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
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice