Faith & Reason : A postcard from Babylon-on-Sea

The Rev John Kennedy argues this week that we can no longer neglect or ignore the moral consequences of poverty and the ways in which they create more misery for the poor.
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The Independent Online
So here the Methodists are in Blackpool, Babylon-by-the-Sea! Our Annual Conference is playing at the Winter Gardens. We have struggle through a forest of ads for the National Lottery and a mass of chirping slot machines. We seem to be surviving uncorrupted. The most innocent delegates are the most disappointed. "Is that it?" they complain, as they peer into yet another drag-queen revue.

As you walk away from the centre of town, however, the glitz soon gives way to seediness. You see the truth of the claim that the poorest parts of Blackpool fare as badly as those of the poorest parts of Manchester. As in so many seaside towns, budget bed-and-breakfast holiday accommodation has turned into Social Security funded B & D, offering permanent holidays in hell.

We have spent a lot of time worrying about poverty. It is only at the conference that you realise how many Methodists are directly engaged in the issues. How do we keep so much work going when we are ourselves hard up? And we tend to be much better at denouncing poverty than understanding it.

It was in this setting that Alan Deacon, Professor of Social Policy in Leeds, gave our annual Beckly Lecture. He dared to suggest that the argument has been about resources for too long, and now it needs to be about the behaviour that the welfare system imposes on the poor. It is true that it is wrong to "blame the victim", but that has now become a slogan that suppresses thought. Deacon produced a startling quotation from the fourth- century preacher John Chrysostom, who had never been to Blackpool: "You who spend the days in theatres and merriment, you who gossip about the whole world, think you are not idle. And then you look at someone who spends the entire day begging, in tears and suffering, and you dare ask for an account!"

Great stuff. But this tradition of denunciation has now run on the rocks. For the problem is not any more to shame the rich into charitable giving. It is to judge a system of poverty maintenance that costs pounds 70bn a year, which generates misery for the poor and threatens to bankrupt the country. You can see that fact built large in Deacon's own city; the great, neo- brutalist tower of the Department of Social Security, the Ministry of Love, looms over the south side of Leeds.

When most of us were much poorer, we lived in families that functioned around a breadwinner upon whom the rest of us were more or less dependent. We didn't know any better, and that dependence was negotiated through something like love. Now we are much richer. But our new forms of dependence are negotiated with the state. That isn't anything like love. It's cruelty at a distance. Nor is the Left exempt from it. Their refusal to see that dependence within the family and dependence on the state has been disastrous. Deacon passed on A.H. Halsey's judgement that the decline of the family is not only a social evil but "the cancer in the lungs of the modern Left".

Deacon is suggesting that here is another shift in the way we see welfare in our society, and that it has a Christian root. He sees the recent tradition of unconditional welfare as essentially shallow. It claimed to speak for the poor, but it colluded in the present Orwellian ensemble. It refused any discussion of poor people's behaviour and so failed to warn of the corrupting effect of the welfare system.

Deacon reports that Tony Blair wants to change all that. He aims to engage directly with people's capacity for personal responsibility - to move from a dubious altruism to genuine mutuality. Moreover, we are not to expect anything so feeble as mere exhortation. These new muscular Christians will encourage and compel, in schools, at work, on the dole, on housing estates. Wow.

It is hard to see anything else working, and in principle such a programme would be welcome to a mass of public service professionals and community workers, from the churches and elsewhere, wanting to sharpen the encouragement and take the edge off the compulsion. This is a vision of remoralisation that could work. But for it to work on a significant scale, how tough do you have to get, and with whom? A system recalling Orwell is bad enough. One that sounds as if it was devised by Cromwell perhaps needs a little fine-tuning.

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