This Monday was supposedly ‘Blue Monday’, allegedly the most depressing day of the year. The science behind it is dubious at best, especially given that it was cooked up by a travel company. Nevertheless, the start of January has very little going for it especially when the Chancellor decides to announce that there will be another £25 billion of cuts on the way after the next general election. Any sign of a genuine feel-good factor still seems a long way off for most of us.
We’ve already had £83 billion of spending cuts and there’s plenty more to come. George Osborne spelt this out in his speech on Monday: “We’ve got to make more cuts – £17bn this coming year, £20bn next year, and over £25bn further across the two years after. That’s more than £60bn in total.” He added: “That’s why 2014 is the year of hard truths.” It will be indeed. As we work our way towards the next general election, the battle lines are beginning to be laid out. So much of this is politics, but it is politics that affects us drastically. Who will these latest cuts hit the most? David Cameron has already said that pensioners will by-and-large be protected even allowing for means testing some allowances. Housing benefit for under 25s is definitely in the firing line, but even if it was removed in full it would only make up £1.9 billion of the Chancellor’s proposed £12 billion cut in the welfare budget. That leaves a lot more to find and chances are that those on poorer incomes aren’t going to get off lightly.
Watching the reaction to the announcements on Twitter was interesting. Even among some of those on the right of the political spectrum, there is growing concern about how fairly these cuts will be applied. Tim Montgomerie, the co-founder of the Conservative Home website as well as the Conservative Christian Fellowship tweeted that ‘A good number of Conservatives worry about Osborne/Cameron’s spending priorities’ and that he found himself agreeing with Nick Clegg that ‘It is unjust to balance the economy on the backs of lower income, working aged people.’ The general reaction from Christians that I observed was a lot stronger though. Many Christians I take notice of have left-wing leanings and there was plenty of anger that Osborne is picking on the weakest in society. Giles Fraser’s article ‘George Osborne places the devil at the heart of our political liturgy’ may not have explicitly described Osborne as evil, but it certainly implied that he has a lot in common with the Devil.
Christians talk about the poor a lot and rightly so. The Bible refers to the treatment of the poor and so did Jesus. One of the best things to happen for the Church over the last year is that both Pope Francis and Justin Welby have regularly commented on the issues of justice and poverty, not being afraid to get political. As The Archbishop of Canterbury said in his Christmas Day sermon:
“We see injustices at home. Even in a recovering economy, Christians, the servants of a vulnerable and poor Saviour, need to act to serve and love the poor: they need also to challenge the causes of poverty. Prospect magazine had a poll this month that suggested the church is more trusted on politics than religion. But the two cannot be separated. Christ’s birth is not politics, it is love expressed. Our response is not political, but love delivered in hope.”
It’s not hard for Christians to approach the big issues that affect us all. When you believe in a God who can do anything, where nothing is impossible, being idealistic is very reasonable. We don’t set out to reduce poverty just a bit. Instead there is a call to ‘Make Poverty History’. When we see governments taking advantage of the poor or leaving them to struggle by, we speak up against it.
The thing is though that criticism is not enough. Anyone can complain about situations they don’t like, but what good will that do? Opposing government spending cuts might be a superficially just way to react, but that doesn’t provide any answers that would make the situation better. Whether we like it or not all the main parties are signed up to them and the cuts are here to stay. The real questions are how deep and how fast? The independent Office for Budget Responsibility has said this government and future ones have little choice but to act to avoid more and more of Britain’s wealth being eaten up by interest payments on our mounting debt. The genuine risk is that it becomes unsustainable. We might be hoping that this time of austerity will end, but the likely scenario is that it will have to continue for decades. What we call austerity is much more likely to be the new norm if we intend to live within our means as a nation. And that means the pressures on the poorest are unlikely to ease off any time soon.
So what does this mean for an idealistic Church that hates poverty? Demonising a chancellor and coalition government that is trying to bring stability to our economy certainly isn’t going to help, even if some individual policies do deserve criticism and scrutiny. Reducing debt to a manageable level whether at an individual or state level should not be considered wrong. Tim Montgomerie delivering the Conservative Christian Fellowship’s annual Wilberforce lecture last month described reducing the deficit as the greatest moral project of this government.
Instead the Church has a role to hold the Government to account, to insist that there is a safety net that few can fall through, that the cuts do not make the lives of those at the bottom impossible, to say “Enough!” for the areas where the pain has reached an acceptable limit. The effects of government policy are broad and the consequences will not always be easy to see from the top. One of the Church’s greatest strengths is that it is on the ground embedded in communities. It sees what the consequences and outcomes are at a local level and yet it has sufficient presence at constituency and national levels to feed back the truths to politicians, if it can persuade MPs to listen. This is a unique role that only the Church can provide.
As the state shrinks, the challenge is for Christian ideals to be joined with pragmatism and action. We see this in the rise of foodbanks, but surely there is much more to come. We are entering a new era for our society and for the state. Without the Church being allowed to step in and play the part it has always been called to do, putting the Gospel into action, many potentially could fall by the wayside. The time is upon us when many will be reminded of the vital role the Church has in strengthening our society and also for the Church to realise just how important its words and actions will be in shaping this country’s future.