I’ve just watched ‘To Walk Invisible’, Sally Wainwright’s dramatization about the Bronte sisters that was on the telly over Christmas. The title refers to the way the sisters feel that they need to conceal their identity as women in order to be taken seriously as writers and get published. It set me off on a chain of thought about how far we’ve come. Or haven’t come.
On the same day, the radio news had a story about the gender pay gap. A good news story, that for women in their 20s, the gap had narrowed to 5%. Hang on, this is a good news story? That today, still, women who are just starting out in the work place are already being paid 5% less than men. It gets worse. The pay gap for older women remains stubbornly wide.
What’s going on here? The later pay gap is usually attributed to women taking time out to look after babies and small children and not being able to recover their career progression afterwards. But women at the start of their working lives? Despite equal pay for equal work, we are still being paid less. Is this about the type of work that women choose to do, the hours they choose to work? Or is this more to do with the value we place on the jobs that women do? Workplaces dominated by women tend to be in care, hospitality and retail. Jobs we need but don’t value, if pay is a measure of value. The same could be said for the things that keep a lid on women’s earnings later in life. Raising the next generation is a vital job, but mostly it’s done for free, not valued. And never mind all the other stuff like housework and caring for elderly relatives, also mainly done by women.
The way in which pay reveals the topsy-turvy values of our world was further brought home because that day was also Fat Cat Wednesday. Never heard of it? It is the day when top UK bosses (median annual salary (£4m) have earned as much in the year so far as the average worker (salary £28,000) will earn in the whole year. Lunch time on Wednesday 4th January! You will be slaving away for the rest of the year to earn what some executive put away after two and a half days on the job. We cannot seriously believe that pay like this is a true reflection of what is valuable to society, or that executives deserve to be paid in two days the same as their members of staff take all year to earn.
Perhaps it is timely that Scotland is planning on trialling a citizen’s income. A small payment to every member of society, uncoupling it from paid work. Perhaps this recognizes the intrinsic value that Christian faith sees in everyone, being made in the image of God. Will it free people up to make more fulfilling choices about work, volunteering, family life and service to society? Will it mean people will always have something coming in that they can rely on, a better solution to meeting basic need than foodbanks? Or will giving people cash in hand make them lazy and feckless, meaning they will not bother looking for work and fritter the money away on fags and booze?
Actually, even though a citizen’s income would be paid to rich and poor alike, this last idea is clearly aimed at poor people. For some reason, there appears to be a marked distaste for giving money to poor people. If you haven’t seen it, the Daily Mail issued a stark warning about the dangers of giving money to poor people in Pakistan. Apparently it’s a gross misuse of our aid budget. For a comprehensive rebuttal of the Mail and clear evidence as to why it works, please have a read of this article by my colleague Joe Ware. But anyway, giving money to poor people is a far better idea than giving money to rich people. What do poor people do with money? They spend it, of course, on gas, electricity, food, clothes, entertainment. It all goes straight back into the economy, supporting local businesses, paying wages etc. What do rich people do with money? Well, it’s only rich people who make it disappear into offshore accounts and avoid paying taxes.
Things don’t have value simply because there is a monetary value attached. The things we value in life are not usually the things we buy, but rather family, friendship, faith, love. But what we do with our money is often driven by our values, and money can take hold of our heart. ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’, Jesus warns (Matthew 6:21). I think what I’ve seen in the news this week has a lot to say about what we value in this country, much of it rather uncomfortable to hear.
Everyone has a ‘week’ these days, and every week seems to have been claimed by someone or something. This week is no exception – it’s Living Wage Week. It’s probably lots of other weeks too, but this is the one I’m going for! Monday saw the announcement of the new living wage hourly rate – £8.25 (£9.40 in London), a 40p an hour increase on last year. Based on a working week of 37.5 hours, a living wage should provide enough to have a minimum acceptable standard of living.
I’m so keen on promoting the Living Wage because it tells a different story to the clamour in the popular press suggesting that cause of all our woes is people being dependent on the state and getting something for nothing. Talking about the living wage counteracts this.
Let’s start with the name, living wage. To talk about a living wage makes the case that someone’s wages should be enough to live on. We ask people what they do for a living, yet we seem to have forgotten that working full-time should mean we earn enough to pay the bills. And one huge reminder that this isn’t the case, as the government loves to tell us, is the rising tax credit bill. Please always remember that only the tiniest part of the welfare budget goes on out-of-work benefits. Most of it actually goes on pensions, and the next biggest part is paid to people in work in the form of housing benefit and tax credits. There are two ways to cut the tax credit bill – the devastating but easy route currently going through parliament whereby payments are simply cut. Or the route which actually takes care of people, whereby wages are increased and people qualify for lower or no payments because they don’t need them.
Reminding ourselves that work should pay and the worker is worthy of his or her wages (Luke 10:7) should restore our respect for workers. We hear the treasury talk a lot about ‘wealth creators’ and how we should nurture them. But I don’t mean rich business executives who hid their money in off-shore bank accounts, creating wealth only for themselves. The real wealth creators are the workers in industry and business, as no-one can make money if there is no-one to do the work. Even workers in public service contribute to wealth creation as they build the stable society in which business flourishes. Over the last 30 years there has been a steady transfer of wealth away from workers’ wages and into the hands of shareholders. The Living Wage is a small way to rebalance this and make sure that work and workers are valued.
One of the best things about the Living Wage for me is how it is calculated. The rate is set annually by an independent research body at Loughborough University. The level is not set by Labour or Conservative, but the Living Wage does enjoy cross-party support. The rate is calculated to enable people to have an acceptable standard of living. What do you need to be able to afford to provide for your family and belong to society? The answer to this question determines the rate, and the answer is not given by politicians or university academics. The research asks members of the public, who decide what is an acceptable standard of living. In an age of suspicion generated by the Tory narrative setting up false divisions between so-called ‘workers and shirkers’, this means the Living Wage is rooted in social consensus. This is what ordinary people think other ordinary people need to live, no-one is taking advantage of anyone else.
Finally, I think it needs to be said that the Living Wage is not the same as the so-called ‘national living wage’ announced by George Osborne in the summer budget. The government rate, which comes into force in April 2016, is based on the labour market and what other people earn, and does not bear any relation to what is actually needed to live in society. It is set at £7.20 an hour, so is lower than the Living Wage, it does not apply to under 25s, unlike the Living Wage, and it is compulsory. It is, in effect, just a raising of the minimum wage, but only for over 25s. The Living Wage is voluntary, aspirational wage, a measure of best practice for employers. Employers can be credited as Living Wage employers when measures are put in place to pay all staff (included contracted out staff) the Living Wage rate.
The Living Wage Foundation says that the Living Wage is good for business, good for families and good for society. On top of this, I believe the whole concept is good for us. It says that people are the most important part of how we build society, that the work people do is valuable and those who do it are shown value accordingly. It is decided on by the people for the people, it is a truer representation that we are all in it together than anything we’ve seen from the Tories. Join the movement here!
I love this picture that has been floating round social media. This little girl’s reaction to David Cameron seems to sum up so succinctly many people’s reaction to his party’s idea that children in year 7 should retake the SATs they took in year 6 if they’re not up to scratch. #headdesk seems entirely appropriate.
Since when did SATs become a test you had to pass? We abolished the 11+ because it set children apart and labelled some as failures at too young an age, and now it seems to be back. The Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan might say that children are already set apart by this age if they are not achieving expected levels in Maths and English. This says something positive about the predictive power of SATs tests, but no amount of retesting will change this. If someone is struggling with Maths and English at 11, chances are they will be struggling at 16 too. Instead of labelling children as failures and focusing on re-sits, perhaps more creative, more constructive programmes could be implemented to support children. The whole measurement becomes meaningless anyway, when we remember the previous education secretary required every child’s scores to be above average.
We have become entirely embroiled in the numbers here, there is no sense of the individuals involved – not their needs (special or otherwise), or personalities, or desires, or gifts, or even really their futures. Just reaching that magic level 4 at the end of KS2. It’s like benefit sanctions – the human misery doesn’t matter, just reducing the claimant count. Or the bedroom tax – no matter that there are no smaller homes to move into, the housing benefit bill must come down.
It’s not that there isn’t merit is spending less on benefits, or measuring progress in schools. But these things should not be an outcome in themselves. What is the point unless life is made better for all of us? There are better ways of spending less on housing benefits, by better control of rents and private landlords, but this way isn’t quicker or easier and affects the rich not the poor. There are better ways of helping people into work other than cutting off their income, but these involve a bit of time, attention, understanding and money! Taking resits in year 7 seems unlikely to improve opportunities for children struggling at school.
These policies only make sense when considered in a vacuum, without the messiness of actual people’s lives. But, given that politics is about people, I’m looking for policies which, at their heart, value people’s humanity.
At the core of my understanding of where faith and politics combine is discovering the intrinsic value of every person. For the Christian, humans are made in the image of God, there is something of God in every person. Every one of us is valuable simply because we are human. It is an intrinsic part of who we are. It is not a function of our productivity, or our utility. It is not dependent on our capacity to think, or to love, or to pass KS2 SATs. It is our essence. And it should be reflected in all our interactions between each other and the state.
Actually, I guess the conversation really started in January 2013 with the publication of the Sheffield Fairness Commission report. It tells the story of inequality through the 83 bus route. “The bus starts at Millhouses, in Ecclesall ward where female life expectancy is 86.3 years. By the time the bus has travelled down Ecclesall Road and into the city centre, female life expectancy has dropped to 81.6 years, and by the time it makes its way into Burngreave ward just 40 minutes from the start of the journey female life expectancy is only 76.9 years. This means that a baby girl born and who lives her life in one part of the city can expect to live, on average, almost 10 years longer than a similar baby girl born and living her life about four miles away, by virtue of nothing more than the socio-economic circumstances and area she was born in to.” I talked about it in an earlier blog post “It’s not fair”.
Two years on, the commission is still ambitious that Sheffield is becoming and will continue to become a fairer city. But we all have our part to play. It’s not just the strategic decision makers who make this happen. Every one of us must play our part. If this city is going to be fairer, those of us who currently have a lot might in future have to have a little less. Those of us with plenty resources will need to share them with those of us with fewer. We are fellow citizens together in this great city, working together to find solutions in the best interest of us all.
The Sheffield Fair City Campaign has 10 principles:
Civic responsibility – all residents to contribute to making the city fairer and for all citizens to have a say in how the city works
Those with the most resources should make the biggest contributions
The commitment to fairness must be for the long-term
The commitment to fairness must be across the whole city
Preventing inequalities is better than trying to cure them
To be seen to act in a fair way as well as acting fairly
Those in greatest need should take priority
An open continuous campaign for fairness in the city
Fairness must be a matter of balance between different groups, communities and generations in the city
The city’s commitment to fairness must be both demonstrated and monitored in an annual report
This will truly only work if we are all in it together. It hinges on our collective responsibility to each other. If you live or work in Sheffield, you can join the conversation and get involved. If you think you can sign up to the fairness principles, click on the website and make a fairness pledge. If you want to see this campaign spread throughout the city, you can become a fairness champion. I’ve only been in this city a year, and one of the first things people told me about was the East/West divide. Let’s see what part we can all play in overcoming that divide and making Sheffield a fair city.
People do like to talk about “returning to British values” or to “Christian values”! But they are less clear precisely what those values actually are. And if we could agree on the values we think are Christian, would those values be the ones we would like to see in a good society? I’d like to think that a society based on Christian values would be a good one!
The first problem with defining “British values” lies in deciding whether we’re looking for values which are exclusively British, or for values shared by others which we subscribe to and want to share as well. I think we have to go for the second definition – surely any values which a nation believes in would be embraced by other nations too. We may have some idiosyncrasies, but on the whole, things that make Britain a good place to live make other places good too.
You can apply the same thought process to defining “Christian values” – values which are exclusively Christian, or working out which human values are part of the Christian faith and which are not. Again, I’d go with the second option as I’d be surprised to find any values which we might consider Christian which are not shared by other religions.
That was the easy part – much harder to decide what those values actually are. And different Christians will have many different opinions.
One place to start is to ask what are the values we would like to see in a good society and then to ask if these are Christian values. What makes a good society? What does a society which works for the benefit of all look like? This is a question which Church Action on Poverty has been asking in conversations round the country.
My dissertation was based on research about values. You can read more about this research on the Common Cause website. It suggests that values based on intrinsic motivations are generally associated with behaviour that promotes the common good rather than just individual gain. This is in contrast to values which rely on extrinsic rewards making people less likely to act for the common good.
This set me wondering – are the values which promote the common good the same as Christian values? And what are these values?
The research sorts the values into groups, and two groups in particular are associated with behaviour which benefits others (pro-social behaviour such as buying fair trade products, action to mitigate climate change, concern about inequality). One group, labelled Benevolence, is particularly linked to behaviour which helps family and friends. This includes values of mature love, forgiving, meaning in life, true friendship, a spiritual life, helpful, honest, responsible and loyal. I think it is uncontroversial to say that these are Christian values.
But the group of values most strongly associated with pro-social behaviour is the one labelled Universalism. This includes social justice, equality, a world at peace, broadminded, unity with nature, a world of beauty, wisdom, inner harmony, and protecting the environment. And the opposite group (Power), most strongly associated with stopping people engage in pro-social behaviour, includes social recognition, preserving my public image, wealth, social power, and authority.
This is where I am challenged. The values in the Universalism group do not seem to be obviously Christian. Do I reject them as nice but not central to the Christian faith, even though promoting them is likely to bring about the biggest changes for the benefit of all? Or is my view of Christian values too small?
It was the Beatitudes which convinced me. A radical manifesto to challenge the structural injustice in society. This short passage turns the Power values on their head, and instead of placing importance on wealth, status and power, Jesus says that the poor, the meek and the persecuted are blessed. Also blessed are those who stand with the poor in spirit, who hunger for righteousness and justice, who seek to bring peace and whose motivation is pure – values of equality, social justice, a world at peace and inner harmony.
I don’t think the Beatitudes are an exhaustive account of Christian values, but they are a representative one. Within them we find that the values within Universalism are Christian values. There are a few gaps, most notably those concerned with the environment, which may be why it has taken the church so long to wake up to its environmental responsibility. But most stark is the comprehensive rejection in the Beatitudes of Power values. It is in the not seeking after power, wealth and status that Christianity finds itself most at odds with the world we live in.
A good society cares for everyone and works for the interest of the common good. It considers its impact on all, not just those in its immediate neighbourhood. I think a society displaying the intrinsic values identified by Common Cause is most likely to become a good society, values which we can also identify as Christian values. We can find these values in a gospel which tells us to love our neighbour, to speak out for justice and righteousness, and to reject the self-serving interests of status and power.
This is a slightly longer version of my blog written for Church Action on Poverty, which you can find here.
It’s often said that following Christ is ‘counter-cultural’. But mostly it doesn’t feel like it. My life feels much the same as everyone else’s – shopping, cooking, watching TV, wasting time on Facebook, worrying about which school the kids will go to. I try to make some ethical choices, like recycling or buying Fair Trade. I guess praying and spending Sunday morning in church mark me out a bit, but generally I don’t feel much different to the people around me. Then I come up against someone who really doesn’t get the choices I’ve made. Why did I leave a perfectly good career? Now I’m tentatively looking for a job, why would I choose to look for a job with a charity in a city 35 miles away when there must be plenty other jobs in the city where I live? And then I see that it is my motivation that is counter-cultural. Perhaps not explicitly Christian, but not the wisdom of the world to reject ambition, money and status and instead be seeking a better society based on social justice, equality and peace.
Which brings me back to the other question that spins round my mind, on the match up between Christian values and ‘Universalism’ values as discussed by Common Cause.
Actually, there’s been a lot of discussion in the last few weeks about values, especially British values. And whenever someone comes up with a set of values, someone else is guaranteed to say that the values are not British because they are important to other people too. So, let’s approach this from the opposite direction. I’m not looking for values which are exclusively Christian – I’m not sure there are any. But I do want to consider the values that Christianity espouses and those it rejects, and to see where they fall on Schwarz’s values circumplex (sorry it’s hard to read).
And what brought all these thoughts together was the service at church last week on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). Here, surely, we have it laid out before us the full extent of Christianity’s counter-cultural-ness. And as good a place as any to see the values considered important to Christians and compare them to Schwarz’s universal human values.
3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
I’ve never studied theology, and make no claim to be a theologian, though I will tell you I’m a linguist. So, I can only offer you a discourse analysis and not a theological point of view. The first problem is pinning down the meaning of the word ‘blessed’, so I’m not going to do that. Suffice it to say, for the purposes of this analysis, if something is blessed, we can assume that it is considered valuable, and therefore these qualities are the ones that are important – to Jesus at least!
The second problem is working out what is meant by ‘poor in spirit’. Most people I know will work with a paraphrase ‘spiritually poor’, meaning their life of faith and relationship with God could do with some work. But I have read commentaries from others who suggest a meaning more akin to identifying with the poor – being with them in spirit if not in reality. Interestingly, there is another version of these words in Luke, which has Jesus saying “Blessed are you who are poor” and later “Blessed are you who hunger now”, making the whole thing much more about a physical status than a spiritual one.
Leaving these questions unresolved to one side, it is still possible to consider the things which are described as blessed in order to see which values are given value by Jesus, and which are not, and to map these if possible to universal human values as described by psychologists.
It’s not straightforward though! Let’s start from the bottom up! Verses 10 to 12 describe us as blessed when we are persecuted, insulted and lied about. This doesn’t look like a value in itself, but it is clearly opposite to values like ‘preserving my public image’ and ‘social recognition’. The verses say that being persecuted is a sign of blessing because it aligns us with the ancient Hebrew prophets, who said uncomfortable things to the rulers of their day. The prophets spoke about how people and rulers had turned away from God, and time and time again, this was a call to social justice – this brilliant report from Christian Aid explores this in more detail. So I suggest that ‘social justice’ is being lifted up here, but this might be stretching this passage a little.
Next to be considered blessed are the peacemakers – this can be fairly easily translated to the value ‘a world at peace’. Then we have the pure in heart, not so straightforward. One of the features of Jesus’s teaching was the idea that is not just what we do that matters, but what we think as well (see later on in Matthew chapter 5 talking about murder and adultery). Motivation matters – the inward motivation should match the outward expression, should be ‘pure’ rather than ‘mixed’. I think the value ‘inner harmony’ comes closest to expressing this kind of idea, being at peace with ourselves in that what we do does not come into conflict with what we believe about the world.
Being merciful is considered important next, which looks like a match for ‘forgiving’ in the ‘Benevolence’ sector. Hunger and thirst for righteousness could be two things, depending in how ‘righteousness’ is understood. At face value it looks like a straightforward match for ‘social justice’ – wanting to see the right thing done. But this is a human/social understanding of righteousness. If righteousness is understood to mean being right before God, then it could be a better match for ‘inner harmony’, or ‘a spiritual life’ in ‘Benevolence’. Going back to the things that made the Hebrew prophets hot under the collar (eg social structural inequality), then I think a case can be made that to seek righteousness before God also includes seeking righteousness in society. Therefore, placing importance on having ‘a spiritual life’ and a right relationship with God includes placing importance on ‘social justice’. There is also a sense here of a desire to know what is right, possibly a seeking after ‘wisdom’.
Understanding the value of the meek seems easier to follow as a negative – it is clearly opposite to ‘social power’ and ‘authority’. I did wonder whether the value ‘accepting my portion in life’ was appropriate here, but this doesn’t fit with the second part of the verse; blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. While they may not be seeking after power, being meek is not the same as just accepting what comes along, because, in the fullness of time, much more will be due.
It is hard to know why anyone who is mourning should be considered blessed. Even being comforted in the long run doesn’t necessarily make the mourning easier to bear. But perhaps what is being valued here is the capacity to recognise loss. If loss doesn’t make us mourn, then perhaps we are hard-hearted and selfish. And this could be extended beyond personal grief to recognising the loss and pain in a world where there is suffering. Grieving for our world seems like a good quality to me, though I can’t locate it in Schwarz’s circumplex. But if the motivation for exploring these ideas and lifting up intrinsic values is to change human behaviour in order to tackle climate change and global poverty, then a sense grief for what we have lost seems a good place to start.
Finally, the confusing value of the poor in spirit. A more material understanding, as in Luke, suggests this is opposing the value of ‘wealth’. A more spiritual understanding, suggesting that what is needed is a recognition of our own lack of faith and dependence on God is closer to the values ‘humble’ and ‘ a spiritual life’. My preference is to say that we can understand both meanings, especially as I think our spiritual and physical lives can’t be divided up that neatly. How is it realistic to say we are pursuing a life of righteousness when others around us are hungry (James 2:14-17).
I realise there is much more to say about these verses, as I have barely touched on the second half of each “blessing”. But in summary, let’s look at the values which are promoted and the values which are the opposite of what is blessed. It is important to remember that these are universal human values, which we all consider important at different times and in different circumstances. But the things given value by these verses are not compatible with the values in the ‘Power’ segment of the circle – ‘preserving my public image’, ‘social recognition’, ‘social power’, ‘authority’, ‘wealth’. These extrinsic values are least associated with pro-social behaviour.
Most associated with pro-social behaviour are the intrinsic values in the ‘Universalism’ segment. Some of these values are found in the Beatitudes – ‘social justice’ (twice), ‘a world at peace’, ‘inner harmony’ (twice) and ‘wisdom’. There are also values from ‘Benevolence’ – ‘forgiving’ and ‘a spiritual life’ (twice) – and ‘Tradition’ -‘humble’.
Without analysis, I’ve always felt that ‘Benevolence’ values easily fell within Christian values, but that ‘Universalism’ values, while not incompatible, were not obviously Christian. But the Beatitudes fit best within the ‘Universalism’ sector. There are a few gaps, most notably those concerned with the environment, which may be why it has taken the church so long to wake up to its environmental responsibility. And I don’t think the Beatitudes are an exhaustive account of Christian values, just a representative one. But most stark of all is the comprehensive rejection in the Beatitudes of the ‘Power’ values. It is in the not seeking after power, wealth and status that Christianity finds itself most counter-cultural. The question is, is that what Christianity really looks like?
The Government started its new term this week, with the State Opening of Parliament and the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday. So what gems do we have in store for us before the next election? And what do the plans and policies laid out for this term tell us about the Government’s values and priorities?
This is my review of the Queen’s Speech, attempting to read between the lines to see the underlying values. Inevitably, I’m biased, but my main aim is to look at what motivates plans and policies, not to say whether I think these policies are good or bad.
Reasons to celebrate
However, I am going to start with some celebrations! To everyone who joined in the IF campaign, take a moment to rejoice. A plan to establish a public register of company beneficial ownership is in the speech! Who says campaigning doesn’t work? I don’t believe this would have been in this year’s plans without the IF campaign. And sticking with the bias for a little longer, there are a few other things in the speech which I have been campaigning for, tweeting about and generally annoying my friends on Facebook with: legislation to improve the fairness of contracts for low paid workers (zero hours contracts, to spell it out), free school meals for infants, a bill to prevent modern day slavery and human trafficking, legislation on the recall of MPs, a commitment to lead efforts to prevent sexual violence in conflict worldwide and a commitment to champion efforts to secure a global agreement on climate change. The devil is in the detail, of course, and we’ll have to wait and see how far these commitments take us in actually improving things. There’s a couple of other things I like which I didn’t quite get round to campaigning for – higher penalties for employers who fail to pay the minimum wage, and action to reduce the use of carrier bags.
Looking at the speech as a whole, I wanted to see which of the values I’ve discussed in previous blogs seemed most apparent. What seemed to be motivating the policy plans and decisions? The most obvious values in the speech come under “security”. Economic decisions are described as being made to provide stability and security, tax decisions to increase financial security, energy policy is to enhance security. Security is also obviously a motivation for foreign policy plans, mentioned specifically in relation to EU borders and relations between Russia and Ukraine. Valuing health is part of the security segment, and this is given as the motivation for introducing free school meals for infants. The values of family security and social order are seen in plans to tackle child neglect, serious organised crime, and slavery and trafficking. It is probably no surprise that security is the strongest underlying value. After all, if a government has any purpose at all it is surely to establish the security of its citizens.
There are other values which are apparent from the way language is used and assumptions are made. There is a bias towards private solutions rather than public ones. Media and politicians tell us there is a housing crisis. The solutions given for this revolve around promoting private ownership through Help to Buy and Right to Buy, and selling government land to developers, rather than through public ownership, social housing and renting. One aspect of education policy is to promote more academies, often funded with private money, or run by private companies with public money. Economic values and outcomes are given precedence over the wellbeing of society or the environment (though it is possible to argue one leads to the other). So the planning law will be reformed in order to improve economic competitiveness, not to improve quality of life or to protect the environment. Shale gas is needed to provide energy independence and security, without mentioning that continuing to burn fossil fuel will lead to a reduction in our security in the long term as the effects of climate change take hold. Schools are discussed as places to prepare pupils for employment, rather than places of nurture, learning and social development. There will be help with child care costs for working families, leaving the emphasis on being economically active and not valuing the role of being a parent at home.
Given that climate change is the biggest threat facing the planet at the moment, there is very little in this year’s legislation to do anything about it. The most specific action is to reduce carrier bag use (by charging 5p for each bag I think). This is good, but feels like a drop in the ocean. The Government’s lack of commitment to tackling climate change is revealed in its presentation of other measures. There will be a scheme to enable new homes to be built to a zero carbon standard, but not make this mandatory. The Government will champion efforts to secure a global agreement on climate change, but even this is not as strong as the plan to lead the way when it comes to preventing sexual violence. I’m proud of the stand taken against rape as a weapon of war, let’s be as determined to lead the way in cutting carbon emissions.
Bias against the poor
The most cynical use of language in the speech concerns spending on benefits. The speech starts by saying the legislative programme will continue to reduce the country’s deficit, although borrowing in April this year was more than in April last year, and national debt continues to rise. So the plans that follow presumably aim to increase income and reduce spending (though some will be decisions about moving spending from one area to another). Promoting growth is given as the reason behind some policies. But cutting spending is only mentioned once. The only area where the Government says it needs to spend less is when it comes to looking after the needs of the poorest members of our society. So the benefit bill will be capped to control public spending. There are no other incidences in the speech where public spending needs to be controlled. There are lots of plans which will cost money which will help the wealthy or better-off. The Government commits to cutting taxes, and increasing the personal tax allowance, which helps everyone who pays tax, including the wealthiest, but does not help the poorest who don’t pay income tax. The freeze on fuel duty won’t help control public spending and benefits those wealthy enough to own a car. Extending ISAs and Premium Bonds only helps those with enough money each month to save. Changes to planning laws and Help to Buy schemes do nothing for those who can never afford to be a home owner. Free school meals for infants will be universal, and help rich and poor. Free child care for workers will be a benefit to all including the low paid.
The one plan to help the poorest which looks like it will cost the Government money is free child-care for disadvantaged two-year olds. The cost of plans to tackle zero-hours contracts and those who don’t pay the minimum wage will presumably fall on the businesses themselves.
Power to the people
The Government fares a bit better when it comes to supporting those vulnerable in other ways than through poverty. The young are supported through plans to develop apprenticeships. There will be legislation to improve the complaints system in the Armed Forces. And, as mentioned before, there are plans to tackle child neglect, slavery and trafficking, and sexual violence in conflicts. It seems appropriate that one of the roles of government is to stand up for those who don’t have power to stand up for themselves.
Another way to help those without power is to give them power, and there are examples of where this has potential to happen. Legislation on the recall of MPs could give this power to the electorate, or it could leave it in the hands of other MPs. Direct elections to National Park authorities also has the potential to give power to the people, and further plans for devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are decentralising power. I’m not sure what the estimates for the public services are, which the Government says will be laid before us, but it looks like a step forward for transparency, which is good for democracy.
I haven’t covered everything here, but I hope I have uncovered the flavour of the speech. Campaigning works, and we can see some legislation coming about because the people have spoken, and there are some signs that the Government recognises the need for and value of increasing accountability and democracy. As I guess I could have predicted, security underlies many of the plans, as I guess that’s what governments are for. Standing up for the weakest is another function of government which we can see here at times too. But the language used in the speech shows the Government is still intent on blaming those on benefits for the deficit, while continuing to spend money on policies which work in the best interests for those who are already much better off. Decisions are made on the basis of economic values. Private is valued above public, and serving financial and economic interests is more important than social values like learning, community wellbeing and protecting the environment. The Government’s commitment to tackling climate change is weak at best or even phony with a green gloss.
I’ll leave you with what I consider to be the most dishonest piece of spin in the whole speech. “A key priority for my ministers will be to continue to build an economy that rewards those who work hard”. Ignoring all the assumptions bound up in the word “continue” (here and elsewhere) this is the biggest piece of nonsense I have ever seen. People like nurses and other health professionals have seen their wages frozen for most of the time this coalition has been in power. Those who work long hours in physically demanding jobs, like cleaners, carers and those in the hospitality industry are lucky if they are getting the minimum wage. Meanwhile, bankers and CEOs are seeing bonuses and salaries rise more than ever before. If I was the Queen, I wouldn’t have read it out.
I’ve found the reaction to Gary Barlow’s failed tax avoidance scheme very interesting. As I understand it, the scheme he (and a few other people too) invested in (apparently to support up-coming musicians) has been ruled not to work as a means to off-set taxes due, so the tax on earned income invested in the scheme becomes payable. He hasn’t actually done anything illegal, unless he now fails to pay his taxes, and yet there have been calls for him to return his OBE.
Have we finally reached the point where trying to find and exploit loopholes in tax laws is considered morally wrong if not illegal? Perhaps it’s the OBE that upsets us – given for raising funds for good causes which would probably have benefitted from his tax revenues. Perhaps it’s just because he’s been found out – should or would we have felt the same outrage if the tax scheme had been ruled as legitimate?
However we look at it, it seems to me that we’re not keen on the idea that someone with lots of money isn’t contributing their fair share to the welfare and benefit of all society. This runs contrary to what our Government believes – that we mustn’t tax our so-called wealth creators too hard or they will run away and take their wealth creation elsewhere.
But wealth creators only benefit society if their wealth is shared around into the economy. The theory of trickle-down economics has collapsed under the pressure of the growing gap between rich and poor since the advent of Thatcherism. Rich people’s money isn’t circulated in the economy – it is hidden away in off-shore, tax-free investments. If we want the rich to contribute to the well-being of all, it’s going to be through taxes.
We seem to have the same attitude when it comes to companies too. Even our politicians are up in arms at the idea that the American pharmaceutical Pfizer wants to take over the British Astra Zeneca because they suspect the deal is all about stripping the assets from the British company and then benefitting from the low tax rate in the UK. In other words, using Britain as a tax haven. But it is the same politicians who have created the environment to make this possible. Attracting companies from overseas is one thing, but like with individual wealth creators, the wealth that is created needs to come into the economy.
So what do we really want? Do we create the conditions for individuals and corporations to pursue wealth for their own benefit (after all they have worked for it) and hope that we might gather up some crumbs from the table? Or do we want a system which works in the best interests of the whole of society, where each (individual and corporation) contributes to the good of all according to their means? The public reaction to both these stories suggests we want everyone to contribute to a better society. Let’s do what we can to make sure these principles are applied by those in power making our legislations, and think about these principles when we vote on Thursday.
Finally, thinking about contributing according to means and progressive taxation, I’m going to leave you to look up a story Jesus told about the offerings of the rich compared with a poor widow in Mark 12 v 41-44.
Writing recently about whether hard work is a Christian value reminded me why I started this blog. I finished my dissertation and found myself with more questions than answers….
Thinking about values was a key part of my dissertation. Research by Schwartz in the early 90s identified values which are important to people and motivational to the way people live their lives. Further research identified that most of these values are consistently important across societies and cultures around the world. Plotting how much importance people attached to these values showed patterns where certain values cluster together – if one value in a cluster is important to someone, then all of them usually are. Schwartz called these clusters “value types” and identified an underlying motivational goal for each one. For example, values such as social power, wealth, preserving my public image and authority were grouped together as “power”. The value types also have a relationship to each other, with certain types being found together. This relationship brings all the value types together in a circle. So an individual with a tendency towards “power” values would also be likely to rate highly values within “achievement” and “security”, and so on round the circle:
Other values are important to people in different cultures, but Schwartz concentrated on the ones which could be considered universal. They are values which are shared across humanity. We all place different weight on which values are important to us, and this weighting is not static. We change which values we consider to be important depending on what decision we are making and the circumstances we find ourselves in. We are also influenced by other people and the environment around us as to which ones we attach more importance to. The circle above shows how values influence each other. A situation which highlights security values will also raise the importance of power and tradition/conformity. At the same time, it will also diminish the importance of the values directly opposite in the circle – in this case self-direction and stimulation.
The weighting and importance placed on values influences the way we behave. Bringing it back to topics closer to my heart, research was carried out on the values considered more important by people who got involved with issues of social justice such as climate change, global poverty and human rights. People who placed an emphasis on “universalism” values were more likely to have modified their behaviour because of these issues, from recycling to buying Fair Trade. Universalism values are equality, unity with nature, wisdom, a world of beauty, social justice, broad-minded, protecting the environment, a world at peace. This doesn’t seem like rocket science when you see what these values are! Universalism is described as being concerned with the welfare of all people and nature. Second most strongly linked with pro-social behaviour was the “benevolence” value type, described as concern for those around you. These values are helpful, responsible, forgiving, honest, loyal. So far so obvious. But the value types on the opposite side of the circle – power, achievement and, to a lesser extent, security – were associated with not getting involved with this pro-social behaviour.
As I said above, we all have all the values, it is just the importance of each value that differs between us, and this is not static. This begs the question, if the balance of values changes, does this change behaviour? The research suggests that yes, it does. Remember that encouraging the values on one side of the circle diminishes the other side. This means that the emphasis given to power or achievement values can be reduced by promoting universalism and benevolence values. Researchers found effects could be achieved simply by exposing participants to words associated with universalism, and the opposite effect with power words, all compared to controls of neutral words.
Extrapolating from research brings us to this: Issues of climate change, global poverty and human rights are not going away. We do not seem to be able to fully grapple with what we need to do across the whole of society to deal with these issues. If we could encourage the emphasis on universalism values, we would see more people willing to engage and act in pro-social ways. These values are part of every person’s value set, we don’t need to change people, just encourage what is already within. But a quick look around the influences in our society, especially advertising and the media, reveals that we are bombarded with messages emphasising the importance of power and achievement values. I’m starting to see articles in the paper about this, such as this one about the link between materialism and lack of empathy. It’s a big job, but one that can start wherever you are, encouraging values of equality, social justice, unity with nature etc by what we say, how we treat people, the metaphors we use, the motivations that drive us.
I came away from my dissertation enthusiastic to promote these values, and I still feel this way. I really want to encourage them in the church, and that is what set me thinking. If I am promoting justice, wisdom, equality etc am I not just promoting Christianity? Trying to embody these values feels to me like trying to be more like Jesus. Should I focus on the values, or focus on sharing my faith, because the values follow on naturally? Are they compatible or mutually exclusive? Just a question of emphasis? What are Christian values anyway? Are there other values in the circle which are Christian, and if there are, do they work against the values which encourage pro-social behaviour? I can see some conflict with tradition/conformity being seen as typically religious values, but which might limit a vision to see beyond ourselves and being willing to rock the boat (which the massive challenges ahead of us would seem to demand). But I get the feeling a lot of church leaders feel like this too!
The values of benevolence are also associated with pro-social behaviour and look pretty much like Christian values. Some groups involved in promoting this values-based approach to address global issues have not wanted to focus on benevolence values because the looking towards our neighbour sometimes closes the door to behaviour which benefits those far away if it harms or doesn’t benefit those close to home (eg paying more for Fair Trade). However, church is often one place where we do recognise that our neighbour includes those in far away places, especially churches which support organisations like TearFund and Christian Aid.
Below is a table of all the universal values, grouped in value types. Which ones are Christian values? Do we see universalism values in Jesus, in the Bible, in church? Is this what church should be like? Does it matter? I want to pursue these questions, and would love to know what you think?
Equality – Unity with nature – Wisdom – A world of beauty – Social justice – Broad-minded – Protecting the environment – A world at peace
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.