Seasonal Greetings and Christian Values
In their recent Seasonal Messages the leaders of all our main political parties called in one way or another for a return to Christian values. It wasn’t always clear whether these values included belief in a deity, but the party-leaders were unanimous about charity. Perhaps they would also want to include humility? This would be a fine thing. After all, it was of this grace that Augustine said that it was the first thing in Christianity, and the second thing, and the third thing; and if our leaders espouse it we are left with an alluring picture of Messrs Cameron, Milliband and Clegg standing outside No. 10 each saying to the other, ‘After you!’ (with a wistful Mr. Salmond looking on).
But humility comes at a price. Thinking others better than yourself and putting their interests before your own doesn’t come to any of us naturally, and least of all to politicians. Humility is not an act, but an attitude of mind. It is the willingness to be nothing, and it’s no guarantee of a Nobel Peace Prize. In fact, the only man who ever really exemplified it ended up being crucified, and that wasn’t just by the press.
We’ll watch this new Reality Show with interest, giving points for every moment when a Prince of Politics shows humility. Perhaps we’ll see a new kind of Prime Minister’s Question Time in which all the participants emulate the Man on the Cross who, when reviled, reviled not again; and when libelled, sued not.
The worry is that the whole-hearted adoption of Christian values would make politics impossible. That’s not as daft as it sounds, or even original. I owe it to Thomas Chalmers, who once remarked that the consistent application of Christianity to commerce would make commerce impossible. Imagine a major company where there was no talking-up of the product, no talking-down of wages, no late paying of bills, no tax-avoidance and no creative accounting!
And imagine a Christian government led by a man (or woman) as wise as Solomon. How wise was that? So wise that he was driven by no ambition, and so wise that he felt both unworthy and unfit for the task of government. ‘Who am I,’ he groaned, ‘that I should lead this so great a country!’ He’d be hard pressed to get a nomination, let alone a seat, in today’s political world.
The other great Christian value was defined by Jesus himself when he said, ‘Blessed are the poor’ and driven home by his apostles when they laid down the categorical principle, ‘Remember the poor.’
I’ll grind out the old organ once again, then. The only defensible form of government is one that governs for the poor: the financially poor, the fuel-poor, the food-poor, the housing-poor; and beside them those many others who are poor in influence and poor in hope. And the strategy has to be a direct one, avoiding the invidious idea that if you safeguard the interests of investors and shareholders then some Invisible Hand will ensure that the benefits percolate down to the financially powerless. In a world where there are always more job-seekers than jobs such a strategy will simply perpetuate inequalities.
Not that poverty is simply a matter of jobless-ness. David Cameron once spoke of a government which would meet people’s aspirations, and no one could fault him for that. The problem is that in housing-schemes up and down the country there are thousands of people who have no aspirations because they’ve never known a church or a school or a community which could give them aspirations; and it can sometimes be more difficult to inspire a dream than to meet it.
It is often in that dream-less, aspiration-free world that we encounter the unmentionable: the moral causes of poverty, some of them of government’s own making. One of the worst legacies of the Blair years was the National Lottery, pulling in its train a thriving gambling industry. Walk into any supermarket, even in Stornoway, and the first thing you see is a queue buying lottery-tickets. Switch on your TV (particularly its sports channels) and there is Ian Botham or some other sporting-icon promoting a betting company.
These are not Christian values. They are heartless, dishonest ways of parting the poor from their money. Gambling has become part of the weekly domestic budget, and the poorer the aspirations the greater the temptation to dream of it as a way of escape. The poor, said a wise man, are often the worst economists. Few stop to realise that for the price of a weekly lottery-ticket they could buy a half-decent insurance policy.
And now, finally, the Annual Footnotes Awards Ceremony.
The first award goes to Miss Nicola Sturgeon, who has really grown in stature this year due to her remarkable skill in walking with poise and assurance on incredibly high heels. She has shown conclusively that in at least one department women are far more talented than men.
The second award goes to the Meekest Community of the Year. The clear winner is the Island of Lewis. Having long suffered exorbitant fuel charges, electricity surcharges, regular power-cuts, additional delivery-costs imposed by mail-order companies, and weekly disruptions to ferry-services, they have now been told that for six weeks next year there will be no car-ferry between Ullapool and Stornoway. All of this they (and especially their MP and MSP) have taken with exemplary meekness, presumably because they know that CalMac is owned by the Scottish Government and the Bible says that we are to submit to the powers that be. Although accustomed to challenging the ways of God, the community has not thought to challenge the ways of CalMac and to ask why every deadline relating to the new ferry was missed; or why it was only after it was built that someone realised that work on one pier was far behind schedule, and that the link-span at the other end was obsolete. What a beautiful contrast between the meekness of islanders and the strident calls for the heads of rail bosses following one day of train chaos in London.
The final award goes to the Biggest Moaner of the Year. It goes to myself, and this is the one award on which the judges were unanimous. They said my work was a brilliant example of the culture of ‘Obh, Obh! Eheu! and Alas!’
In which case I’d better finish with a moan: ‘No one listens to a word I say.’
This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press 2nd January 2015