The report of the Scottish Government Economic Advisory Group ‘Towards a robust, resilient, wellbeing economy’ has been widely criticised for being light on specifics.
Yet, in identifying three themes for urgent attention: inequality, education and unemployment, it is strikingly similar to the 1942 Beveridge Report, whose author wrote: ‘Now, when the war is abolishing landmarks of every kind, is the opportunity for using experience in a clear field.’ This paper identifies Beveridge’s ‘experience’, the baby that should not be chucked out with the bathwater.
The baby – which certainly needs a bath and a clean nappy – is our model for civic society and governance. As Covid-19 demolishes many of the landmarks we have established over the last 30-40 years I’ll stake a claim that this is an opportunity to draw on an even older experience: the model that is embedded in Judaeo-Christianity. Stay with me please…
The Report identifies four ‘Capitals’ that fit nicely into a broadened and updated Christian Socialism. Section headings below are from the Report.
COMMUNITY: Social Capital, the ties that bind
Following a long, full history of sharing Christian communities, Christian Socialism was founded as a movement in the 19th century to protect individuals and communities from the worst effects of capitalism. Early manifestations were the trade unions, the Labour Party as its parliamentary representation, and its intellectual form in the Fabian Society. It was based on several Biblical references, summed up in Jesus’ command, with its deep roots in the Old Testament. ‘Love thy neighbour’ – the organising principle was collective action and solidarity.
PEOPLE: The Human Dimension
Living in any society or, more specifically, a union requires at least a partial loss of autonomy and conformity to a consensus. If dissent is not permitted throughout society, we have a totalitarian state. Humans are diverse. The outsider, the law-breaker, the satirist, the dissenter, the pusher of boundaries: they will always be with us. Healthy society needs them all. Their human rights and their civil liberties are inviolable. When people quote Jesus saying ‘the poor will always be with you…’ they tend to forget this is an unfinished saying with which he would expect his listeners to be familiar: ‘… I therefore command you to open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour’.
In a hand-to-mouth lifestyle, the Biblical enjoinder is for immediate relief. In our day it is expanded to public funding of public space, including arts and humanities, which give texture, shape and meaning to our diversity.
BUSINESS: Economic Capital
In the parable of the talents the servants who make use of the resources given to them and multiply their master’s deposit are rewarded with more. The servant who takes no risks and shows no enterprise with what has been given to him is cast into outer darkness. Now as then, it is an honourable ambition to show initiative and make oneself responsible in seeking one’s own fortune and to do well for oneself and look after one’s own. We can’t all be servants!
However, greed is explicitly condemned in the Bible: from the narrative teaching of the foolish rich man who stored wealth in his barns so he could eat, drink and be merry and died that night to the outright denunciation of exploitation, greed, oppression and self-righteousness in the Book of Amos, one of the most ancient texts in the world. To Amos, all this is a breach of the Covenant. Paul, referring to a passage in Exodus, urges that none shall have too much and none too little. Fair sharing is an ancient principle.
ENVIRONMENT: Natural Capital, what Nature gives for free
You don’t need to be a Christian to know that we take our place in the natural order: we are born, we breathe and eat, some reproduce, and we die.
According to Genesis, we were formed on the same day as the beasts of the field; our closeness to the animal kingdom and our dependence on the natural world is obvious. We may have ‘dominion’ and that is ‘good’ but we are not God. ‘Dominion’ means that we are given an honoured and privileged place as stewards of the earth, charged with looking after it.
Quite clearly, we have abused our stewardship in recent years. The urgent need to actively address this cannot be avoided for a moment longer. Wherever in our party political spectrum we find ourselves, we must, and we can, all be green.
Nationalism in the Bible?
The Report does not deal with something that is part of modern Scottish civil society: nationalism. There is a nationalist thread in the Bible. In Exodus, the Jews were established as a people in the eyes of God as nomads in the wilderness when the Covenant was given. On occupying Canaan as farmers, the Covenant had to be re-interpreted; the beginnings of territorial nationalism. Joshua records a great deal of belligerence against other inhabitants, always in the belief that the land was given to them by God.
Being the chosen people of God is one thing. Claiming ownership of the land is another. Observant Jew and dweller in the land of Israel may or may not meet in the same person.
In any event, it all disappears in a teaching letter of Paul (a Jew): ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Unless God is on its side, nationalism doesn’t do well in the Bible.
Capitalism has morphed into transnational corporatism, and unionism needs to keep up. The scale of the communities that needed protection in the 19th century has expanded to whole countries – no single country can withstand the aggressive manipulations of corporate exploitation and tax avoidance, which unerringly picks out the weakest links in any system. It is the modern equivalent of an occupying, exploitative force in the land. Nothing short of sustained worldwide co-operation is required to ensure the fair sharing of wealth.
The aim of Christian Social-ism is to strike a healthy balance between getting the best out of collective endeavour, celebrating diversity, caring for the vulnerable, enterprise, competition, generating wealth – and living sustainably in Creation.
So our sweet-smelling baby now looks like this: genuinely representative government, regularly refreshed, with authority devolved to the lowest practical level, to overcome centralised ideology and to encourage local engagement, responsibility, and resilience. It seeks constructive, creative relationships with its neighbours, near and far. The public space is generously provided. There is a strong civil administration, and rigorous upholding of the law. It takes no more from Nature than can be returned.
Since no single political party has a monopoly on worthy aims, they actively collaborate within this framework. The Churches – and, indeed, other faith communities – have an important, active role in keeping them focussed.
The outcome of such a Report depends not so much on its own merits as on succeeding legislators. Who is tomorrow’s Clement Attlee?
Featured image: The Shaw Window, Fabian Society CC By 2.0 Designed by George Bernard Shaw and created by Caroline Townshend in 1910 as a commemoration of the Fabian Society. It shows Shaw with Sidney Webb and ER Pease, among others, helping to build a new world:
Biblical references: Mark 12:31; John 12:8; Deuteronomy 15:11; Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 12:13-21; 2 Corinthians 8:15; Psalm 8:5; Genesis 1:28-31; Exodus 19-40; John 4:7-26; Matthew 15:21-28; Luke 10:30-37; Galatians 3:28.
Report of Scottish Government Advisory Group on Economic Recovery: Scottish Government publications
The Beveridge Report 1942: Free download