Applying Catholic ethics
Verdict on a Big Idea
Rowan Williams’ criticism of the ‘Big Society’ idea has focused concern about the values and purpose of one of David Cameron’s f lagship projects. Last week, academics and social policy experts gathered to consider how the notion matches up to the ideals of Catholic Social Thought
Is the Government’s “Big Society” project simply “aspirational waffle”, little more than a cover for cuts and an excuse for withdrawing the state from the delivery of services essential for the most vulnerable in our society? The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, seems to think so, to judge by the extracts from his forthcoming book, Faith in the Public Square, that appeared in The Observer last Sunday.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols initially welcomed the Big Society programme but warned last year that it should not be a “cover for cuts”. If these accusations and fears are an accurate assessment of the project, then Catholics would have little choice but to reject and even actively oppose it. But how justified are they?
The Von Hügel Institute at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, has conducted a yearlong research project, funded by the Plater Trust, to evaluate the Big Society programme in the light of Catholic Social Thought (CST). Church leaders should wait for empirical research to evaluate this vast programme using the tried and tested methods of the social sciences to be carried out before they pronounce on its value. We sought to answer some key research questions. What does the Big Society mean anyway? This is the question most people ask themselves, scratching their heads. Is it simply rhetoric or, as Rowan Williams put it, “aspirational waffle” and a cover for cuts, or is there more to it? Was CST one of the sources of the idea?
Even if not, how should CST evaluate it? More practically, how should the Catholic Church – the bishops, clergy and the various Catholic organisations involved in the delivery of a vast array of public services – respond to it? If it is simply a “cover for cuts”, then we should oppose it. But if there is more to the Big Society than that, then might it be seen as an opportunity for the Churches to engage with the state in a more positive and collaborative way, as ministers such as Eric Pickles, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, have suggested?
So what is the Big Society all about? Perhaps the name itself is unfortunate – it sounds a rather vacuous and woolly concept, like Tony Blair’s “Third Way”, and, even more unfortunately, its initials conjure up something else.
In fact, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the Minister for Decentralisation, Greg Clark, have stated its aims quite clearly: public sector reform to reduce dependency on the state; community empowerment to allow people to help themselves; and philanthropic action and altruism delivered by charities,
There is a danger that essential services for the most vulnerable will be reduced or cut altogether social enterprises, volunteers and givers. Cameron and Clark have also identified the methods to achieve these ends: decentralisation or the redistribution of power; transparency or the redistribution of knowledge; and social finance or the redistribution of money and other assets.
Nice sound bites, one might say, but do they simply amount to no more than a “cover for cuts”? It is certainly unfortunate that the programme has been introduced during the worst global financial crisis since 1929. We should note, though, that although the term itself was first used by Cameron in his Hugo Young
Lecture in November 2009, the basic concepts of the Big Society were formulated before the financial crisis. Other key influences were the “Broken Britain” analysis of Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice and the social and economic analyses of Phillip Blond’s ResPublica think tank.
The influence of Catholic Social Thought is evident behind the work of these two figures. Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, is a Catholic, and Blond is an Anglo-Catholic whose work draws explicitly on CST as well as on the Distributist tradition of Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. Blond’s work has the merit of providing practical policy approaches, such as his ideas of “community enterprises” or a “Big Society Bank”. Another key intellectual influence is the Conservative MP, Jesse Norman, who has developed the idea in a more secular, philosophical manner, with little reference to any religious tradition.
All these figures wish to overcome the legacy of Thatcherite neo-liberalism in the Conservative Party and perhaps return it instead to another, Burkean conservative tradition, which emphasises the “little platoons” of civil society. Although critical of the Big Society, the Labour social thinker, Lord Glasman, and Jon Cruddas, the MP and Shadow Cabinet minister leading the party’s policy review, have promoted similar ideas under the guise of “Blue Labour”.
The stated aims of the Big Society programme seem to us to overlap with Catholic Social Thought. But what do they mean in practice? Are they mere rhetoric? In our opinion, it would be a mistake to dismiss them so easily.
It is right, though, to be cautious and even sceptical as to whether the aims of the Big Society will ever be fully achieved. Our research shows that even within government there is no coherent understanding of what the Big Society means. The Treasury is more concerned with implementing its austerity programme, while the Department of Communities and Local Government, on the other hand, is more committed to it. The Chancellor, George Osborne, has shown little interest in the Big Society while Eric Pickles seems to be relatively keen, at least on its decentralisation component. But there remains a very confused understanding in
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Despite this ambiguity and incoherence, a considerable legislative programme seeks to achieve the stated aims of the Big Society. We have identified nine bills which have either gone through or are going through Parliament which are related to the Big Society programme. These include the Localism Act (2011) and the Public Services (Social Value) Act (2012). Several concrete policy and institutional initiatives, from the creation of the Big Society Bank to a community “right to bid” on assets of community value such as libraries and parks or the election of police commissioners, have come out of this legislation.
How should the Catholic Church evaluate this programme? First, we think it should respond in an open-minded way and not on the basis of preconceived ideas. Some of those we interviewed for our research were deeply hostile to the Conservative Party and could see no good coming from it. This is a mistaken attitude.
Secondly, it should recognise that the Big Society programme will have a significant impact on a wide range of policy areas and public services, even if this impact is less than the achievement of all the stated aims of the programme. This is already evident in the fields of education, social welfare and local government.
Thirdly, there is a danger that essential services for the most vulnerable will be reduced or cut altogether. The Church, always making a “preferential option for the poor”, should rightly protest against this happening. Nevertheless, it should also recognise that some aspects of social welfarism have created a culture of dependency which, in fact, undermines the dignity of the poor. As Lord Glasman commented at our conference last week: “Catholic Social Teaching can act as a corrective to the imperfections of the Big Society”. Fourthly, more positively, we can see elements of the Big Society programme – such as the notion of social enterprise – as opportunities to engage with the state in a more positive and collaborative manner than has been the case under previous governments.
Finally, the Catholic Church has an opportunity to renew its own “Social Thought” in the light of the radical transformations of our political, economic, social and cultural systems over the last 30 years. This means rethinking our position with regard to the state, the market and society and their relationship with each other, as well as the meanings of subsidiarity and solidarity.
■ Professor John Loughlin is director of the Von Hügel Institute and a fellow of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. Papers from the conference on “Catholic Social Thought and the Big Society”, held at St Edmund’s College on 25-26 June, are available at www.vonhugel.org.uk.
‘Aristotle and all he represents is perhaps our last hope’
The Labour MP Jon Cruddas, recently put in charge of drafting his party’s strategy for the next election, predicted not long ago that the fundamental choice facing Western societies would be between the free market and Aristotle. This is a political change of tone of some significance. What influential left-wing intellectual would have said such a thing 10 or 20 years ago?
Let us compare these rivals. In the right-hand corner stands freemarket economics, wedded to the proposition that what motivates us is money. As Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interests.” But if he pursues his own interests, “intending only his own gain”, said Smith, then he is “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention”, namely the prosperity of society.
Economies founded on such principles generate their own contradictions, which Karl Marx thought would inevitably prove fatal to them. So Marxism and free-market economics are a pair, in that both of them look to dynamic forces beyond human control – one beneficial, thanks to an “invisible hand”, and one destructive, class warfare and revolution.
Two important things have happened to these false prophecies. First, at least since 2008, freemarket economics has suddenly ceased to be beneficial as an instrument of wealth creation and instead has become an instrument of wealth destruction on a gigantic scale. There was no invisible hand leading to prosperity after all. But secondly, the Marxist revolution did not then happen. There was no historical inevitability about it after all.
In the other corner stands Aristotle and all he represents. Our last hope, perhaps. His view, simply put, was that what was necessary for society to prosper was not so much the pursuit of self-interest but the practice of virtue. This could indeed include looking after one’s own interests, as an exercise of prudence or justice. But the emphasis was on the common good. That came first.
These two domains swirl around us in the very air we breathe. We are torn between them. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace produced a booklet earlier this year written by, and addressed to, economists and business people. It was an application of Catholic Social Teaching to the business world, in which, it shrewdly observed, many people find themselves living “divided lives”. “Obstacles to serving the common good come in many forms,” they said, “but the most significant for a business leader on a personal level is leading a ‘divided life’. This split between faith and daily business practice can lead to imbalances and misplaced devotion to worldly success.”
It could have gone further, to describe a phenomenon that characterises the age we live in. In their daily work, people in business find that they have to leave part of themselves behind if they are to operate as the business world expects. They have to become hard-nosed profit-mongers, focused like Adam Smith’s butcher, brewer and baker on shareholder value and their own pay and bonuses. Yet back home, with family and friends, indeed in all aspects of their life in civil society including their faith if they have one, they are, by and large, Aristotelians.
Virtue still lives and is respected. Indeed, it is still the predominant value system. But in all sorts of ways it is threatened by the escape of the ethos of the free market out of the bankers’ boardrooms into the high street – where it threatens to turn everything into a commodity that can be bought and sold for profit.
The principle manifestation of Aristotelian philosophy in our culture is within the Catholic Church, though other Churches and religious groups are fast cottoning on. And the principle manifestation of Aristotelian philosophy in the Catholic Church – sadly neglected though it often is – is Catholic Social Teaching.
This makes the strategic Labour Party exercise that Mr Cruddas is engaged in, a project of exceptional interest to Catholics (of which he is one, of course). But this is bigger than parties and Churches, which are attempting to articulate the common values and moral beliefs of most ordinary people, at least when not at work. How then to overcome the “divided life” phenomenon, and let Aristotle rule the workplace too? That’s the real challenge.
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