Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The gossamer threads of social solidarity

I've hung back over recent days from commenting on what's happening politically - largely due to a mixture of disbelief and incandescent rage that means my fingers don't kiss the keyboard properly! But following the publication of the Browne review into higher education, a thought that has been taking shape over the past couple of weeks finally became expressible.

It's not the hypocrisy of Vince Cable accepting a proposal to more than double tuition fees barely six months after signing a pledge to oppose any rise in fees. It's not the mantra of the government saying they have no choice because they didn't know how bad the deficit was until they took office, despite the fact the size of the deficit hasn't changed since last autumn's pre-budget report (as the Insttitute for Fiscal Studies keeps pointing out). Sadly, such things are just par for the course from politicians. And we can forgive that.

What has struck me is that the debate about benefits, tuition fees and public services is couched in entirely consumerist terms. It's all about 'what's in it for me?' and 'what am I as a tax payer prepared to spend on other people?' (as though we are preparing a Christmas list and totting up how much uncile Bill is worth against cousin Eileen).

There is precious little sense of society (so maybe Mrs Thatcher was right!), barely any notion of our solidarity with one another.

Child benefit is universal because it reminds us all that we are collectively responsible for raising the next generation - the benefit is merely a token of our solidarity in that task; it says that as a society we think raising children matters more than anything else and we'll all poull together to ensure parents are supported in it. We invest in education because it is good for the country to have a literate and skilled citizenry not just in economic terms but in cultural and social terms as well.

There was a great example of this in last week's Sunday Times. Eleanor Mills wrote a think piece in the News Review section headlined 'without God, culture is lost'. Now this was not a rant by a Christian feeling marginalised, wanting a return to the good old days when we told everyone how to live their lives rather than Richard Dawkins. It was rather a piece based on the simple observation that without some knowledge of the Bible and Christian tradition, vast amounts of our cultural heritage are simply incomprehensible. Can you read Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, our great poetic and literary tradition without knowing the broad Christian culture in which their talents flowered? Can you 'see' the art on the walls of the National Gallery and other great institutions without some understanding of the theological palette of the artist?

I think Ms Mills answer was that we need to educate people so they understand this or something very important about our culture will be lost and we will the poorer in all sorts of ways - and not just economically, though it will have economic effects. And who pays for this? We all do because we all think our culture is worth investing in. And that's best done out of general taxation, managed by those people we have elected to be guardians of the things we value.

Well, it struck me listening to Vince Cable yesterday, that this argument applies across the piece. Our society is knitted together on gossamer threads of obligation and common interest. It's not for nothing that we talk about the body politic; and if society is a body, then when one part is unhealthy, the whole body suffers. It's a notion derived as much from Pauline theology as it is from Plato and Aristotle.

It's easy to cut spending - though as Mrs Thatcher and all who've attempted to slash and burn in her wake discovered, not as easy as talking about it on party platforms; it's much harder to repair the torn ligaments, ruptured muscles and broken bones that can result if it's done without care for the fragility of our social solidarity.

1 comment:

Trevor Neill said...

Simon - thanks for these thoughts, as ever, very helpful and thought-provoking.

I think what I find so depressing, at present, is the lack of interest, let alone anger, in so many people I talk to, with regard to the cuts. Our agenda within church is still so often about our activities, but the community agencies I’m in touch with are increasingly anxious about just how savage the impending cuts are going to be. For me the challenge is how we begin a conversation about these issues within church, when people still think of politics being one of those ‘privatised’ zones that are considered inappropriate to talk about. ‘It’s not up to the minister to tell me how to vote etc etc’

I’ve found myself reflecting a lot on Jeremiah recently, and particularly his ‘letter to the exiles’ of chapter 29, the fact that our churches aren’t going to be able to prosper if the communities around them are being ravaged by cutbacks and redundancies.