In a phone-in on the BBC on 3 August, UK Prime Minister David Cameron defended his programme of drastic cuts to public spending to reduce the deficit. He declared that “I want Britain to be a great success story of this decade.”
Yet the ruling coalition’s policies are proving highly controversial, and many fear that great damage will be done, especially to the most vulnerable.
Looking beneath the surface
In recent centuries, there has been growing recognition that politicians and others in powerful positions cannot simply be relied on to do what is best for everyone, especially those outside their own networks of friends and relatives, donors and associates.
Sophisticated ways of analysing what public figures write and say have been developed, including looking at assumptions that are not made explicit, and of which even those writing and speaking may be unaware.
The very notion that there is a single 'Britain' with common interests, from millionaire bankers to those who clean their offices, arms barons to those whose lives have been shattered by war, is open to question.
The growth of knowledge in modern times has opened up new opportunities for 'ordinary' people not to take at face value what we are told, and to find out more from different perspectives. Yet awareness that it is important to look beneath the surface of what leaders claim, however well-meaning and sincere they might be, is not new.
Reading the Bible, for instance, can prompt people to look afresh at their own situations and ask awkward questions. It portrays a world where even the best of rulers occasionally misuse power (2 Samuel 11.1-12.12), and the rich oppress and exploit the poor (see e.g. Isaiah 3.13-15, Amos 2.6-8), even to their own long-term harm. Claims to love God while failing to care for those in need are exposed as hollow (1 John 3.10-18).
There is also a rich tradition in the church throughout the ages of social criticism, as well as many shameful instances of twisting the Christian message to bolster the position of whoever held worldly wealth and power.
As Gregory of Nazianzen put it in the fourth century, "Be ashamed, you who hold back what belongs to another, take as an example the justice of God, and no one will be poor. While others suffer poverty, let us not labour to hoard and pile up money. . . Let us imitate the first and most important law of God who sends his rain on the just and on sinners and makes the sun shine on all men equally.”
The notion that the poor are only so out of idleness or lack of enterprise, and need to imitate the more morally advanced rich in order to better their lot in life, which underpins much social policy today, is highly dubious.
Christians, in alliance with other people of faith, humanists, trade unions, voluntary organisations and community and campaign groups, face a challenge if we are even to soften the harshest of the government’s intentions.
To begin with, top leaders have been able to tap into many people’s sense that, if there were a crackdown on the 'undeserving poor' – benefit claimants, refugees or whoever is in the spotlight at the time – they themselves would become more secure and prosperous, and this would also help solve the nation’s ills.
It is important to be sensitive to those who feel that they are unheard and their own hard work to support themselves and their families goes unappreciated, while challenging the myths which disguise the grim reality of attacks on the poorest and most vulnerable.
The church, it should be noted, includes some of the poor, and personal stories are important as well as facts and figures, to help expose the reality of what is going on. The government does indeed face a challenge, and there are no easy answers.
But people of goodwill may feel that the burden should not fall disproportionately on the chronically sick, disabled and their carers, pensioners and the unemployed, but rather on those who are richest, and on military expenditure, including the cost of wars that squander young lives and make the world more rather than less unsafe.
Living in insecurity
Later in a question-and-answer session David Cameron suggested that, in future, people given social housing tenancies might be evicted if their financial circumstances temporarily improved: “"There is a question mark about whether, in future, should we be asking, actually, when you are given a council home, is it for fixed period, because maybe in five or 10 years you will be doing a different job and be better paid and you won't need that home, you will be able to go into the private sector.”
If the family’s main breadwinner is later made redundant or forced to take a lower-paid job (a common enough occurrence in today’s world), so that the mortgage or private sector rent is unaffordable, presumably they would end up homeless.
From David Cameron’s perspective, promoting insecurity among increasing numbers of people on low or average incomes might seem desirable. If Christians and other people of goodwill disagree, it is time to act.
© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. Savi is an Ekklesia associate.