On 20 January 2015, I launched this book, “On Rock or Sand? Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future”. Immediately, the book received two reactions. Those who hated it. And those who read it.
Two and a half years on, with a Referendum and an unexpected General Election behind us, the world may have moved on, but the key questions remain the same.
It is impossible to consider the kind of policies which should shape our future as a nation without first focussing on moral principles and virtues – and indeed the vision for our society - which undergird them. Recent political storms, and the tragic events of recent weeks, have caused many to pause and reflect. The Archbishop of Canterbury and I have asked that as a Synod we spend this next hour reflecting upon these things today. The Christian vision is of a world in which we are created for fellowship and mutual responsibility rather than for individualism and consumerism. A world in which the principal aim of policy is to enhance the well-being (that is, the personal and communal flourishing) of all in society.
As we now seek to reassess our relationships, in our local communities, in Europe, and internationally, our goal must always be the common good of all. At the outset, and with the presence of our beloved brothers from Finland and Germany in mind, I would add that this must involve a fresh commitment to building relations between European and British churches - at central and at local level - to lean against the tendency to pull apart which will get worse as negotiations go forward towards leaving the European Union.
We need to go on asking, what is it that well-being and flourishing looks like in our communities? After all economy, from the Greek word oikonomia, is about an oikos – a household, a community held together by a set of relationships, relationships that matter more than wealth itself. Britain is both a community in and of itself, and part of a world community, and in the face of our present national and international political upheavals we must stop and consider carefully and prayerfully what this means.
The financial collapse in 2008 taught us that we had become obsessed with money. People were borrowing money they didn’t have, to buy things they didn’t need, to achieve a happiness that wouldn’t last.
We must learn from our present political and economic challenges to think less about the price of things and more about the value of things.
There will be many lessons to learn from the fire in Grenfell Tower – but we are already aware that false economies can lead to human tragedy.
The promotion of well-being must surely be about developing systems and policies which provide for people according to their need, in order to release their talents in turn for the common profit of us all: building their skills and confidence, paying them a Living Wage in order to enable them to live a full life, and to understand and exercise their responsibility towards themselves and others. That is why I believe that we should stop talking about welfare benefits and talk instead about social insurance, a term which underlines both that our focus should be on need, and that we are all in this together.
What we must hope for today is a vision of a Well-being, not a Welfare Society. This would be founded on principles of Freedom, Fellowship, Service of God and Neighbour and on the Rule of Law. These principles are the Rock, the firm foundations on which we can build a just, sustainable and compassionate society in which all can participate and flourish. Anything else is, I fear, Sand.
Let me apply this body of principle to the areas of Taxation and Social Care in our common life together in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
As for Social Care, we are in quite a muddle. The Conservative party manifesto proposed to allow everyone to keep the last £100k of their accumulated wealth after paying for social care. But this was quickly dubbed a ‘dementia tax’, because it was seen as unfair.
If we had two neighbours, one of whom had cancer requiring expensive and longstanding care, and another who had dementia requiring expensive and longstanding care, the person with cancer would be paid for by the community, through the NHS, and the person with dementia would have to pay for care themselves. This reversed the previous policy (following The Andrew Dilnot report in 2011) for a cap on people’s liabilities. This had been legislated for in The Care Act in 2015 and was then deferred, just after the 2015 election, from 2016 implementation to 2020 implementation.
Older people may legitimately be asked to pay at least some of the tax to fund this care, but surely this is an area where we are better off working together, and taking the risk jointly? – that is what a cap was meant to do. A consultation in the Autumn of this year would be most welcome.
The level of public sector borrowing has declined as public spending has been constrained, and tax has seen some increase as the economy has grown. The outstanding debt is still relatively high by historic standards, although not alarmingly so.
See, for example, figure three in the release from the Office for National Statistics: dated May 2017.  The red line shows that Public Sector Borrowing has come down significantly as a percentage of GDP. Levels of borrowing are not what they have been.
The main challenge on tax, and public spending, is that we don’t really have enough tax to pay for all the things we want to do together. This week’s debate on public sector pay has demonstrated that there is little sign of a coherent plan about how to fund the health service, education, social care, defence, housing, or transport infrastructure. Proposed solutions pit one section of society against another to provide the funds – either by cutting public spending for some, or increasing taxes for others. Surely the nature of communal action is that it is precisely action taken together.
The language of ‘tax’ implies that what we have is ‘ours’ and the state ‘takes’ from what is ours through taxation. Tax becomes a concession from a position that makes ‘private property’ an absolute, to be compromised only as far as absolutely necessary. (The debate about the ‘requisitioning’ of unoccupied flats in Kensington for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire shows how difficult it has become to make a case for the public good, even in extreme cases transcending our normal rules about private property.)
What can we bring to this debate? We have a strong Christian story about how communities can work together, going right back to Old Testament narratives around sharing of land, redemption of debts, all bound together by the Golden Rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
And while Torah provisions about jubilee and not gleaning the last grape, or harvesting the edge of the field may not find a modern application, those laws witness to a notion contrary to giving absolute status to private property: the land and its produce come from God and are for the people as a whole (Psalm 24). Equally, while it may be that the practice of the earliest Christians of “having and holding all things in common” (Acts 2: 44 and Acts 4: 32) would be impossible to apply to a developed society, that practice also witnesses to the primacy of the common good.
I’m therefore suggesting that the taxation system not only funds important public goods, our defence and security, our flourishing through education, our care for the sick and vulnerable but also ‘puts money in its place,’ interrupting money’s constant tendency to dominate our priorities. Our taxation system should make clear that while private property may be an efficient way of ensuring that our resources are stewarded and cared for, it is in no way an absolute. We don’t ‘own’ our money; we ‘care for’ our money as part of the whole human resource for our social flourishing.
In this regard, Synod, may I draw your attention to the Christian Aid tax justice campaign.
Members of Synod, to serve the common good, how many of us would be prepared to top up freely our income tax from our net monthly take home pay for Education, Health, and Social Care?
Please let us have a show of hands. We are among the 48% who, according to the British Social Attitudes survey(British Social Attitudes survey 34, NatCen), wanted higher taxes to pay for more spending on those three areas of the common good.
What our society needs in order to regain faith in politics and in politicians, to sustain hope for justice and to fashion policies which deliver the common good, is to develop a new, values-based politics reflecting four core principles:
1. Recognition of the equal value of all in society;
2. commitment to offer everyone the opportunity to flourish;
3. appreciation of our essential human inter-relatedness;
4. acceptance of our responsibility towards ourselves as well as towards others.
Faith, Hope and Charity – these are the three anchors which hold fast the ship of the mind amidst the dangers of the waves and, I may add, the Ship of State as well.
After the General Election, this is a Still Small Voice of Calm.