Podium: Christianity and politics do mix

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From a talk by the Bishop of Oxford to the Westminster Ethical Forum at St Matthew's Church, Westminster

NEW LABOUR has made ethics a central feature of its approach to government. It has sought to provide an "ethical foreign policy". It is also well known that a number of influential members of the Cabinet have long been members of the Christian Socialist Movement, including the Prime Minister himself.

At the same time, perhaps in reaction to this, William Hague recently made a major speech to the Conservative Christian Fellowship where he initiated a project to listen to British churches and where he stressed the ethical tradition of the Conservative Party, drawing on the role models of people such as William Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury and Iain Macleod.

In an allegedly secular society this is in one way all rather surprising. Yet every political philosophy is rooted in a set of values; and those values will express, consciously or unconsciously, a particular understanding of what it is to be a human being in society.

My concern is whether a Christian understanding of what it is to be a human being in society points inexorably to any particular political philosophy or party. Or, to put it in terms of where we are now, whether a Christian perspective on existence has anything distinctive to say about what is now happening at Westminster.

I am, of course, well aware of the hazards of this exercise. Almost every political philosophy, from extreme egalitarianism on the one hand to absolute monarchy on the other, has in its time been claimed in the name of Christianity. It was a priest, John Ball, who led the Peasants' Revolt with the refrain: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"

And right-wing rulers such as General Pinochet, who have looked to the Church for support, are numerous. But, however foolish the attempt might seem and so fraught with the possibility of self-deception, it has to be attempted.

I hope to indicate what I believe does constitute a distinctively Christian approach to the political realm, but first I want to look at the stated policy of New Labour in its own terms.

As we all know, New Labour has abandoned the most widespread concept of socialism - the public ownership of the means of production and exchange. Furthermore, it has accepted that, at least for the first two years in office, there will be no rise in income tax.

In fact the Government has used a wide variety of alternatives to income tax to raise public finance. But the basic idea of social democracy - the re-distribution of wealth through progressive income tax - is not part of the present government's policy. So what is left?

In the Queen's Speech last year one concept more than any other dominates - modernisation. But modernisation, to make any sense at all, is a means to an end. The concept of modernisation by itself is a vacuous notion.

The Queen's Speech also makes it clear that the present government is pro-business.

I am not anti-business, or anti-market. Far from it. But the point I would want to repeat, in relation to both New Labour and William Hague's evolving Christian philosophy, is this: the market, as we have it, as it is operated, cannot be regarded simply as a neutral mechanism that will equally benefit everyone who plays according to its rules.

It may be true that a market, in its earliest, simplest expression, operates on a level playing field.

A peasant takes eggs to market and buys some leather shoes. But the market as it in fact operates is dominated by capital, that is, human beings and institutions with money. It is operated by human beings who, and I say this without any sense of moral judgement, pursue their own interests.

Moreover, although these human beings are certainly capable of altruism, when it comes to industrial or commercial life we have the same paradox as we have in patriotism: individual unselfishness can be transmuted into corporate selfishness.

There are losers - not only companies that go bust because they lose their share of the market, but whole groups of people, even societies, that fail to share in the increasing prosperity.

It has recently been argued that the present government's policy is best seen in terms of Catholic social teaching, particularly the concept of the common good. It is not an exclusively Catholic term. Anglicans pray at the Eucharist for the common good.

A Labour government may give up a policy of common ownership; it may downplay a policy of wealth distribution; it cannot, however, give up asking the question about the common good from the standpoint of those least able to stand up for themselves.