Having been brought up a Methodist, I can’t ever quite get away from thinking of September as the start of the New Year. The next 12 (or more precisely 20) months are likely to tell us a lot about what sort of society we are – and want to be – on these British Isles of ours.
As the 2015 General Election creeps ever closer, the shape of the political debates which will frame the next twenty months are starting to be mapped out. I’m sure we will see much more of this as the annual party political conference season gets under way at the end of the month. And the omens are not looking good..
Over the summer, the Home Office kicked off a deliberately provocative campaign to target illegal immigrants, with mobile billboards touring London announcing “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest” and high profile arrests of ‘alleged’ illegal immigrants at tube and train stations.
A flurry of faith leaders publicly condemned the actions including Patrick Lynch, the Roman Catholic Bishop for Migration, stating that “This mobile billboard campaign is a very inappropriate way to discourage illegal immigrants from staying in the UK, not least because the message that is often received is that all immigrants and foreigners are unwelcome in the UK.”
Sadly, all the indications are that the reason for the campaign was much more to do with party politics than persuading anyone to ‘go home.’ Even if no one actually leaves the country as a result, the campaign will have achieved its aim: A series of headlines which show the Conservatives are ‘tough on immigration’ designed to encourage erstwhile UKIP supporters to ‘return’ to the Tory fold, and vote Conservative at the forthcoming European and General Elections instead.
Worryingly, the signs are that what passes for ‘debate’ about the future of welfare in this country is also being shaped not so much by the needs of people in poverty – but by the pressure on politicians to be seen to ‘act tough on scroungers.’ And expect more tough talk over the coming weeks and months.
The troubling fact is that by their constant repetition, the lies that ‘everyone on poverty are lazy and feckless – and that the welfare system only encourages them in their idleness’ are have a profound and corrosive effect on public opinion. All the signs are that, even as the cuts to welfare are starting to bite, support for welfare spending appears to be declining.
When politicians use language designed to drive a wedge between so called ‘Strivers and Shirkers’ beware.
It is based on a cold political calculation that it will win more votes than lose them – and will paint the opposition party into a corner where, if it stands up for those at the bottom, it risks being seen as a party ‘on the side of shirkers.’
It is into this toxic political climate that the leaders of the Free Churches – the URC, Methodists, Baptists and Church of Scotland – are speaking, when they denounce in forthright terms the comfortable myths – and downright lies – about poverty, which we are repeatedly told by politicians and sections of the press.
It is not an easy or comfortable place to be in, when you are repeatedly called to challenge senior politicians (from the Prime Minister downwards) over their seeming willingness to play politics with the lives of people who are suffering real hardship in the face of years of recession, economic crisis and spending cuts.
This autumn will see the publication of a major new report from Churches Together in Britain and Ireland on the theme of the ‘Good Society.’ People of faith and no faith in a range of communities up and down the UK were asked to define for themselves what they understood to be the marks of a Good Society. You’ll have to wait for the publication of the report to know what they said – but the question goes to the heart of this debate.
What are the marks of a ‘Good Society’?
How do we treat people who are marginalised, socially or economically, by reason of their class, gender, race, religion or immigration status in a Good Society? How do we carry our common life together – from the streetlevel right up to national political debate – in a way which is consistent with and condusive of a Good Society?
And how are we to conduct ourselves as Christians and as the Church in ways which bear witness to our own beliefs about a Good Society?
Surely this is not a task that those called to Christian discipleship can turn away from. In that wonderful phrase coined by the Quakers, as Christians we are called to ‘speak truth to power.’ Or in the words of Luther, ‘Here I am, I can do no other.’