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Author Archives: David Shaw

The Cost of Living With the Failure of False Promises

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As the UK continues to limp through yet another in the long list of crises it has experienced since the 2008 financial crash, the Prime Minister is filling our television screens and newspapers with his five pledges.  Politicians presenting us with a list of promises is nothing new.   Ed Miliband was mocked for offering up his six promises carved into stone.  In 1979 Margaret Thatcher informed voters that she had five tasks for any future government.  These lists usually end up as nothing more than soundbites or footnotes in books that undergraduates pretend to read.  The Prime Minister’s five pledges appear to be destined for the same fate as they fail to address the scale of the cost-of-living crisis.  This latest set of promises sound increasingly hollow as mortgages, rent, food, and utility bills spiral upwards.  All the previous claims of a commitment to levelling up and building back better have failed to get beyond a memo on a civil servant’s desk.  As our high street lose shops, rivers overflow with sewage, and the NHS experiences ever-increasing waiting lists, these pledges are increasingly recognised for what they are, a succession of false promises.  Yet, society has not always spotted the deception that underpins such deceit.

Creating lists, wanting to carve out clear objectives is nothing new.  Few have stood the test of time.   There are exceptions.  William Beveridge promised to eradicate the five giant evils in the new post-war world; Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness.  He already had a reputation as one of the most significant British intellectual voices of the 20th Century.  He was influenced by two important friends: Richard Tawney, and William Temple.  In Christianity and Social Order Temple set out his principles to establish a flourishing post-war Britian.  That families should be housed with decency, that every child should have an education to meet their full capabilities, that every person should an income to provide a secure and stable home, that people have a voice in the conduct of business and industry, and that industry is directed for the well-being of the whole community, and finally that every person should have enough income left over to allow time for the pursuit of leisure and personal interest. 

Beveridge, Tawney, and Temple had gone into communities and viewed at first hand the consequences of unemployment, low pay, and poverty.  Furthermore, they recognised how regional disparities in wealth exacerbated the situation for many.  They were determined to discover why the UK could produce vast wealth, whilst at the same time many were crushed by grinding poverty.   Their work, pledges, and promises were based on the profound moral belief that the whole community should flourish and be placed before individual, and sectional interests.  Each of them processed a sense of genuineness and energy that made them and their vision immensely popular.

There are, however, considerable differences between the objectives of Beveridge, Tawney, and Temple with those of the current Prime Minister.  The present government continues to promote and defend sectional interests ahead of community.  People are demonised as undeserving, and that poverty is always the result of personal failings.  They want us to believe that the five giant evils are the fault of others, not the result of the Governments political choices.  Further, those who sit in comfort of the government front benches have made no effort to grasp the meaning and consequences of poverty in 21st Century Britain.  They try and frame austerity as a virtue having never experienced the stress of food prices rising at twice the rate of wages.    The moral energy and principles of Beveridge, Temple, and Tawney have been abandoned as we are encouraged to embrace selfishness individualism and not to concern ourselves with the consequences this has for others.

As we marked last weekend the 75th Anniversary of the founding of the NHS the consequences of false promises have once again been thrown into sharp focus.  The latest King Fund’s report shows the results of years of austerity, underfunding and neglect. The UK now has a below average investment in healthcare infrastructure, fewer doctors and nurses, and high mortality rates (Guardian 2023).  These are the repercussions of the failure to address deep-rooted societal fractures identified by Professor Sir Michael Marmot and others.    Rather than addressing the criticism of world-renowned experts such as Marmot, the Department of Health has simply chosen to echo the Prime Minister’s false promises.  The use of soundbites to repudiate well-researched, robust evidence is thread running through the last twelve years.  Boris Johnson dismissed health and life expectancy, proclaiming that wage growth was the only metric that mattered.  When presented with evidence of the effects of austerity at the COVID inquiry, David Cameron and George Osborne dismissed it with a confident hubris that comes from vast reserves of privilege and cultural capital.

The trick at the centre of the false promise is that it manipulates people into thinking that they will deliver our needs and wants.  Yet when examined closely we have been misled into wanting things that we do not need and believing what is untrue.  If this fails, then we are told that others are to blame and that more lists and new objectives are needed. The hope is that as false promises are recycled, we will support them in the belief that this time they will work.

As the NHS approaches its 75th year, over a decade of neglect has taken its toll.  It is now beyond time to reject false claims and promises.  We must stop blaming others for our discomfort.  The cost of living with false promises is that it continues to dehumanise, it allows distrust to fester, and provides a veil to hide our diminishing sense of values.  Beveridge, Temple, and Tawney showed that principle could have a significant impact in the public square.  There is a pressing need to discover dynamic principles that are fit for the 21st Century, that build fellowship, community connection, collaboration, shared ambitions, and resist the temptation of rhetoric devoid of moral thought, wisdom, and insight.

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Well, How Did You Become King Then?

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In Monty Python and The Holy Grail’s famous constitutional peasants’ scene, King Arthur is asked ‘How did you become king’?  What follows is a four-minute autopsy of power, sovereignty, historiography, and tradition reduced to the absurd.  Despite the best efforts of the Arthur, Dennis the peasant rejects Arthur’s claim to be ‘King of the Britons’.   He tells Arthur that monarchy is no basis for a system of Government.  Dennis may well have a point.

Many will argue that the coronation and the monarchy represent thousands of years of British history, running like a continuous thread.  Yet, succession has rarely been straightforward.  It is a story of claims, usurpation, conquests, seizure, offers, treaty, and acts.  That’s even before we consider primogeniture.

English tradition can be traced to the 10th-Century.  It claims historic links to the anointing of Solomon.  In the separate Scottish tradition, monarchs would be crowned on the stone of Scone, which is claimed by both English and Scottish myth to have links to the biblical Jacob, via Tara and the High Kings of Ireland. King Edward I pinched the stone as war booty and incorporated it into the English coronation chair.  Even after the 1603 Union of the Crowns, there were separate coronations in Scotland and England.  The Scottish ceremony had retained the tradition that the king should be elected or selected by the Scottish ‘three estates’.  After 1707 Scottish law and tradition was incorporated into English ceremony.  The coronation and the monarch became British.  The Union of Scotland with England was not popular in Scotland.  It took a lot of cajolery and money to ‘persuade’ Scottish MPs to vote for Union.  The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland exists due to parliamentary politics, wealth, and power.  The British Union came into existence through parliament and treaty, not due the will of any monarch. It is Parliament that makes or unmakes the monarch.    Arthur’s claim to be the historic King of the Britons is on shaky ground.

Those who defend the monarchy claim that it is purely a ceremonial position.  There is certainly a lot of ceremony to get through.  There is the State Opening of Parliament, Trooping the Colour, Remembrance Sunday, Investitures, and State Visits & Banquets.  In addition, there is the Garter Day Service, Maundy Service, the Ceremony of the Keys, – and we must not forget the Kings Swan Marker and the annual Swan Upping. In between all these grand state occasions there is the occasional ribbon cutting, tree planting and garden party.  It is a good show and sells a lot of mugs and tea towels, but that ermine and gold braid costs an awful lot of money.   It is far from clear exactly how much it does cost.  

Claims that the monarchy is purely ceremonial are also open to challenge.  There remains a veil of secrecy that surrounds the Royal Family and how it is financed.  The wealth generated by the Duchy of Cornwall is exempt from corporation tax.  Any efforts at scrutiny have quickly been shut down.  No other individual or group is allowed to arrange their own ad-hoc tax arrangement, yet that appears to be the case with the Duchy of Cornwall.  Further, the new King Charles III will rule over lingering remnants of an empire that are globally infamous tax havens.

The monarch is also granted immunity from a considerable number of laws.  Defenders argue that this is tradition, doctrine, and convention.  This defence is based on the idea that monarch remains the source of law and justice.  It is the Crown, understood to be Government and Monarchy that sets the law.  So, in theory, as the source of law, the Crown cannot prosecute itself.  However, this immunity has been expanded to include the monarch as a private person.  It took a decade to uncover the secret lobbying Prince Charles, who is now King Charles III.  In response to these efforts the monarch is now absolutely and without question exempt from any freedom of information request. No other private individual receives such protection.

The monarchy is clearly at odds with the democratic ideal of one vote of equal value for all.  Long term trends show that its popularity is declining.  However, replacing it is not simple.  It would probably require a written constitution.  Whilst this constitution would have to be agreed by popular vote, those who hold the pen that writes any constitution have significant control over its content. Further, there would be the temptation to make any new head of state a political position.  In the previous decade we have seen governments willing to play hard and fast with the constitution using every tool available to avoid public oversight.  There is a risk that any new head of state could add further to this.  There are worries over the status of the Church of England.  The Church of England faces far more immediate challenges than the status of the monarchy. Faith though, is resilient.  It would survive the removal of the monarch. 

It is our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland that offer a potential solution to our problems with the monarchy.  Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese, and Michael D. Higgins have transformed the role of the Uachtarán na hÉireann (the President of Ireland).  It has been depoliticised, it is constantly evolving, and allows a public debate about the nature and character of Ireland and Irishness.  They offer a function and space that the United Kingdom currently lacks.

In a four-minute scene King Arthur and Dennis ask us to consider some serious questions about power, wealth, and government.  As we approach the royal coronation, these questions have become relevant once again.  The British monarchy is the result of the quest for power, wealth, and political convenience.  For most people, its day-to-day relevance is non-existent.  Claims that it is simply ceremonial do not stand scrutiny.  Those who contend that it offers stability have never had to face daily questions concerning how they can heat their home or access a food bank. NHS waiting lists are at record levels as our health service limps from crisis to crisis. Workers, such as those at P and O have been sacked with little thought for law or justice.  Life in the United Kingdom is far from stable for many.

As we finish our coronation quiche, it is now time to consider the role and the status of the monarchy.  Dennis had a point: monarchy is no basis for government. Yet we must also be careful with what we might wish to put in its place.

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Review of ‘Catholic Social Teaching and Theologies of Peace in Northern Ireland’ by Maria Power

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David Shaw finds much to admire in this study of Cardinal Cahal Daly and his role in peace-making in Northern Ireland.

The number of books covering the violence, politics, and historical dynamics of Northern Ireland from 1968 to 1998 is considerable and continues to grow. It has been approached by authors seeking to understand the long historical processes of conflict in Ireland and those who focus on the thirty years from 1968 to 1998. Within this, the complexity of the role of the Catholic Church has been placed in both a political and religious context. The reader of political biographies is also well served with critical appraisals of the key political figures.  However, theological studies of prominent religious voices remain sparse.

One of the key religious voices throughout this period was Cardinal Cahal Daly—and he is the subject of Maria Power’s new work. This is not a historical biography, but an ecclesial study of Daly and how he and the Church responded to the violence in Northern Ireland in the spirit of the new mission set out by the Second Vatican Council. Although the impact of the Vatican II—its reception, ramifications for the Church in the Republic of Ireland, and its message to the Irish nation—have been explored in books and journals, its consequences for peace in Northern Ireland has been neglected. As a peritus (theological expert) at the Second Vatican Council, Bishop, and later Cardinal in Northern Ireland Daly had first-hand experience of both events. This book explores his approach to peace in Northern Ireland following the Second Vatican Council. It examines Daly as a Roman Catholic first, and an Irish nationalist second—something which Daly himself would have agreed with.

Making considerable use of Daly’s own writing, Catholic Church publications, Papal encyclicals, and substantial secondary reading in support, Power provides the reader with a thorough, and highly detailed assessment of an ecclesial mission focussed on peace and social justice in the context of Northern Ireland from the outbreak of violence in 1968 until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Daly faced two challenges in Northern Ireland. First, to encourage both Catholics and Protestants to consider what it meant to be Christian in the face of modern, mechanical violence. Second, to ask Christians to imagine a new vision for Northern Ireland, with love and social justice at the core of any future peace agreement. Power surveys how prayer, ecumenism, and dialogue were used to galvanise Christians in a new mission. The purpose of that mission was to foster mutual understanding, the rejection of sectarianism, and to embrace, not to reject, the other in the search for justice.

Power examines how Daly argued that, for a peaceable kingdom to be established, it could not be separated from social and economic considerations. It was his view that, as a lived belief, justice was integral to Christianity. Justice for Daly was not just about individual experience it was also deeply spiritual and had to be experienced by the whole community. He thought that public spending, the governments that provided it, and those who received it should use their conscience to ensure a moral commitment to a fairer society for all. For Daly, Christian convictions did not stop at the church gate but should be a public voice used for wider conscience-raising for peace, within which economic and social justice were integral components.

If peace with justice was to be achieved in Northern Ireland Daly encouraged Christians to become part of a politically active public sphere. This approach was anchored in Vatican II and the idea of a church in the service of society. Daly rejected the idea of a confessional state but did think that political thought should be rooted within individual and community moral conscience. It had to become a moral influence within political and public space, not the owner or driver of political power. Daly wanted to ensure that politics recognised that it had a moral obligation to establish the well-being of all within the community, especially those labelled as the other. This was a sophisticated and profound message: to understand and express concern for the rights of all. He argued that, for peace to be achieved, governments had to recognise their responsibility and that the state should be a mechanism for the promotion of the common good.

Whilst the church took the view that, whilst peace was always the ideal, if violence did occur, then it had to be subject to constant moral inquiry. The exploration of the arguments that Daly and the Church had with the IRA over Just War theory and the legitimate use of violence is a thorough, well researched, and important addition to existing published work.  For Daly, violence, whoever used it, ultimately prevented a flourishing, dignified life. It destroyed individual conscience and encouraged a descent into a circle of violence. The message from Daly was clear: violence will ultimately destroy what you are trying to create or defend.

What Power has revealed are communities and individuals in Northern Ireland coming to terms with the move to bring the Catholic Church into the modern world, whilst experiencing the trauma of years of sustained violence. It is a meticulous analysis of the Catholic Church’s theological and philosophical response to conflict in Northern Ireland with rigour, depth, and expertise.

It is an exploration of faith in the public square that Power argues has been forgotten by the Church today and is now slow to make its voice heard. It has become reluctant to provide a voice for the voiceless. The lesson provided by Daly is that we all must work continuously for peace and justice. Given the current level of growing tensions over the impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, it is a voice such as Daly that Catholicism needs to find once again.

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