The UK economy many be turning, but changing selfish habits will be a lot harder

In one way or another past few weeks haven’t been the best for our Prime Minister, so it was perhaps understandable that Rishi Sunak – and quite a few other legislators – jumped on today’s economic figures with a noticeable degree of desperate optimism.

The reason for the ebullience was the news from Andrew Bailey, the governor of the Bank of England, that the UK economy grew by 0.6% between January and March, which is the fastest rate for two years. Whilst this news may be more clutching at straws than heralding the dawn of a new age of opulence, it’s at least some kind of vague hope, given the UK slipped into recession at the end of last year after shrinking for two three-month periods in a row.

The reasons for this slight upturn are likely complex and diverse, and few analysts were sticking their necks out to explain the change, nor make any predictions about what this might mean for the months ahead.

The fact of the matter is that everyone from the Prime Minister down knows that Britain is mired in an unprecedented financial crisis that could take generations to extract ourselves from, with a lot of difficult decisions and severe pain having to be dealt out in the process. Few UK governments have ever successfully controlled our rambling, complex and increasingly inefficient economy, and ruling parties have generally had to content themselves with stirring around the pot. After all, tax income from the public is what it is, and the best you can do is to shove a little over there and drag a little over here, rectifying the economic injustices of your predecessor but in the process creating new ones that your successors will have to try and rectify. And so government stumbles on – except that a catastrophic global pandemic followed by hugely expensive involvement in regional wars has thrown our cash position into completely uncharted territory.

On the ground, and in homes around the country, the reality of the economic downturn is becoming increasingly more obvious – and we’re heading fast towards an economic abyss. Wages have stagnated and job opportunities have not grown, leaving young people in particular with little chance of building careers for themselves, and becoming the new generation of homeowners and taxpayers that the UK economy relies upon so dangerously. In an effort to keep unemployment figures down the government has also shunted countless young people off to university, but the fees and the student loan system has now become a major inhibitor of economic growth.

The student loan figures are frankly quite shocking – currently £20 billion a year is loaned to around 1.5 million students in England each year. The value of outstanding loans at the end of March 2023 reached £206 billion, and the Government forecasts that the value of outstanding loans will be around £460 billion by the mid-2040s. To make matters worse the economic crippling of students, who won’t be making pension contributions, is creating a terrifying pension deficit in a landscape where more and more people are living longer. Thus the prospect of no government pension and no retirement for our children is not just a possibility, but actually the most likely scenario.

For those of us involved in the exploration and development of Catholic social teaching these are the difficult and complex challenges that we’ll be expected to address in the years and decades ahead. In a world where the old economic certainties and boundaries have been blown away, it will no longer be sufficient for us just to ponder and point out broad concepts such as the ‘preferential option for the poor’ or ‘the right to meaningful work’, – instead we will have to engage directly and assuredly in far more pragmatic, uncomfortable and directly challenging narratives about the welfare of the human person.

Wherever this goes, the one surety is that everyone is going to have to get used to having a lot less than they have now.

I was very taken by the comments of Pope Francis this morning. He was in Rome addressing an annual conference that is organised by the Italian government to discuss Italy’s declining birth rate. The title of this year’s conference was Being there: more youth, more future and Pope Francis was keen to make the point that so many theological approaches to societal issues start from a subconscious presumption that human beings are the problem.

Pollution and world hunger are not caused by the birth of children, argued Pope Francis, but rather by “the choices of those who only think about themselves, the delirium of an unbridled, blind and rampant materialism, and of consumerism.”

“The problem is not how many of us there are in this world, but rather what kind of world we’re building.”

Noting that Italy, like much of the rest of the Western world, is “slowly losing its hope in tomorrow” the Pope said there was an urgent need for “effective policies, courageous, concrete and long-term choices, to sow today so that children can reap tomorrow. A greater commitment is needed from all governments, so that the younger generations are put in a position to realise their legitimate dreams.”

However, to achieve this we would need to promote “a culture of generosity and intergenerational solidarity” that would necessitate “reconsidering habits and lifestyles” and “renouncing what is superfluous”, in order to “give the youngest hope for tomorrow.”

Persuading contemporary society to accept less may seem like a pretty straightforward proposition, but actually it’s going to be one of the hardest changes to bring about. Over recent decades society has become, and has been actively encouraged to become, ever more self-centred and self-obsessed that asking anyone to give up any portion of what they have gained is going to be a very tough call.

Our modern age is one that is still continuing to encourage the view that you can ‘have it all’ and that there are few if any consequences to this. One only has to look at areas such as sexual health to see that society is geared fundamentally to uninhibited indulgence, and the function of society is thus to ameliorate the consequences of this. So the sexual behaviour narrative is never less or abstinence, but rather the pursuit of pharmaceuticals that can counteract excessive behaviours. So, the human person must be free to do as they wish, and the function of society and its government is to ensure that this continues to be possible. There’s never a question of restricting or controlling behaviours in the interests of the common good.

Elsewhere this week a similar narrative was in play across the UK farming community, as the industry has been keen to warn consumers that recent extremes in the weather have devastated the crops that most of us have come to rely on. In particular a sustained period of rainfall – the highest amount for any 18-month period in England in recorded history – has all but wiped out our first 2024 harvest, and this against a global circumstance where backup imports that we normally have relied upon from Ukraine and elsewhere simply won’t be arriving.

UK Wheat production is down 15% since November, the biggest reduction in cropped areas since 2020. Oilseed rape is down 28%, the biggest reduction since the 1980s, and winter barley is down 22% at 355,000 hectares, the biggest reduction since 2020.

The drastically-reduced levels of grain will mean that foods such as bread and cereals will rise sharply in price, and will in all probability eventually become unproduceable. And this crisis runs through to all crops and products that rely on predictable weather patterns for their production.

In the many interviews I’ve seen this week with farmers, there’s clear desperation across the industry. Decades of cutting profit margins coupled with increasing regulations had already put many agricultural businesses on a knife edge, but climate change is probably going to finish off a large number, with all the consequences that will have for the availability of food products on our supermarket shelves.

And for me that’s really the essence of the problem – the demand for product on shop shelves. Speak to farmers and they will tell you that more needs to be done to secure the crops and the food chain, and the government must act to protect their activities. Yet no-one seems to be asking what is being done with the product of all this labour. In a world where established economics are all but shattered and the human family has never been more under threat, do we really need 50 different flavours of potato chips, or 73 varieties of biscuits?

Dismantling unwarranted and wasteful consumer choice – which in old Catholic money we called the Sin of Gluttony – is at the heart of the sustainability debate; we have a dangerously distorted relationship with food and material goods and we really do need to rectify this.

As Pope Francis said at his weekly audience earlier this year (10th January) “Food is the manifestation of something inner: the predisposition to balance or immoderation; the ability to give thanks or the arrogant claim to autonomy; the empathy of those who know how to share food with the needy; or the selfishness of those who hoard everything for themselves.”

“Eating a slice of cake is not the issue,” said Francis, “but rather taking for granted or distorting “God’s daily bread,” which can slowly but surely destroy the planet.

If the UK is genuinely starting to experience the first faint shoots of economic recovery it’s welcome news, but we Catholics need to make the point that recovery must not be the resumption of the old unsustainable gluttony, but rather the start of a far more frugal, but liberating, blueprint for the human family.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian