Judging from the huge smiles and shoulder patting, it seems clear that the Tories believe this week’s Autumn Statement has marked a turning point in their fortunes, and hopefully in British politics generally. The tensely-anticipated announcement was delivered by chancellor Jeremy Hunt with a certain assured confidence that it wasn’t going to trigger the kind of market tumult that followed the September statement. This was primarily because, unlike its predecessor, the markets knew what was coming – and there were no surprises – though some may be pondering Mr Hunt’s somewhat metaphysical call for public services to pursue a strategy of “Scandanavian quality alongside Singaporean efficiency”.
Over the coming days commentators and legislators will no doubt churn out the inevitable ‘what it means for me’ and the ‘winners and losers’ analyses, but in essence the fiscal train wreck has been up-righted for now, and it looks like we can all go back to disputing the minutia of taxes, savings, benefits and the worsening cost-of-living crisis, whilst oligarchs take over the running the country. Some recognisable kind of normal British political service is thus resumed.
The conviction that government, and society in general, has to operate within an excruciatingly narrow band of predicable normality is one of the greatest challenges of the post-modern, post-industrial and now post-covid society. It’s a weary relic of a Victorian age where everyone was supposed to know their place, and class boundaries were not meant to be crossed. The sexual and social revolutions of the 1960s, the discovery of rights and entitlements, and the countless sub-cultures and new political perspectives of the subsequent decades ought to have seen off the rigid, class-ridden structures of the past, but actually they’re reasserting themselves.
For all the veneer of equality, toleration and inclusiveness – which are essential to the illusion of a democracy – there are clear signs that we are moving back to the construct of a Victorian meritocracy, and then presents huge issues for those of us who believe that we are the mere stewards of God’s creation. For Catholics in particular, fundamental tenets of belief such as subsidiarity and a preferential option for the poor will be anathema to a legislature focussed on a narrow remit of forced employment, wealth creation and minimal support for the most vulnerable. There seems to be little opportunity for meaningful moral dialogue in the months ahead.
At the head of our new government is a man who quite uniquely has allowed his personal faith to occupy a central place in his public profile. Previous prime ministers have principally been believers in some form of divinity, which has undoubtedly shaped their attitudes and decision-making. It’s a nonsense to suggest otherwise than that faith conditions behaviour, however much it’s argued that faith is one matter, and policy decisions are another.
But more often than not, UK governance and faith beliefs have actually diverged with a far greater regularity than they’ve coincided. I have always wondered how Tony Blair reconciled his Catholic faith with his decision to invade Iraq, even as Pope John II was pleading from the balcony of St Peter’s for him not to. And what was Margaret Thatcher really thinking as she first entered the door of No.10, looked down at the crib sheet hidden in her left hand and quoted the prayer (incorrectly) attributed to St Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.” How did that square with decisions she went on to make that decimated and divided a nation, and blighted the lives of countless hard-working citizens?
Rishi Sunak has said numerous times that ‘integrity’ will be at the heart of his premiership, and he too seems profoundly committed to the political cliché of creating ‘opportunities for all’. He has also placed his Hindu faith centre stage to his political advancement – when he became MP in 2015 for Richmond in North Yorkshire he took his oath at the House of Commons on the Bhagavad Gita, and he lit ceremonial diyas on the steps of 11 Downing Street when he was chancellor to mark Diwali.
Of course, pondering to what depth Mr Sunak is a Hindu and how that will shape his premiership is rather like asking to what extent President Joe Biden is a Catholic – we do, after all, we have a US president who on the one hand regularly photo-ops attending Mass but on the other endorses abortion legislation. What makes Mr Sunak’s religious affiliation particularly unusual is that it’s potentially a far better fit with raw Conservatism than any ode to St Francis. If you look at the fundamentals of Hindism but ignore its vitally important moral nuances, you have a faith system that historically reveres wealth and wealth creation (Artha) as the pathway to God (Moksha), and states that the poor effectively deserve to be poor because they must have built up some kind of bad karma in a previous life. Even the act of giving alms to the poor is a function of building up one’s own good karma, rather than primarily alleviating the suffering of others.
But just as all Christians are not the same Christians, so too there are shades of Hinduism – like that of the Rig Veda, which calls on hindus to work hard and accumulate wealth, but to avoid greed and look after the less fortunate. Then there’s the Hinduism of the Gita, which emphasises the oneness of creation, non violence and the unique value of all – an outlook that Mahatma Ghandi (himself a Hindu) to call for the abolition of India’s historically oppressive caste system, which foreign conquerers such as the moguls and British took advantage of. Of mankind’s mission on earth Ghandi once said: “he is not born day after day to explore avenues for amassing riches and to explore different means of livelihood; on the contrary, man is born in order that he may utilise every atom of his energy for his purpose of knowing his Maker.”
It’s also important to point out another distinction here – whereas there has always been a critical degree of separation between Christianity and the affairs of state, this has not been the history of Hinduism, who’s clerics were de-facto heads of state, such that the faith effectively conditioned the rule of India for more than 1,000 years. For an individual allied to this historical form of Hinduism, there is no line of separation – one faith is one’s politics.
In fairness, the same ought to be said of any Catholic who strays into politics, as really the only good reason for being there is to awaken the world to the Christian message.
Few politicians at the head of the Western world’s leading liberal democracy have wanted to have their biography conditioned by their personal faith, but those seeking to explore and even influence the moral and social direction of the politics/society interface over the coming decades will need to understand some of the profounder subscripts that may be driving legislative decisions. This becomes particularly critical when dealing with the treatment of poverty, marginalisation and the preferential option for the poor.
Philosophers, economists and theologians have long debated whether or not there is any synchronicity between wealth creation and the betterment of all. In some respects there may even be a brutal logic in positing that some people are destined for riches and some for poverty, and dismissing wealth for all as a mere utopian fantasy. For the Christians among us, that simply doesn’t square with what we know from Genesis – that a state once existed in the world where there was enough for all, the state in which God created it. For us, the task at hand is not to build new models of socio-economic prosperity based on virtue and hard work and that accepts some few people have more merit than others, but rather to seek ways of returning to modest and sustainable models of living, and to aspire to less so that all may have more.
The irony – but also the great opportunity – of the emerging fiscal downturn is that financial pressures on the greater public will force changes in financial behaviour and lifestyles that will call into question all sorts of historic assumptions and norms. Questions on the nature and purpose of human life and toil have already been ignited by the Covid pandemic, and few can have failed to notice that patterns of work and leisure have changed significantly. This all has profound implications for the way government will need to be run, and in what ways it will interact with the population in the future. The coming years also present a unique opportunity for a new and more meaningful interface between legislators and faith communities that represent the spiritual aspirations of society.
As Christians we know that God’s design is not logical, but intuitive, and that history is not linear, but lateral and random. Given that the human person is a creation of God, it is vital to understand that the ‘divine irrationality’ of the human person is not only the key to understanding people, but to how a society should be run. It should focus primarily on people and the welfare of the human person, and the systems and mechanisms of government will evolve from this obligation of stewardship. Only then do you see the obvious nonsense of the idea that a small number should seek to control the wealth of a nation, and then reluctantly hand small tokens of it down in the vague hope that it will somehow eventually reach the bottom.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian, and founder of www.thecatholicuniverse.com