Justin Welby's critique of the energy giants: A hollow and ineffectual appeal to morality

The Archbishop offered little insight into how his vision might be implemented

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The Independent Online

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has already displayed his credentials as an eloquent critic of capitalism in an attack on payday lenders earlier this year. This week he stuck his head above the ecclesiastical parapet again, wading into the furore surrounding escalating energy prices.

In an interview with the Mail on Sunday, Welby launched a scathing indictment against energy giants for imposing ‘inexplicable’ price hikes on struggling families and exploiting the public dependency on energy. The Archbishop called on energy companies to be ‘conscious of their social obligations’ and ‘to behave with generosity and not merely to maximise opportunity’.

His comments come in the wake of British Gas's announcement of a 9.2 per cent price hike from November 23 and SSE's increase of 8.2% from November 15. Energy firm Npower has today become the third major supplier to announce price rises, with a dual-fuel bill to go up by 10.4% on December 1.

While some may find it wearisome to hear a religious figure pontificating on a political matter, Welby - a former oil executive himself with considerable commercial experience - can arguably speak with more knowledge and authority than most.

The fact is that energy prices have everything to do with the Archbishop’s role and his religion. If Matthew 25 instructs followers to give food to the hungry, clothes to the poor and shelter to the homeless it’s not too much of an extrapolation to include heat, warmth and light as things fundamental to sustaining life and basic parts of the social compact. Energy is an essential human need of a completely different order to most desirable consumer items and it is invidious to make the old and frail choose between heating and eating.

Inevitably, this attracts a Christian perspective, because there is unquestionably an ethical dimension to the debate on controlling energy prices. It is not merely an economic or a practical matter, it is a moral one, and the church, for centuries the keeper of collective conscience, has every right to participate in the debate.

Unfortunately for Welby, however, he will not be able to do much beyond that. 

In his interview the Archbishop offered little insight into how his vision might be implemented. He appears to be advocating nothing other than self-restraint, rather than a viable alternative to the current system. If Justin Welby wants the consumer’s interests to be foregrounded above the shareholder’s, what new 21st century structures could deliver this different set of priorities?  If an oil chief executive does decide to oblige him and deliver lower dividends to his shareholders, what is to stop his shareholders ousting him and replacing him with someone who answers to them and not the Archbishop of Canterbury?

To simply say "let’s all exercise some restraint here,"is nothing more than a fatuous appeal to the better nature of energy giants, and they will cheerfully ignore him.

To any right-minded person, Welby’s call to control energy bills for the sake of low-income households is eminently fair and reasonable, and it is certainly refreshing to have a church leader more engaged with matters of social justice than obsessing over marriage, sex and abortion.

However, the Church of England has long relinquished its responsibility for the poor – gone are the days where the local parish would take charge of the beggars, the sick and the homeless. With the gradual transfer of social responsibilities from the church to the state, the church's relevance and influence has notably diminished, and now its role is only to provide a voice of moral authority; a voice which holds no authority over anyone at all.

Justin Welby can moralise all he likes about corporate greed but cannot provide the means, the resources or the ideas to make any radical impact on the way energy firms operate. His contribution to the debate amounted to a footnote at the end of Sunday news bulletins - nothing more.