The bright blue skies and warmth of the early summer sun has been displaced by grey overcast clouds and a cool, chilling wind and rain. What is happening with the weather is a metaphor for how I feel about the results of the General Election and the Queen’s speech this week at the State opening of Parliament.
I stayed up long enough into the early hours following the General Election to anticipate the impending political earthquake that has occurred here in the United Kingdom. I woke up to the nightmare of a political landscape that has changed the face of Britain. The vivid colours of the political map reveal new contours and stark borders that show a divided UK. Long held and predictably stable political territories have been taken and some of the most familiar human landmarks had gone, dismantled like statues in a street revolution. Listening to the radio as I travelled south on the morning after the election, household names and key figures in their own parties, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage all stood down, (albeit the dangerous and compelling trickster Farage has resumed his position as leader of his disreputable but dangerous party). The day before polling, one had occupied the seat of Deputy Prime Minister, the other believing that he was within reach of leading a new government, but by lunchtime the following day, they had lost or resigned their posts. Hopes dashed, aspirations crushed, their future as political leaders killed by what felt like a military operation, a very carefully and skilfully handled plan, overseen by an Australian political adviser, Lynton Crosby, whose tactics of fear, intimidation and character assassination of opponents had won the day and recorded a resounding victory. The taking out of the Opposition’s most senior commanders, Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander, was a brilliant strategy and one that succeeded. Heads rolled and a generation of Opposition leaders and shapers were hung, drawn and gutted.
Labour, if it can humbly learn from the disaster of the election, restore to its roots and foundational values, can, I believe, return one day to mount something of a challenge to the government. As for the Liberal Democrats, I am not sure that they will be able to rebuild from the ruins and rubble of their almost total annihilation. The Bible reminds us that, “we reap what we sow” and the seeds of their catastrophic defeat were sown five years ago when they entered coalition with the Conservative party. I do not buy the line, that they did so, “for the national interest”. The party that had spent nearly 100 years contending for the principles of liberalism and were definitely to the left of centre, arguably more socialist in outlook than New Labour, abandoned their values and principles in an act of political opportunism. By entering into a coalition with a right-wing party they sold their political soul. Seeing and seizing the opportunity for power, they have paid very dearly for such a decision. Essentially, they broke trust, not just with the electorate over things like tuition fees, but with their party, the ranks of men and women who had worked so hard for the cause of liberalism and who had built up considerable influence in local constituencies that provided the bedrock for the emergence of a relatively strong opposition Liberal Democrat Party. That party, whose voice was both legitimate and needed, is now decimated. As the vast ranks of Conservative MPs occupy the corridors of power, looking out on a defeated and severely wounded Labour Party, derision is lauded upon their once coalition partners, whose Parliamentary party at Westminstercould hold their meeting in a broom cupboard. They have lost nearly everything; their values, influence, leaders and are virtually bankrupt financially. Apparently they lost nearly £200,000 in forfeited deposits and as such will no longer qualify for any parliamentary subsidies. Their funding base has all but gone.
The fallout, demise and moratoriums that will accompany the election defeat for Labour and the Liberal Democrats will roll on for months. For Labour, the disbelief, anger and recriminations have begun. Whether the party can re-emerge without losing its soul remains to be seen. The Spinmeisters, centre ground, neo-conservative, free-market capitalists like Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and a new generation of aspiring centrist members of the party, will argue strongly for a reverting back to the methodology of New Labour. They will point to the dismal failure of Ed Miliband and the moribund ‘socialist’ policies that were soundly rejected by the electorate last week. It will be very difficult for those on the left of the party to reconfigure and reimagine socialist principles that can capture the imagination, inspire and win over the hearts and minds of a society now so steeped in self-interest, protectionism, consumerism and free-market policies that does little to alleviate poverty or promote a more just, caring and equitable society, which looks to play a generous and compassionate role within the wider world.
In the aftermath of a ‘dirty war’ that did little for the cause of democracy, I feel sickened by the prospect of five years under this newly formed government. I have a sense of foreboding as I contemplate the future for the poor, marginalised and most vulnerable in our society.
‘Little England’ has triumphed and with it, an almost irreversible road to the breakup of the United Kingdom, a withdrawing or at least damaging relationship with the European Union that undermines its incredible achievements in keeping peace for over 60 years. I began writing this on the day Britain was commemorating VE Day, an end of war in Europe. If the new Government succeeds in pushing through its proposed legislation I believe it will contribute to the potential disintegration of the EU and the escalation of tensions between Russia and the West. It reveals a worrying blindness or worse, an indifference to the implications of our weakening the European Union on vulnerable countries like Ukraine, Lithuania and other former Soviet territories living now under the shadow of a dangerous, clever yet paranoid president Putin and the wickedness of a Russian regime that threatens war on an unprecedented scale.
A ‘little England’ self-interest, consumerist, parochial society does not auger well for Britain, Europe and the rest of the world.
I would love us to have a proper debate on Europe but it is a forlorn hope that such an informed debate will happen. The right wing press, determined to see us leave the European Union will throw everything it can to influence readers and shape opinions.
Critical questions will be skated over superficially. Issues of identity questions about Britain’s place in the world, where we belong, are we one with others or do we stand alone? The Liberal Democrats who were set to lead the pro-European case have all but gone the Labour Party will struggle to regroup and marshal its resources for the Herculean fight against vested interests, determined to damage and break up the European Union. UKIP, even with the shambolic, and at times disgraceful attitudes and behaviour of its party members, post-election, will nevertheless be heartened that they won over 12.5% of votes cast in the election and they will be salivating at the prospect of an ‘in-out’ referendum.
Nearer to home, quite literally for those of us who live so close to the Scottish border is the battle that looms over the Union that has bound our nations together within the United Kingdom. The SNP are now the third largest party and force in British politics. Their success in the General election and their presence in Westminster will bring about, and where necessary force transformative changes. It will be difficult to reverse the momentum for independence, fuelled by neglect and indifference by other parties and a movement that has some very skilful and seemingly creditable leaders. I find it so interesting, (and I suspect some media and political manipulation occurred) in the way in which Nicola Sturgeon was hailed as the great hero of the television political debates and yet the prospect of her having an influence with the Labour Party and God forbid, those two parties forming a coalition to temper the austerity measures, particularly upon those most weak and vulnerable in society, was enough to terrify UK voters as they went into the polling booths. The tactics of fear and intimidation, carefully orchestrated, very skillfully won the day, but the lady and her party have not gone away and it very much suits their plans and purposes to be in opposition to the present government. As they said of another formidable politician, “the lady’s not for turning” and Nicola Sturgeon, will I believe, not only continue to persuade but convince people of the need for Scotland to leave the UK. She will be aided in this quest by the ‘in out’ referendum on Europe and any talk of Britain leaving the EU will only serve the purposes of Scottish nationalism further. The conditions for the separation of Scotland from the UK could not be more fertile; a return to the context of the 1980s and 90s that led to devolution, when Scotland was ruled by an English Tory government for which it did not vote. The Conservatives in office and with the SNP rampant north of the border is the worst possible scenario for Britain’s exit from the European Union and Scotland’s exit from the UK.
I do have sympathy with the Scottish nation and feel that there are many grounds upon which it has just and good cause to strive for independence. However I do fear the breakup of the Union, partly because of a real aversion to any trace of sectarianism and nationalism that creates enmity between peoples, that builds barriers and borders not bridges.
David Cameron won and, defying all the pollsters expectations, has won with a majority. Amidst his pleasure in succeeding, the spoils of victory have with them seeds of much discontent. I pray for him and his government as they lead a divided kingdom. It will be no easy task. I listened to a former Cabinet minister speaking on the radio after the election, declaring quite openly, that they had envisaged and planned to be back in some form of coalition government. They had anticipated that in such a coalition they would have been able to have be seen to have to compromise and retract from some of the promises that were made in the run-up to the election. They could blame a failure to deliver on their coalition partners, just as they and the Liberal Democrats had done in the previous parliament. But no, they now have a working majority and they have made promises to the electorate that, quite frankly, they are not going to be able to deliver on a whole number of fronts. That failure to deliver only fuels the cause of their opponents, not least the SNP, who will continue to press for the fulfilment of promises made in the run-up to the Scottish Referendum and the General election.
There is of course the opportunity for some fresh, imaginative thinking that might reconfigure how the UK is governed and I hope that there will be discussions on issues of federalism that might yet provide the basis of a more just, equitable and fair society, that lives well and respectful of its neighbours, different nations within one Union.
It will take some doing because the gap between Scotland and England appears as deep and wide as I have ever known it in my lifetime. Politically, SNP painted the map yellow with its message of anti-austerity. Yet it was the Conservative parties promise of continued fiscal measures that prevailed in England. The challenge for Labour is that as it regroups it must attempt to address how it can relate to two seemingly contradictory positions. The Prime Minister, in his victory speech, promised to ” bring our country together“.
I recall similar sentiments on the steps of number 10 Downing Street back in 1979. Margaret Thatcher, quoting St Francis, “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.” My long interest in politics turned to involvement back in the 1980s, as I saw the people and communities of the north-east, where I was serving as a pioneering church pastor, ravaged, damaged and destroyed by her policies.
Poverty went up under Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister. In 1979, 13.4% of the population lived below 60% of median incomes before housing costs. By 1990, it had gone up to 22.2%, or 12.2m people, with huge rises in the mid-1980s.There was anything but hope, truth or harmony for many people. The gap between rich and poor widened, the country’s assets were sold off and our manufacturing base was dismantled and our natural resources which could literally could have fuelled and fed, with investment, the nation, were shut down,leaving communities devastated. When you’ve observed and lived through the experience of sharing with people in an area that went from 14% to over 40% unemployment, you have a deeper appreciation of why politics matters.
The problem with so many of our politicians is that they are not close enough to the ground, in touch with people, for whom the consequences of political and economic policies are felt so acutely. When I hear politicians say that we need to, “tighten our belts”, they are doing so from a position of privilege, power and possibilities for them, the vast majority of whom have never known what it really means to struggle, to be poor, to be unable to pay your bills.
If you look at the makeup of our politicians in government today you will see the vast majority of them come from privileged backgrounds, have worked in the city, many of them accountants, bankers, financiers and lawyers. Most of them have worked at some time or another within the City of London. Very few come from more ordinary, poorer salariedcontexts. There are a few but not many former teachers for example. There are virtually no politicians who come from working class backgrounds, the shop floor, etc. Thank God there are more women in parliament and hopefully they might bring a more compassionate and caring, nurturing and less hostile, competitive environment in which democracy can flourish and political, economic and social policies can be formed.
The amazing truth of God’s incarnation, Jesus coming into the world, dwelling among us, full of grace and truth, is that he was able to identify with people, with the world. It’s a remarkable inspirational model for all leaders. Servant leadership, characterised by identifying with people, understanding the experience of poverty, powerlessness, exploitation etc, not from some government paper, adviser or speech writer but from actually being in that place, alongside people. Oh, how we need politicians from that place of humility, identification, servanthood and a willingness to lay down one’s life for others. How we need leaders across all spectrums of life and work who posses wisdom, courage and the ability to reconcile and build civil society based up the foundations of compassion, justice and peace.
I was challenged the other week at the Baptist Assembly in Peterborough to write and pray for our newly elected constituency MP’s which I am pleased to say I did, even though they did not receive my vote. The Bible reminds us to pray for those who rule over us, 1 Timothy 2:2 and boy do they need it.
The £12 billion cuts to benefits are so grim a prospect that the Government would not be drawn on where they would be implemented. If the Government does stick to its election promises we will see the Human Right Act removed, areas of the NHS will be steadily propelled into the private sector, the right wing press will be rewarded for its backing of the Conservatives and in the newly appointed Minister of Culture, their desire for the pruning of the BBC has already begun. Cuts on unprecedented scales will deceimate some areas of Public services. More zero hours will be evidenced and according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, nearly 1.5 million jobs will go in the public sector and the number of people in self employment will be higher than those working in pubic services by the end of this government’s term of office in 2020. Public sector pay is anticipated to fall by 10% behind the private sector, while death duties and top wage earners will see their taxes cut. The future is not rosy for many people.
In such a potentially divisive context the role of any follower of Christ demands both prayer and action.
I spoke recently at a church anniversary weekend on the outskirts of Bristol. The church had been founded during a period when non conformists were persecuted for defying both the Established Church and the State, which they saw as contravening the ways of God.
I am certainly not advocating persecution and suffering but a bit of non conformity would not go amiss when policies contravene the nature of God and the well-being of society and the wider world. To take just one example; thank God for people like the Bishop of Manchester who has denounced the Government’s proposal to extend and force housing associations to sell their homes to tenants. He spoke of the “immorality” of such an intention and described the plans as the “most blatant transfer of charity assets to private ownership since Henry VIII sold off the monasteries.” He and other Bishops have warned that democracy was failing and condemned a “growing appetite” to exploit grievances and find scapegoats.
I hope that growing numbers of Christians will recover their spiritual and political nerve and speak out for the voiceless, vulnerable and powerless. Or, to conclude as others have put it:
The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children. Dietrich Bonhoeffer
A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization. Samuel Johnson
The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped. ” Hubert H. Humphrey
A society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members and among the most vulnerable are surely the unborn and the dying. Pope John Paul II