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Paul Vallely: The right is silent on economic justice

14 September 2018

Conservatives should engage with the IPPR’s proposals, says Paul Vallely

I REMEMBER being surprised at what happened, nearly two decades ago, when I edited a book called Catholic Social Teaching for the 21st Century.

It looked forwards from the 100 years over which the Church, under a succession of popes, had evolved the first “third way” in modern politics. It presented a radical challenge to both unfettered capitalism and collectivist communism alike. With communism now largely discredited, it seemed to me, 20 years ago, that its primary challenge was now to free-marketeers.

So I was a little taken aback when one of the first invitations I received to discuss the subject came from the Conservative Christian Fellowship. There was a lot in the book they agreed with, they said. An intriguing discussion followed.

I was disappointed, therefore, when the report published last week by the Institute for Public Policy and Research’s Commission on Economic Justice, of which the Archbishop of Canterbury was one of 20 distinguished members, did not arouse much interest among today’s Conservatives (News, 7 September).

Nicky Morgan, who chairs the Commons Treasury committee, commented — but only to repeat the hoary old formula that the poor need greater wealth creation rather than greater fairness. The two are not alternatives — which is one of the key points that the new report makes, and is a fundamental insight of Catholic social thought.

In a society where the CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, is the richest man in the world, while his insecure staff “have been peeing in bottles because they are afraid to take a toilet break”, as Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress and a Commission member, said, such economic imbalance cannot be dismissed by advocating greater wealth creation.

Nor can it be dismissed in a society where giant corporations pay little tax while high-street shops go out of business. Nor in one which has experienced the longest period of earnings stagnation for 150 years. Nor in one where a third of workers cannot get jobs to match their education. Nor in one where people whose jobs are replaced by technology are denied proper retraining, and so forth.

There is not room in this short column to do justice to the sophisticated raft of balanced prescriptions that the report sets out. And you certainly wouldn’t have obtained an adequate understanding of its thinking from last week’s Daily Mail, with its “Welby Wealth Tax Storm” headline. In a classic piece of tabloid journalism, it carried an article penned by Archbishop Welby, but ensured that its readers read it through the lens of the newspaper’s own prejudice. Last week’s Church Times, and the succinct 30-page executive summary of the actual document, are a better starting place.

It is a shocking testimony to the Conservative Party’s obsessive fixation with Brexit that even its more thoughtful members have not found the time to come to grips with this important document. They might dispute some of its detail, but they would be forced to confront its challenge to our contemporary economy. That challenge is firmly rooted in the tradition of Catholic social thought.

Let us hope that some of the British electorate — so alienated from contemporary politics as well as from the workings of the economy — might find the time to read it. Those who think through its implications will swiftly see that morality and the market, like economics and ethics, are far from mutually exclusive.

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