UK PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON plans to go ahead with slashing Universal Credit, on the grounds that people should rely on hard work, not welfare, though many of them are already working.

An uplift of £20 is due to end, intensifying poverty. At the same time, the Conservative Party confirmed that a donor had contributed £52,000 towards luxury wallpaper for Johnson’s Downing Street home. Not long before, the Government Art Collection fund spent almost £100,000 on artworks for the Downing Street flat.

After this ‘loan’ had become publicly known, the money was repaid and the prime minister apparently picked up the bill, yet many pointed to the contrast. That a watchdog judged this just unwise and not improper, despite numerous concerns, raised serious questions about standards, as did details of the former Prime Minister David Cameron’s lobbying on behalf of private firms.

People rich enough to donate £250,000 to the Conservatives were able to join a secret ‘Advisory Board’ which regularly met Johnson and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, the Financial Times reported. The key organiser is the party’s well-connected co-chair, Ben Elliot, nephew of the Duchess of Cornwall, and further questions have been raised about entanglement with his business dealings. Many in those networks went to the same expensive private schools or prestigious clubs – but even those from more ordinary backgrounds have largely become conditioned to a way of life far removed from ordinary people’s worries.

Meanwhile, many in Afghanistan feel abandoned. Pleas from the desperate, here and abroad, have been shrugged off, the powerful and privileged favoured. Death rates in much of the population have risen in recent years. The further cuts due soon may mean thousands more being left hungry, cold, without vital care or at risk of violence. Environmental damage adds to the danger.

Many fear that UK government decisions, even on life-and-death matters, are now often moulded by who knows whom or by what they can afford. Evidence around Covid-related contracts and lobbying has been destroyed or buried, with legal changes underway to prevent journalists and protestors from publicising future scandals or harsh injustices.

Most people living in the UK, of all faiths and none, would probably agree that public life should be shaped to some extent by values such as justice and truth. Yet many have come to accept, and sometimes defend, a reality which devalues these. This is especially marked in England: in the other nations, devolved governments and perhaps greater valuing of solidarity have resulted in varying policies and practices. It may be helpful for people of goodwill to reflect on how to respond, before further harm is done and loss of democratic rights makes resistance harder.

Blurred boundaries, casual ways

In the past few days and weeks, a flurry of revelations has cast a sometimes disturbing light on how the UK is run.There have long been close connections between those wielding political and economic power (who may be party donors) and public policies have usually enabled profit-seeking. Yet half a century ago, decisions were ordinarily expected to promote class rather than individual interests. In spring 2021, when a journalist asked how the wallpaper had been paid for, Nadine Dorries, a health minister, said if taxpayers’ money was not used, “it’s absolutely none of your business”, implying that conflicts of interest no longer matter.

Also, and partly as a result of ordinary people’s struggles, measures were in place to help them through difficult times and temper the effects of inequality. And when politicians blundered badly or were found to be corrupt or to have broken the law, they were expected to resign and maybe face further penalties. Some of these systems and expectations are still in place but have been weakened greatly, except if this is seen as important for business interests or electoral gain.

This is particularly disturbing when questions are raised about the pandemic. Issues include underfunding and privatisation affecting personal protective equipment and NHS laboratory services in the earlier stages of the pandemic, and why greater use was not made of in-house and regular suppliers when the crisis took hold. Why infected patients were discharged into care homes, despite pleas and warnings, is another concern. Failures in a ‘test and trace’ scheme which involved lavish payments to the private sector should not be brushed aside, despite the successes of a vaccination programme which largely drew on public sector strengths and commitment.

The decision of the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, to enjoy a luxury holiday in Crete while the crisis in Afghanistan unfolded added to the impression of senior figures far removed from human suffering, despite his claim that “The sea was actually closed.” Reportedly, he turned down civil servants’ plea to make a phone call to try to save military interpreters’ lives, having been largely out of touch with key officials in the weeks beforehand.

The tangled history of UK involvement in that region, including military operations which have harmed civilians and deepened local divisions, makes this all the worse. Meanwhile, the Home Secretary Priti Patel (criticised for “behaviour that can be described as bullying” by a standards adviser and for misleading Parliament) is planning to inflict even harsher treatment on people fleeing persecution and violence.

Worries about cronyism were inflamed by the appointment of Ewen Fergusson, {an old pal of Johnson and Cameron in Oxford University’s exclusive Bullingdon Club}, to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Fergusson was the Head of the General Banking and Acquisition Finance team at Herbert Smith Freehills from 2004-2015. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Fair Business Banking had strongly criticised this law firm over its advice to Lloyds Banking Group which had acquired HBOS, where some customers had been victims of a scam ). Whether fairly or not, this might lead the public to wonder about his ability to spot and correct ethical lapses.

I am not suggesting that those at the top do not care about ethics. Some, including in the ruling party, have been engaged in a rearguard action against what they regard as cruel, callous or lacking accountability. Others may genuinely believe that they have earned what they have, that inequalities encourage others to strive harder, or that it is wise to choose members of their inner circle to be in charge of vital tasks.

The need to act

Senior leaders of belief-based communities have occasionally criticised specific policies or decisions. But they have mainly tended to avoid being too blunt about the overall direction of travel: towards deepening inequality, lack of honesty in public life, erosion of human rights and democracy. Some do not want to alienate supporters of the ruling party, especially those who are rich or influential. Yet this is not simply a party-political issue. Failure to act downplays the suffering of those worst affected and the likelihood of physical, emotional and spiritual damage on an even greater scale if the trend goes unchecked.

Others may have been conditioned, by the gradual nature of the changes, to see these as less noteworthy than they are or even as inevitable. Yet after 130,000 largely unnecessary Covid-19 deaths in the UK and millions internationally, with more to come, flooding, wildfires and the wider impact of climate change and austerity’s toll, it is harder to keep brushing concerns aside. There may also be perfectly sensible fears, if asking searching questions about how society is ordered and for whose benefit, of being targeted by the powerful, either individually or as a group. However traditions of faith and belief often suggest that growth may depend on willingness to address what is wrong within and around oneself – and that hope, strength and even joy can be found in unexpected places.

Meanwhile, people resisting injustice of one kind or another may focus so much on particular issues, or the hardship of a specific group, that they fail to see others’ pain and loss and to make connections. We may even compete. If the cake is carved up among those with seats at the table, it can be tempting for the rest of us to jostle one another while trying to gather up the crumbs.

There is also the risk that in seeking to act morally, we may drift towards being moralistic, so that people withdraw for fear of being judged. Sometimes there is a delicate balance required. And anyone may get things wrong, as well as having an incomplete picture of the way things are, so that space for forgiveness, sharing experiences and building trust is important.

Temporary alliances may be necessary to save lives and preserve basic freedoms, as well as deeper bonding where there are shared ideals and willingness to go further towards a just and sustainable future. To bring sizeable numbers of people together may involve drawing on varied traditions which offer hope and bolster self- and mutual respect among those who are often marginalised.

The notion that only a few people really matter, indeed that the wellbeing and even survival of other species can also be lightly set aside by systems geared towards wealth and power for a few, is unacceptable. It is important that more people with different values speak out, listen to one another, seek wisdom and act skilfully.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016)  and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (DLT, 2017). Her latest articles can be found here. Archived articles (pre-2020) are here.

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