The 2005 General Election
Elements of a political agenda for prophets
by Cornelius Conwell


The public dimension of faith
Towards the end of March the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales issued a four-page letter suggesting some “key issues” for Catholic voters to consider before deciding which political party to support in the anticipated general election.[1]
“As Catholics,” the bishops declared, “we are called to work for a world shaped by the gospel of Christ.” The “truths of the gospel have implications for how we are to live in society for the good of all”. Catholic social teaching, centred on the concept of the Common Good, “provides a way of thinking about the public side of our faith” and “helps us all to reflect on the political world in the context of our relationship with God”.
The bishops’ letter resembles previous political statements in its vague generality, both in tone and content. Supporters of all parties from the RESPECT Coalition to the BNP would presumably claim – in their own terms – that their policies promote “a society and a world in which all thrive”. All would assert their solemn commitment to “life and human flourishing”.
The letter also contains some passing references to “restlessness, fragmentation, moral confusion” as features of modern British culture, but no interpretation or analysis is offered of these undeniably significant phenomena. What is the point of merely skimming the surface of the social and political world? Far more needs to be said. The bishops should have detailed some of the areas where they think British people feel restless, fragmented and confused and – more important - suggested reasons why.
As it is, the bishops’ March letter fails even more markedly than their interventions of past years to analyse social and political reality from anything approaching an intelligent Christian perspective. Rather, the reflections contained in the letter illustrate the bland, conformist and unprophetic mentality of its authors. In the following remarks I would like to advert to some of the passages in the letter and trace the lines of a more thoroughgoing critique.
“Don’t mention the war!”
The single most important action of the Labour government now seeking re-election is its participation in the American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bush administration obtained a UN Security Council resolution to give legal cover for its attack on the Taliban, but when British public opinion and significant sections of the establishment clearly opposed the idea of further military action in Iraq the Blair government responded with an avalanche of hysterical, deceitful propaganda without parallel in modern British political history. Since the invasion all the government’s professed reasons for taking part in the war – weapons of mass destruction, imminent threat to Britain, liberation of the Iraqi people - have been exposed as lies.
Scores of thousands of innocent men, women and children are dead, many thousands of others maimed for life. The long-term emotional and psychological effects of the US-British Blitzkrieg and the continuing occupation are scarcely discussed in the British news media. The “War on Terror” – recently reconstituted by the Bush administration into the even wider-reaching and more nebulous “war on tyranny” – has been used in Britain, as elsewhere, as a pretext for curtailing civil liberties and assuming greater government powers of surveillance and intrusion.
You would think that Church leaders purportedly concerned about “equality and respect for the human rights of every person” might question whether a Prime Minister and a cabinet responsible for a blatant war of conquest deserve the vote of a single Christian believer or whether Blair and co. deserve rather to be tried at the International Criminal Court for waging an unprovoked, illegal war.
You might also expect that a Church leadership anxious to highlight the political implications of the gospel message would encourage ordinary Church members to reflect critically on the real reasons behind the “war on terror”: the seizure and control of oil resources in two of the most important oil-producing regions of the world (the Caspian Basin and the Middle East); the extension of “full spectrum dominance” by the US military and its allies at no matter what human cost; the diversion of attention from the deepening inequalities and destructive, alienating influences at work in the advanced capitalist countries.
Instead the bishops remained totally silent on the subject. Launching the document in mid-March Cardinal Murphy O’Connor chose to emphasise the Tory leader’s comments about favouring a reduction in the legal time-limit for abortion, implying that for this “key” reason alone many Catholics should consider abandoning their traditional support for the Labour party and vote Conservative instead!
To concentrate on such a narrow agenda in the aftermath of an aggressive war, undertaken for entirely spurious reasons, betrays a very limited concern about what is currently going on in the world.
Evidence of some grasp of the broad historical context in which the 2005 election is taking place would have been welcome, but the bishops show no sign of recognising the significance of the events of recent years - the breakdown of the social democratic consensus, the triumph of ruthless corporate capitalism, the growing concentration of state power. They raise no protest against the powerful economic interests which are shaping the modern world increasingly, as we now see, through resort to imperialism and military violence. They appear oblivious of the degeneration of representative democracy as the members of the governing elite, no longer divided by major ideological issues, compete solely to fulfil the demands of big business.
Marriage and the Family
Even on the issues which they choose to highlight the bishops offer clichéd observations devoid of useful analysis.
“Families today are both more diverse and more fragile than a generation ago,” they state, “leading to far-reaching consequences, especially for children and the elderly….Legislation and policy needs to be assessed for its impact on families, for instance whether it strengthens their relationships or undermines their capacity to survive and grow”. The Church’s opposition to euthanasia, abortion, and cloning of human embryos is reiterated. But again what is missing is some framework of interpretation, explanation and critique.
Stable family relationships and the values of respect and care for children and the very old are under threat because a basic attitude of considering the needs or wishes of others finds no place in the social milieu fostered by capitalism. At the height of the corporate revolution in the 1980’s it was Cardinal Ratzinger - now Pope Benedict XVI and hardly the most obvious example of a ranting Trotskyist - who pointed out the simple truth that permissiveness in sexual relationships was the counterpart of laissez-faire liberalism in the economic field. “The model of the free market,” he said, “imposes its implacable laws on every aspect of life.”
Capitalism is not morally neutral but shapes the attitudes and moral values of those who live under it in its own selfish, utilitarian image. By overemphasising the competitive and possessive aspects of human nature it engenders in people its own distinctive form of consciousness and character.
Especially through mass advertising and the commercial entertainment and leisure industry, citizens of the economically advanced countries have been educated in the values of acquisitiveness and unrestricted “freedom of choice” and conditioned to expect high levels of personal enjoyment and gratification. Nobody should be surprised if these tendencies have produced a selfish, assertive individualism which disregards the needs of others and demands ever more specific “designer” products from clothes to cars to babies. The various types of “anti-social behaviour” which have attracted so much notice in recent years are the logical outcome of the whole process of character-formation under consumer capitalism.
The psychotherapist David Smail, like the bishops, has noticed the fragilities and failures of family life in contemporary society. Unlike them he locates blame squarely with the “spiritually mutilating economic values” by which the profit system shapes people’s consciousness with regard to their personalities and their relationships:
“Over and over again we try to turn actions into entities, conduct into commodity, abstract into concrete, quality into quantity. This, of course, not out of wilful stupidity, but because we are immersed in a society which depends for its continued functioning on the manufacture of satisfactions and the manipulation of interests. The state of the consumer’s nervous system becomes the most potent ‘variable’ in the selling process: if there are pleasant sensations attached to any form of activity, including activities which we pursue together (i.e. relatedly), they must be isolated, commodified, and brought into the market-place”.[2]
Smail goes on: “What seems increasingly to be characteristic of our ‘relationships’ as a whole is a lack of charity, an absence of the forbearance and respect in the face of ‘otherness’ which are necessary to an acceptance of each other as fully human. The perception of each other as vehicles of commodified satisfaction which market values imposes feeds fantasied expectations, the inevitable frustration of which can only result in desperate neediness and anger”.[3]
In the face of such widespread emotional dysfunction individual therapy alone will not bring healing - indeed modern capitalism turns therapy and counselling into a money-making industry which, by concentrating on the client’s mental state, in isolation from the social context, leaves many of the underlying causes of alienation untouched. The larger patterns of power and wealth in society, and the ideologies erected to maintain them, must also be attacked if people’s capacity for mature, respectful and loving relationships is to be fostered.
The “Global Common Good”
According to the bishops, “millions of people around the world lack basic food, shelter, health care and education, while we in the rich countries consume so much of the earth’s resources”. The gospel demands that the physical resources of the world be shared and the environment protected. And they add: “With the UK hosting the gathering of G8 leaders and assuming presidency of the EU member states this year, the cancellation of debt, more and better aid, and fairer trade should be at the top of the agenda for our government and all European states”.
Again, a number of dubious assumptions lies behind this list of fashionable but only superficially radical proposals.
“Globalisation” means different things to different people. At bottom it refers to the increasing integration of the global capitalist market: the organisation of all aspects of economic production, distribution and exchange on a global scale.
Since the 1980’s multinational companies and financial institutions have been increasingly able to shift production to areas of the world where conditions favour higher profits (low wages, poor health and safety provisions, no union representation, etc.). They no longer have to accept conditions imposed by national governments or tolerate the bargaining power of organised labour - crucial elements in the Keynesian model which prevailed from the end of World War II until the mid-1970’s. Firms now dictate policy and national governments jostle to attract investment with the promise of subsidies, tax exemptions, the imposition of flexible working conditions, non-union agreements and other incentives.
The observable consequences of these developments should make us cautious about using phrases like “we in the rich countries”.
In Britain, the wealth and income gap between the richest and the poorest has grown wider under New Labour than during the previous period of Conservative rule. Last autumn the Institute for Public Policy Research, a pro-Labour think-tank, had to confirm that the British population is polarised more firmly than ever “according to class and wealth”. Under Tony Blair the richest one percent of the population has more than doubled its share of national income from around 6 percent in 1980 to 13 percent in 1999.
According to the IPPR’s “social justice audit”, between 1990 and 2000 the percentage of wealth held by the richest 10 percent of the population increased from 47 percent to 54 percent. Also, in spite of the fact that – as Blair constantly boasts – the British economy has experienced continued growth for many years, with employment rates steadily increasing, inequality in disposable income (after taxes and benefits are accounted for) has also increased.
This trend was confirmed by the recent Sunday Times Rich List of the 1,000 wealthiest people in Britain. Between them they now own £249,615 billion, up from £98.99 billion when Labour took office. The Office for National Statistics similarly reports that the richest 1 percent of the population (600,000 people) doubled their wealth to £797 billion in the first six years of the Labour government: they now own 23 percent of the total national wealth as opposed to the 5 percent shared by the entire bottom half of the population. So when the bishops address their readers as “we, the rich” it is necessary to introduce some precisions.
In the light of these tendencies and the servility of the political class to the goals of business, are we not right in thinking there is something naïve about the bishops’ belief that UK participation in the G8 gatherings and suchlike is likely to enhance any movement towards global economic justice?
Well-meaning appeals for fairer trade relations and the cancellation of Third World debt, etc. assume, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the political and business élite will actually tolerate major adjustments or redirection, or reductions in profits.
The corporate world may well encourage a few palliative measures as a means of suppressing more radical solutions, but we would be unwise to believe that global poverty can be eliminated by fun-runs, charity discos or by the minor concessions wrung from the financial maestros of the G8. If it is possible to reconcile the “global common good” with the inherent tendencies of the profit system, how do the bishops and trade campaigners explain the new era of colonial war and competition for raw materials opened by the United States, and the coercive “security” measures being gradually built-up by governments for use against their own citizens?
The truth, as we can now perceive only too well from the situation at home and abroad, is that exploitation, polarisation and an increasing resort to militarism is the latest and unavoidable stage of world-wide capitalist development. The old social-democratic or reformist ideal, which sought to manage the market, redistribute wealth and eradicate the extremes of poverty has been discarded and capitalism is returning to type. Crucially, electoral politics have degenerated into a meaningless charade which fails to represent the interests of ordinary people or the poorest sections of society and offers no prospect of major social change.
“Another world is possible”
During the nineteenth century the brutalities of industrialisation were not mitigated by the kindness or the tender consciences of the new entrepreneurial class but through mass labour movements fighting for political reforms, improvements in living and working conditions and elementary human rights. Our present situation of rising global crisis calls for a similar movement, adapted to modern conditions, which will expose false representations of social reality, counter defeatism and encourage the hope that – as the World Social Forum has it - “another world is possible”.
The large number of non-governmental organisations and campaigning groups which adopt an explicitly anti-capitalist stance and work outside conventional party politics may gradually coalesce into just such a homogeneous movement. Happily there are many church groups involved in the anti-capitalist campaigns and the supporters of third world Liberation Theology continue to bring the perspectives of a prophetic Christianity to the developing vision.
Rather than showing how embedded they are in the present bankrupt system I would like to see Catholic church leaders in our own country imitate the example of their fellow-believers from the south and lend their wholehearted support to the new, extra-parliamentary movements. But reviewing their most recent commentary on the British political scene I’m not holding my breath.


Notes and References
[1] The four page letter was distributed to Catholic parishes throughout England and Wales in March and is also available at http://www.catholicchurch.org.uk/election/letter.htm
[2] David Smail, Taking Care, 1987 (reprinted 1998) Constable and Company, London, p.96.
[3] Ibid., p.120.