Faith & Reason: Why David Willetts has joined the Salvation Army

Growing prosperity is producing new kinds of problems to which the market offers no solution

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The general election campaign is under way. Wounded by Iraq, the Government is proud that it has made us all richer and is slowly attending to public services. The churches, on the other hand, are beginning to ask: "What's it all for?" The issue has been raised most sharply by the Salvation Army in recent years. They are a tightly focused, professional provider of services to Britain's poorest people. So it is a surprise to find them dealing in a sophisticated way with the questions that arise from modern prosperity.

The general election campaign is under way. Wounded by Iraq, the Government is proud that it has made us all richer and is slowly attending to public services. The churches, on the other hand, are beginning to ask: "What's it all for?" The issue has been raised most sharply by the Salvation Army in recent years. They are a tightly focused, professional provider of services to Britain's poorest people. So it is a surprise to find them dealing in a sophisticated way with the questions that arise from modern prosperity.

It was even more of a surprise to hear what David Willetts, the Conservative spokesman on work and pensions, said recently at a Salvation Army event:

The danger is no longer the encroaching state. The danger is the encroaching market. The market threatens my children, everything from their teeth to their innocence . . . as a modern Conservative I find myself in a dilemma - I am a free marketeer, with children.

It would be easy to mock this Damascus Road experience. Does Willetts mean that greed was good till he had kids, and that the Thatcher episode was all a horrible mistake? But what he is suggesting is that the old problems of poverty have been somewhat overlaid by new questions arising from prosperity. We now enjoy an incredible array of choices, and suffer an equally stunning array of suggestions as to what choices we might make. It's the omnipotent, omnipresent advertising phenomenon that makes the suggestions - no longer an industry, but a planetary atmosphere.

I love the ads, but don't really want the stuff. That's because I live in a mainly child-free zone. My grandson is oblivious to it all. But he's only eight months old. So, following the Willetts trail, I took a look at Saturday morning television, and talked a bit to parents. They confessed to lots of devious schemes to keep their kids away from the telly.

The channel they tend to fear most is the Cartoon Channel, on cable. It is wall-to-wall graphic violence, interspersed with ads selling Spiderman junk, hamburgers and sweeties. But the ads are kept out of the programmes. Not so at the posh end of public service broadcasting, BBC2's Saturday Show. Here there are no ads, and so no divide between product and programme. The audience was offered the whole range of Spiderman tie-in products. Then on to a phone-in competition to win a "fabulous trip to LA". The audience seemed to be about 14.

So teeth are certainly under threat, especially after a week at Los Angeles sugar levels. And innocence? Well, five minutes on any city street will give you all the evidence you need of the sexualisation of childhood. And the largely ad-free domain of the soaps exposes our kids to a concentrated hyper-reality of infantile human desire, played out by adults. And all long before the watershed.

So Willetts seems to be right. But what has happened to us? The Salvation Army has looked closely at the issues. They spotted before anybody else in the churches that prosperity was making life different for everybody, including the poor. They commissioned some hard- headed research from the Henley Centre back in 1999, and have kept up that analysis of the paradoxes of prosperity. This is a summary of what they say.

Thanks to the market, we are rich - more so in real terms since 1997 than in the previous seven years, which is New Labour's great claim to fame. Almost everybody is better off, but a growing economy always creates inequality. The elevator of the market moves the lucky much faster than the back stairs of low pay, state benefits and pensions. But prosperity poses a bewildering array of choices. Those earnings are greater, but so is the prospect of losing it all, having to retrain, being on the scrap-heap at 50, suffering a dramatic drop in pension.

Marriage, formerly the ark of safety that saw us through the stormy waters, is holed below the water line. If you ask the question "Can I stand another forty years of this?", a more desirable partner will often provide the answer. Though the outcome of that particular choice is often to be broke and lonely in old age.

All this has great relevance for the churches as the general election approaches. They will all argue forcibly that poor people need more money, and more good choices. But the problems of a prosperous society need more thoughtful attention. Everybody benefits from a strong and growing economy, but many suffer from the infantile fantasies which the market generates.

The remedies are simple, but not easy. The first might be to live as if the people closest to us were more important than success, status and the stuff we buy. The second is to acquire the art of sharing life with children. This will include some, but not all, of the exciting media products on offer. And third, to be generous next time a Salvation Army officer approaches you with a collecting tin - you never know, it could be David Willetts.

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