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It’s the relationships, not the economy, stupid

16 June 2017

The election may have signalled a change of national mood, says Philip North. The Church should take note


How much?: Theresa May speaks to a butcher in her constituency of Maidenhead last year

How much?: Theresa May speaks to a butcher in her constituency of Maidenhead last year

THE 2017 General Election cam­paign must surely go down as the weirdest and most unpredictable ever.

On two occasions, the campaign was interrupted by grotesque terror­ist attacks, plunging the nation into a mood of anxious soul-searching. The opinion polls swung about more than a baby monkey. New styles of online campaigning left us wondering exactly where the battle was taking place, especially when the Prime Minister was a no-show for the televised leaders’ debate.

And, on polling day, an elderly, radical politician, viscerally hated by many in his own party and char­acter-assassinated daily by a once all-powerful print media, nearly pulled off the most extraordinary win in democratic history.

But the most unpredictable as­­pect of this election may turn out to be its long-term legacy. It seems to me that politics is going through a massive change in priorities. Indeed, we could be witnessing the slow end of the politics of greed.

FOR several decades, political de­­bate has rested on one universally accepted presumption: that people will vote for their own economic well-being. Behind this lies an understanding of human happiness which renders it contingent on individual financial prosperity. If you appeal to people’s greed, you’ll win.

So, famously, in 1992, James Carville, who was then chief strat­egist to Bill Clinton, reminded the campaign team: “It’s the economy, stupid.” In the same year, a re­­surgent Labour Party, led by Neil Kinnock, lost the General Election after the Conservative Party central office turned its opponent’s mani­festo into a set of tax tables, which it faxed to its Fleet Street buddies to tell us: “What you will pay under Labour”.

Theresa May went into the 2017 election with the same presump­tion that the promise of a healthy economy is what wins votes. The heart of her campaign was the claim that she was the only per­son who could make a success of Brexit, promising to deliver a deal with Europe which would offer the country greater prosperity.

But it backfired, and did so horribly, leaving her wounded and weakened. Mrs May has fallen foul of a changing mood in politics, which means that appealing solely to financial self-interest will no longer do. There is plenty of evid­ence that many people are starting to ask very different sets of ques­tions of their political leaders.

It began with the vote on our future relationship with the Euro­pean Union. In last year’s referen­dum campaign, voters were warned countless times of the economic consequences of leaving the EU, but they voted for it anyway, the charge led by those whose jobs were most vulnerable.

People spurned self-interest and the politics of greed to vote for a vision of what they wanted their country to be. Their prime concern was the quality of relationships in a nation they love.

And the phenomenon has con­tinued with the 2017 General Elec­tion. The northern working-class Brexiteers did not, as widely pre­dicted, abandon Labour, and they were joined in an alliance by hordes of young people who had never previously bothered to vote. They were attracted by Jeremy Corbyn’s vision of a compassionate society, one where the poor have enough, the worker is fairly paid, the vulnerable are protected, and public services are sufficiently resourced.

It is a costly vision, and a Labour win would have had huge financial consequences for everyone. But 40 per cent of the nation voted for it anyway. Less and less do people want promises of an ever fatter wallet. Instead, what they seek is a generous vision of national life, one that sees relationships rather than money as the key to human flour­ishing. It’s less and less “The eco­nomy, stupid!” Now, it’s “The relationships, stupid!”

THIS poses a huge challenge to the political Establishment, and the new Government will need to listen to what the electorate has said. But this changing mood should also cause Christians to reflect on the means and content of our gospel pro­clamation.

At the heart of many of the programmes of renewal being rolled out across dioceses and parishes lies a commitment to individual evan­gel­ism. The strategy is that we should develop churchgoers as bet­ter disciples, so that they can talk about faith with their friends and draw them to personal conversion.

But there is a danger inherent in this model: it colludes with the indi­vidualistic mindset that we claim to criticise. Faith-sharing matters, but we must not divorce it from the bigger picture; for we have so much more to say to a nation waking up to the fact that happiness is derived from good-quality, compassionate relationships.

The heart of the gospel is the healing of the relationship between God and his creation, and thus between people, whom he calls to belong to each other. We have, in other words, a huge, bold vision of what human society is called to be, one that we draw from the life of the Trinity itself.

That vision is of a Kingdom in which the poor and the forgotten come first, in which the beauty and dignity of all is acknowledged and respected, and in which God is all in all. It is a future vision, but we pray for it, long for it, and take active steps to build it today.

A changing national mood is a chance for the Church to articulate a much bolder, Christ-centred vision of a healed society characterised by healthy, human relationships. If we can do that, there is evidence that there are many people, especially the young, who will start listening.

The Rt Revd Philip North is the Bishop of Burnley.

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