Monthly Archives: April 2014

Disquiet over David Cameron’s Easter message

Well, David Cameron’s Easter reception and speech, and article in the Church Times (also reported in the Guardian) seem to have created considerable furore! I’m not the only one to have responded with a sense of disquiet.

Several secularists reacted angrily to the idea that Britain is a Christian country, declaring in a letter to the Telegraph that it ‘fosters division’ to say so. Many have responded in turn by saying that Britain’s historical and cultural heritage is Christian, so in this sense Britain is a Christian country (this heartfelt piece for example). Others felt the writers of the letter to be the divisive ones – such as the writer of the blog God and Politics, and the Bishop of Bradford (writing before Easter!) suggested that any opinion which differs from another could be labelled divisive, rendering the argument meaningless.

Others were uncomfortable with David Cameron’s speech because his version of Christianity seemed to be rather vague. A friend of mine responded with this article, suggesting that reducing Christianity to being nice misses the point, and that the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ established by Jesus is rather more radical than the ‘Big Society’.

My cynical heart wondered which part of the electorate all this was designed to appeal to, but I try not to let that part take over. I have an even bigger problem with Cameron’s analysis of Christian values, as I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. My MA dissertation was about values, in particular those which are associated with pro-social behaviour. And I’ve been wondering if those values are the same as Christian values. And then I’ve come unstuck. What exactly are Christian values? My son attends a Church of England primary school, and in the entrance hall is a poster which says the school is based on Christian values – but goes no further.

David Cameron says Christian values are “responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility and love” but I really can’t agree. Compassion, humility and love are clearly Christian (and part of other faiths too) though I’m not sure if they are all values. Not sure what he means by charity, especially as the King James Version of the Bible uses ‘charity’ where modern translations use ‘love’ so maybe this one is a repeat. Responsibility – maybe. Hard work, definitely not. Hard work is not a virtue. Christianity does not compel us to a lifetime of hard labour, Christianity at its heart is about God’s free gift of grace.

I need to go back to my essay about values, and really think which ones are Christian and which ones are not. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with the link to another blog, which explains much better than me why believing that hard work is a Christian value is actually an attack on Christian values. And any suggestions as to what values are actually Christian ones all welcome.

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Fair Pay Fortnight

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In a twist of irony, I was invited to attend a working lunch last Friday – the day I was participating in the End Hunger Fast. Even more appropriately, the lunch was part of the TUC’s Fair Pay Fortnight on the subject of low pay and payday lending, so it seemed right to go while I was fasting in order to campaign on the same issues! As well as the regional TUC and a representative from USDAW, Paul Blomfield, the local Sheffield MP, was one of the speakers.

Some interesting facts and figures were presented on the day. Low pay in the region means that workers in Yorkshire and Humberside earn £38 per week less than the national average, while 20% of people in Sheffield earn less than the Living Wage, a wage which is considered to be the minimum needed for an acceptable standard of living. No wonder The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that more people living in poverty are working than are not.

This is a climate where high-cost lending flourishes. We were told that Wonga makes 10,400 loans every day, a figure which has risen by 70% in the last year. Wonga can make £1.2 million profit every week even though 2/5 of borrowers struggle to repay loans. In fact, people who default and roll-over their loan to the following month make more money for the lenders than those who repay on time. Additional interest, fees and default charges are where the money is, adding up to a perverse business model where the target market is those who can’t quite afford to pay.

The proliferation of payday lenders is a symptom of the wider economic climate. Over time since the 1980s there has been a shift of 8% in the make-up of GDP away from wages towards profits (and thereby dividends). The cost of living crisis is as much about falling wages as it is about rising prices. Wages have been frozen, jobs have changed from full-time to part-time, from secure to insecure, and the minimum wage has become the default norm instead of the safety net minimum (and has fallen in value as well).

This was all very interesting. But the best thing about the meeting was the chance to talk to other people in the room about our past experiences and ideas to make changes in the future. And then, the convenor of the meeting took our ideas and formulated them into a plan of action. So refreshing to move from words to actually doing something about it!

There needs to be some fleshing out of the ideas but four strands of action were suggested. Firstly to work alongside the local credit union to promote it, and encourage people from all walks of life so save and borrow with it. Secondly to launch a campaign against advertising by payday lenders, to stop advertising to children and to regulate advertisements in a similar way to how gambling adverts are regulated. Thirdly the TUC would undertake some research to find out which local businesses pay a Living Wage, so people can make an informed choice about where their money goes. And finally, to encourage people to belong to unions, as this improves their pay-bargaining strength. I hope it doesn’t take too long before a way to get involved in these actions gets back to me. In the meantime, I’m going to find out if Sheffield Diocese is a Living Wage employer.

Shopping Costs the Earth

Bravely or foolishly, we went to Meadowhall shopping centre on Saturday afternoon. It was a good afternoon, actually, as we took my mother-in-law with us, who can’t walk far. We were able to borrow a mobility scooter at no cost for as long as we needed, meaning we could have an outing all together, which is otherwise often difficult. She was able to take her grand-daughter shopping for clothes for her birthday, a lovely shared experience which doesn’t happen very often.

But sometimes these places are too much for me! I stood in the crowded shop amidst rows and rows of cheap clothes and wondered what on earth we were all doing there. No wonder our planet is groaning under the strain of our over-consumption when every Saturday is full of people buying clothes they will wear a few times and then discard for a newer, trendier outfit. And on this is our whole economy predicated. We all shudder when Marks and Spencer’s profits drop, and yet their profits will only remain buoyant if we keep buying clothes. The Chancellor is pleased with the apparent economic recovery driven by people spending money. He is concerned that we are too reliant on a consumer-driven recovery and would like to see more exports. But what are exports other than consumption by people in other countries?

On Monday, the IPCC published a report demonstrating that climate change is no longer something we need to worry about in the future, but a problem which is already happening now. The report details the devastating consequences of extreme weather in poor countries where people do not have the resources to adapt and manage the changes. As Rowan Williams puts it, we thought the floods in the UK were difficult to deal with, but we have so much more capacity to cope than those living in typhoon-prone Philippines for example. The report also describes how climate change is already reducing food production and sketches out the likely consequences of food scarcity, leading to rising food prices, mass movement of people looking for food and potential riots and war. Scary stuff.

The energy involved in the production, transportation, retail and purchase of clothes is only small proportion of the UK’s carbon footprint. Supplying energy to homes and businesses produces 41% of our CO2 emissions. But the same principle applies to our desire for cheap food available all year round regardless of season, and our economic context which allows the energy companies to shift the blame for high prices onto the part of our bills which pays for investment in renewable energy and get away with it. (As an aside, I’m very sceptical about SSE announcing they will freeze their prices by cutting investment in renewables.) The chart below shows the share of carbon emissions by sector in the UK in 2012, which energy supply being divided between the end users.

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Information taken from the Department of Energy and Climate Change report 2013 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Provisional Figures and 2012 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Final Figures by Fuel Type and End-User, page 20.

Somehow, we need to think about facing up to climate change at a much more fundamental level. We know that buying stuff doesn’t make us happy on one level, but buying stuff is the basis of our economy, and therefore our wellbeing is reliant on consumption. How do we move forward and build an economic system which ensures people are in work and paid enough to look after their families, but doesn’t rely on a permanent striving after growth and material things? When is anybody who might actually be able to come up with an answer actually going to ask this question?

I guess I’m still looking for an alternative to capitalism, and no-one’s come up with that yet. But here are a few ideas for a start. We could move on from this disposable age where things are built not to last and technology comes with built-in obsolescence. I’m all for a bit of make-do and mend, but I realise not everyone is keen on the hair-shirt aesthetic! We need to invest our time and money into things which don’t burn fossil fuels. And I don’t just mean renewable energy, but spending our disposable income, after the essentials, on non-material things. Some of this already goes on, as we can see with the proliferation of nail bars and hair salons on our high streets. Perhaps we can build our economy on creative and service industries like art, music, film and theatre, on locally produced food and drink enjoyed with family and friends, and on sport and leisure pursuits. Things which don’t cost the earth, in more ways than one.