There has been little serious reaction – so far – to the Archbishop of York’s recent contribution to the political debate, once the immediate knee-jerk flurry after its launch had died away. The Morning Star provided a thoughtful review (9th February 2015), while noting that the book is ‘couched in religious terms on occasion’ – oops!
John Sentamu’s first and last book-end chapters are a clarion call for a return to the vision of solidarity shared both by Sentamu’s predecessor William Temple and by the British post-war consensus around the two Beveridge Reports that led to the creation of the NHS and a State commitment to full employment. My copy of the 1976 edition of Temple’s book ‘Christianity and Social Order’ provides quiet testimony, in the form of a foreword by Edward Heath, that this consensus was not a matter of party politics. It is poignant that Heath wrote just as the consensus was dissolving.
Temple agonised over whether and how the Church hierarchy should intervene in political debate. His answer was: through a systematic statement of principles that enables individual Christians to exercise their moral and civil rights; and through a denunciation of customs or institutions in contemporary life and practice which offend against those principles. It is not for the Church to supply technical remedies, yet as Sentamu puts it, quoting Immanuel Kant, ‘religion without politics is empty, politics without religion is blind’.
In March 2014, George Osborne committed himself to achieving full employment, actually citing Winston Churchill’s support for Beveridge. However Osborne’s and Beveridge’s definitions of full employment could not be more different. For Osborne, it means the highest proportion of the working-age population in employment in the G7, encouraged partly by making unemployment as unpleasant as possible. For Beveridge, it meant a seller’s market in labour, more unfilled vacancies than unemployed, by a considerable margin. Full employment in this sense is a precondition for the stability and hope to which Justin Welby aspires for his flock. Beveridge wrote ‘A person who has difficulty in buying the labour that he wants suffers inconvenience or reduction in profits. A person who cannot sell his labour is in effect told that he is of no use. The first difficulty causes annoyance or loss. The other is a personal catastrophe’.
Beveridge was under no illusions as to the implications of genuine full employment for the bargaining power of labour. His answer was that ‘a civilised community must find alternatives to starvation for preservation of industrial discipine and efficiency’. Clearly, in an age of food banks, we have failed his test of civilisation.
What is striking about Sentamu’s book is the dissonance between his own prophetic chapters (together with Welby’s) and the contribution by the economist, Andrew Sentance. In a chapter entitled ‘The way ahead for the British economy’, Sentance rehearses a standard diagnosis, leading to a resigned acceptance of the ‘New Normal’ of austerity and anodyne prescriptions, including better skills and training, tax simplification, macroeconomic stability, environmental sustainability and personal integrity in business. There is no recognition of the process of ‘financialisation’, the penetration of finance into every area of our lives over the last 35 years. Financialisation was the result of a conscious decision in the late 1970s, under the influence of the economics of Milton Friedman and the politics of Friedrich Hayek, to run the economy to maximise shareholder value rather than to provide full employment, sold to the electorate under the promise of 24/7 ‘choice’, including private pensions. There is no recognition by Sentance that the relative prosperity of the post-war period from 1945-1973 was the consequence of an unprecedented exercise in international solidarity that produced the United Nations, the Marshall Plan and the Bretton Woods system, as well as Beveridge at home. According to Sentance, the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the 1973 Oil Crisis and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis were ‘shocks’, unforeseeable Acts of God, rather than the outcomes of a continuing failure to reconcile the interests of property and of employment for the ‘common profit’, as Sentamu puts it, quoting John Chrysostom.
Perhaps this is the Galileo effect again. The Church is afraid to suggest that ‘economic science’ is part of the problem, for fear of being wrong. No-one can deny that the British post-war consensus ended in economic chaos. There can be no doubt that the case for the renewal of solidarity as the basis of British society raises formidable questions in the area of economic policy. It is unfortunate, but no surprise, that the answers are not to be found in this book.
Mark Hayes holds the St Hilda Chair in Catholic Social Thought and Practice at Durham and lectures on macroeconomics in the University of Cambridge. More information can be found on the contributors page or the Department website.