Podium: Christianity and politics do mix

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week