may be the time for the Church to speak to those who feel that political parties don’t speak to them or for them; who regret the lack of idealism in a political reality often characterised by sterile adversarial stances and lobbying for special interests; or who feel the political class are a breed apart, out of touch purveyors of ideology.

As the saying goes “without vision, the people perish” – and no quantity of Government strategies, targets or mission statements can remedy a lack of true vision.

Why Church? Politics is bound up with concern for others in our own and other communities, but political and economic systems on their own can never generate community and compassionate concern. At best, they can attempt to prevent discrimination and injustice by legal definitions and enforcement, or engineer social change, but that is the negative side of progress. Churches have an opportunity to speak of and contribute to the positive that has still not been tried – a social ethos truly grounded in love and kindness.

Tony Blair had an unprecedented mandate from the British public in 1997; many had high hopes for the fusion of progressive leftist values of inclusion and fairness with a traditionally right wing approach to economics. In implementing this ‘Third Way’, New Labour combined typical process elements of Right and Left: hard-nosed internationalist capitalism friendly to banks and big businesses, alongside statism, a love of centralised bureaucracy, mass legislation and moral authoritarianism. Like it or loathe it, this was an effective formula for power, the logical successor to the Thatcherite revolution of the 1980s.

In this new, quasi-European Centrism, which the Coalition hasn’t fundamentally changed, politics risks being reduced to a machine for distributing and redistributing wealth according to different people’s lists of the deserving and undeserving. This may be a good world for career politicians, banks, international businesses and lawyers. But is it the best that Britain can do for itself and other nations? Has what was good in the traditional Right and Left evaporated into a vapid Centrism that combines the worst of each?

As we ponder last week’s Spending Review some of us are probably wondering whether the heralded Big Society marks a return to an empowered grassroots social engagement, or simply Government abandoning the poorest to the consequences of a recession they are suffering from the most and have done least to cause or deserve. The current economic troubles give us a unique opportunity to rediscover the politics of idealism and every single member of our society has an opportunity to revive and demonstrate the Christian call to unselfishness whether or not they have a religious commitment.

Individual Christians may or may not want to engineer a society of centrally-enforced ‘equality’. But whatever our view of the appropriate economic process, I hope we can stop thinking in as social scientists with rulers – whether Left or Right-wing rulers - who calculate in our offices who has too much and who has too little. Instead, is it time to downplay personal and political opinions and fill our hearts with compassion for the poor and needy, the homeless and destitute.

Poverty is not a party political issue; it is a Christian and moral outrage. I have suggested that politics based on economic self-interest can never ground true community: this opinion may speak to our conscience, but can it be backed up by rigorous thought? Can religion develop workable schemes where materialistic politics fails?

This post is the first of a series in which I will explore the possibilities for Churches to work increasingly with local communities and Government to engage British people more richly in issues – such as poverty and inequality - that affect us all. Let’s roll up our sleeves and, collectively, do some hard economic and theological work!