THE TABLET THE I NTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY
Founded in 1840
HARD TIMES FIRST NEED HONESTY
When the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, remarked in the course of his autumn pre-Budget statement to Parliament this week that “Governments must not assume this will happen by itself ” – referring to one aspect of his plan to stimulate growth – he was unwittingly admitting a wider truth.
The Coalition Government had assumed on taking office that contraction in the public sector, leading to large-scale redundancies, would spontaneously be matched by expansion in the private sector. It would inevitably “happen by itself ”. The freemarket theory behind this supposition was that private enterprise is automatically geared to the pursuit of profit, and was only being held back by the overblown size of the public sector. So unemployment would be quickly mopped up.
Not for the first time, people have refused to respond as fashionable economic theory said they should. The deep cuts in the public sector that are still occurring, with more planned for the future, have had no such stimulating effect. The prospects of finding work for the newly unemployed are very bleak.
So are the prospects for the economy as a whole, and the two are related. The unemployed draw state benefits, they no longer earn enough to pay tax, and they do not spend as much as they did when in work. So demand in the economy reduces automatically with rising unemployment, hitting both manufacturing and the retail sector. The fact that similar things are happening elsewhere in Europe only compounds the effect.
This is partly why Mr Osborne’s predictions of a year ago have gone awry, and why his hopes of paying off the public deficit by the end of this Parliament have been dashed. The Government has now produced a range of measures designed to kick-start the economic growth that never happened by itself, including large-scale investments in infrastructure and housing construction. Intervening to stimulate growth has become a priority.
From the point of view of the unemployed, however, it has never been anything else. They are deprived of the fundamental right to work, with all that that means in terms of damage to physical and mental well-being and the harm it does to families. Bringing unemployment down ought to be second only to deficit reduction as a government priority – and they should no longer be seen as pulling in opposite directions.
The two can reinforce each other. The same applies to cuts in benefits for those at or near the poverty line who are still in work, which have also been introduced to constrain public spending. As well as increasing a burden of hardship that is already considerable, these cuts likewise take demand out of the economy, likewise damaging the prospects for economic growth.
Having caused extra increases in the deficit by its own misjudgement, the Coalition Government must now share responsibility for its size with the Labour administration of Gordon Brown, whose insufficient prudence with the public finances has been one of the Government’s strongest arguments.
This parallel between the parties applies not just to the past but to the foreseeable future. At the next election, all parties will have to put before the voters programmes for continuing austerity, differing only in degree and timing. The days when parties seeking election offered to bribe the electorate with its own money – promising jam today, jam tomorrow – are over. That may even make the political contest more honest. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural address, mid-Depression in 1933, he famously declared that “only thing we have to fear is fear itself ”. The British would do well to remind themselves that the nation’s stagnant or slowly falling GDP is still higher than it has ever been; and a 10 per cent drop, steeper than any current estimates of a worst-case scenario, would only take it near to the level in 2005. That might be uncomfortable but it does not justify despair.
AFRICA’S WOMEN DESERVE BETTER
During the time he was in Africa last month, Pope Benedict put his signature to a document which called for the “liberation of women”. It was his official response, in the apostolic exhortation Africae Munus, to the conclusions of the Synod of African Bishops held in 2009. Indeed, throughout his visit to several African countries, he repeatedly emphasised that “without development of women, Africa will simply not develop”. So why was the welcome for his warm words tinged with some disappointment, as reflected in this week’s Tablet article by Fr Peter Henriot SJ?
The answer is that the synod itself went further than the Pope in recognising that African Catholicism has a serious difficulty when it comes to women, partly of its own making, partly the product of traditional culture. As the bishops seemed to understand, the Church, as one of the principal educators of girls in Africa, has a central role in fashioning the African woman of the future but also in making sure that Africa itself is ready for her. In comparison, the Pope’s words seemed uninspiring and routine – and rather male.
It is not enough, for instance, to recognise the crucial role a woman plays in the begetting and nurturing of children, without also seeing that that role has frequently, though usually unconsciously, been used to oppress her. For instance, women and the children they care for are the primary sufferers from the HIV-Aids epidemic in Africa, a major factor in which is male sexual irresponsibility. If they need to use condoms to protect themselves from the consequences of that, the Church should not stop them. Urging men to behave better is not realistic, and deprives women of control of their destiny. African societies are still masculine, in both their laws and their assumptions. The Church should be at the vanguard, leading the participation of women in society at the level of decision-making.
If the Church excludes them from that role in its own affairs, it is setting a bad example. African women need African women theologians who are not afraid to challenge many of the conservative assumptions of male clergy, including about female – and indeed, male – sexuality. African women need female role models in all strata of society, with every kind of vocation open to them, not just a religious one.
Nor should the role of women in working for social justice be confined to defending the family. Men have not so far made a good job of Africa, and have left corruption, oppression, inequality, disease and poverty everywhere. Women should be given the chance to do better. It is likely they can.
2 | THE TABLET | 3 December 2011