A couple of weeks ago I was at the Churches’ Refugee Network conference, an ecumenical gathering of Christians from across the country. The Conference was a very sobering affair, as we heard the stories of some asylum seekers and refugees, and reflected on the harsh regime to which they are subjected in our country.

I was reminded of a couple of personal stories which were reported to the recent Parliamentary Enquiry into asylum support for children and young people:

The Refugee Council worked with a mother Nicole who applied for support at the beginning of January 2012 but her application was not accepted until June. During these five months, she and her two children aged six and three were sleeping on the floor of a mosque and surviving on hand-outs from people attending the mosque.

Mary applied for the maternity grant more than a month before she was due to give birth but only received it two months after the birth. Because she had no money to buy a buggy, or to pay for a taxi, she had to walk home from hospital in the snow with her newborn baby in her arms.

The report states: ‘Many members of the public continue to believe myths about asylum seekers, in particular that the UK accepts more than its fair share of refugees and that they receive all manner of luxuries. Yet the reality is that many families desperately needing support are left unable to meet even their most basic living needs.’

As I was thinking of all these things, I was reflecting also on the multi-cultural congregations I meet, and also on how many of us either are, or are descended from refugees and migrants: some of my own ancestors were Huguenots, fleeing religious persecution in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Our calling as God’s people is to bring our faith to bear on all aspects of our lives, including our life in society. Concern for the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees is not a party political affair; it is rooted in our faith, in what is often called the Micah Challenge (Micah 6:8):

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Our system for treating refugees and asylum seekers may or may not be just – that is a matter for political debate – but no-one who knows anything about it would accuse it of being kind.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.