It’s something many “secular” minded people might resent, but it’s very refreshing to have a warning from the Church of England that today’s politics is setting people against one another and scapegoating vulnerable groups. It is being said that politicians are deficient in their moral compass. People might not like having religious groups commenting on the political arena, especially as there is such a marked trend away from traditional religious observance, and yet it has often been the role of such people to comment on ethical matters. As we move into the heat of the 2015 election battle it is worth stepping back and reflecting on what’s going on.
When we’re in the midst of things happening it can be hard to step back and observe what’s happening. We get caught up in our lives and can’t see the bigger picture. Moreover it has become unfashionable to make overt moral comments as such, although in reality we continue to do it implicitly, in the choices we express and what we ask of others. Judgement is riven through all that we do. In the case of current politics however, a case can be made by some that we are lacking in certain areas of moral wisdom, while on the other side others might say that they are simply expressing a different set of moral choices.
Social policy under pressure
One area we can explore this is in the field of social policy.
On the right there is a desire to limit benefits to what in the 16th Century were called the “deserving poor”, to prevent “scrounging on the state” and “living their life on benefits”. Thus measures have been introduced to more closely scrutinise claims and to encourage claimants to find work. We’ve been here before: coercion as an instrument of policy was also seen in the 1834 Poor law Amendment Act that made it only possible to get poor relief in a workhouse that was deliberately designed to be worse than the level of the lowest “independent labourer”. Council housing has been limited to the bedrooms actually being used, the so-called “bedroom tax” since rents were increased where a room was unused.
So too there is pressure to restrict access from immigrants to the welfare state, both from outside the EU but also, and more controversially, those from the EU who have the right to work in the UK. UKIP has been very effectively exploiting these issues, and the right of the Conservative Party has too, fearing that they will otherwise lose votes to UKIP.
Today we read that Cameron proposes to make school leavers either take an apprenticeship or do community service, and restrict unemployment benefit, thus seeking to make inroads into the phenomenon of such people that are without skills being state-dependent, the so-called NEET’s.
Labour too has found itself making cautious noises about limiting immigration, in response to what has become a major political issue, high up on people’s concerns in the polls. It has however promised to repeal the “bedroom tax” and review the application of benefit restrictions to vulnerable groups like the disabled.
Reviewing our ethical choices
Theses issues would have a moral aspect, since it involves a choice and a judgement about what should be available or not available to particular groups in society. Those on the right protest about it being wrong that people “scrounge off the state”.
What their critics in the Churches might say however is not necessarily a political one, although it may seem like it. It is the observation that we are becoming very critical of certain groups in our society who are poor and vulnerable, making them scapegoats for our ills. It is the tendency to make such group “the cause” of our problems that we could reflect upon, they say. What one might be concerned about is the lack of a “charitable approach” where we are concerned for our neighbour and wish to reach out and help, a characteristic of religious morality, Christian or not. It is interesting that the churches are saying this, since it is not heard so strongly from the left.
The context is wider. Nationalism has become much more marked, both in the UK with the rise of Scottish nationalism and the English “EVEL” backlash. In Europe, nationalist and anti-immigrant parties are becoming much stronger, and in the Ukraine rival nationalisms has led to war threatening the whole peace of Europe.
Principle versus needs-based thinking
In management theory there is a classic distinction of leadership that is often made, that between transactional leadership which prioritises structure, goals and rewards, as against transformational leadership which stresses engagement, team work, inspiration and motivation. Current British political leadership has lots of echoes of the former, since so much discourse is about needs, rewards, incentives and controls. The whole trend of the last 30 years has been to cut back the size of the state and encourage a market economy, based on the premise that people perform best when freed from bureaucratic constraints and entrepreneurial wealth creators would be incentivised to make money. This wealth would them, we were told, trickle down through society.
Yet, as many have recently been pointing out, this hasn’t been happening. Instead, both in the UK and in many other countries, inequality has been increasing rapidly, the middle classes are becoming relatively poorer and a very vulnerable “precariat” replacing parts of the traditional working class. Thus it makes sense to target immigrants and benefit seekers to deflect attention from this uncomfortable pattern, and thus UKIP has a fertile recruiting ground in those “left behind” by changes in the economy and society.
The philosophy of the market and the lack of a moral compass
The philosophy of the market leaves behind the ethical choice about community action action based on principles in order to help those less fortunate. Instead, we have a form of social Darwinism, the survival of the fittest, whereby they should be incentivised to get out and “make money”. Hence many call this approach “Neo-Liberalism”. The idea that we care for our fellow humans and work to be “of service” to others is very alien to current-day western thinking. Yet you will find these values alive and well in Islam and in much Eastern philosophy. Charity and hospitality are obligations in these communities*, and they are ones that retain a strong religious or spiritual connection.
Thus much of western culture is arguably stuck in a transactional approach to relations with our fellow humans, “me first” being a strong characteristic. It’s not completely so, or there would not be people pointing what is missing!
Yet, so much of current politics lacks leadership based on principle. Many people do not see much difference between the main parties and feel “turned off” by politics and, like Russell Brand, are opting not to vote. Turnout is thought to be particularly low in the youngest age groups. It is no wonder when politicans seem afraid to put their heads above the parapet and assert what they believe in. A strongly-made critique of the Labour Party is exactly this, no strong leadership based on principle. If you look unprincipled and seem self-serving, as many people view politicians, people don’t trust you. And trust in our political leaders is very low.
No wonder religious leaders detect a worrying level of selfishness and absence of principle in our political discourse.
*See for example the Sikh activities in London to feed the homeless, most of whom are non-Sikh: click here