The have-nots have spoken loud and clear

21 September 2018

Are church leaders listening to their concerns, asks Ann Morisy

PA

I DON’T suppose that many Church Times readers are familiar with betting, despite its being a growth industry. All of us, however, are familiar with odds. Every one of us will have found ourselves, at some point, pondering whether we are likely to succeed or cope in a situation, or be one of the losers. This is not a question about ability, but rather a complex social calculation about access, exchange, and possibility: i.e., working out the odds of a good or bad outcome.

The whole business of the referendum and the ensuing debate has involved us all in working out the odds of each route leading to a good ending. Just like the 2.30 at Doncaster, however, nobody knows the outcome; all we can do is hazard a guess.

We are united in a gamble. The manager of Manchester United, José Mourinho, when he found himself under the cosh by press and fans at the outset of this season, credited Hegel when commenting that we can never see the truth at the beginning: we just have to wait and see how things develop. Many politicians and social commentators will have chorused “Welcome to Brexit!” in response to Mr Mourinho’s Hegelian excursion.

 

WE WORK out the odds of the future’s being good or bad on the basis of patterns and trends. If you live in the former industrial cities of England, patterns and trends, especially in relation to opportunities, are very different from those in the Home Counties and London.

London, in particular, has become lazy shorthand for “the haves and Remain voters”, and the north for “have-nots and Leave voters” (although voting in Scotland, where 62 per cent voted to remain, suggests that other dynamics were at play). Nevertheless, there are undeniable patterns which lend sense to this national divide.

For example, government figures indicate that the earnings of a quarter of those living in London put them in the top tax bracket, compared with less than one tenth in the north-east. The impact of post-2008 economic torpor and ensuing austerity has meant that income for the poorest has stood still, or, according to recent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, fallen back substantially.

The patterns of unfairness are there for all to see. These patterns legitimise the cry “It’s not fair.” It is in the context of this sustained unfairness of the past decade that the part played by EU membership has been fingered.

New factors now get included in the complex social calculation of household fortunes: Eastern Europeans moving into the neighbourhood increases competition for work, upping the odds of feeling a loser. The drive and purposefulness of the newcomers can be disconcerting, and noticing that the rules are kept by some and not by others increases the odds of feeling a mug. Seeing recent arrivals in the town flourish, while me and mine seem to stand still, or even lurch backwards, is hard for anyone to take.

 

THE mainstream political parties, both Tory and Labour, seem to have been oblivious of these perceptions and pressures. Only UKIP saw how more and more people felt that the odds were stacking up against them. Politicians were not alone in being oblivious: Churches and church leaders have naïvely taken the high ground, in particular, urging hospitality to strangers and those in the back of lorries determined to better themselves in the UK.

Hospitality is both a noble and a foolish ambition. The wider the gates are opened, the more the unprincipled are likely to take advantage, and the cost of such wide hospitality is not evenly borne. To be open “for all” is a high ideal that can never be met without adding to the anxieties experienced by those at home who are already under pressure.

The novelist James Baldwin commented that “The most dangerous creation of any society is a man who has nothing to lose.” When hope of change is meagre, then the beguiling shortcut to changing things is to destroy what appears to sustain the status quo. This may, at least, bring the temporary distraction of seeing the powerful and advantaged get their comeuppance.

Those who voted to leave, however, are often reproached for being foolhardy, as leaving the EU may well bring greater adversity to those who are already battling against waves of hardship. But this potential pattern is not new: history shows clearly that the poor feel the hardest impact of any economic disruption. This was the reveal at the heart of the 1985 report Faith in the City.

So, was voting leave a reckless act of resentment? Perhaps it was; but now, more than two years after the referendum, the dynamics are becoming nastier. We are at risk of “otherisation” — an ugly word for the ugly process of degrading those who think differently from us.

It is a form of social bigotry and it is often expressed by those who should know better. Let me illustrate: like many, I’ve been gripped by the BBC mini-series Bodyguard, which prompted me to read the piece in The Times about its writer, Jed Mercurio, who turns out to have worked as a medic before he became a novelist and dramatist. The article concluded with the obligatory quick-fire questions, one of which was whether he was Leave or Remain. Mercurio replied: “I’m a sane, intelligent person. Do you really need to ask?”

Nursing mutual resentment can only do us harm, and, let’s be fair, resisting resentment must surely be easier for those who prosper in life than those who have to battle against the odds. It must have stung liberal, metropolitan elites to have heard “No” in the context of a world where they would mostly have heard “Yes”.

The word populism is now used as a derogatory term to describe the shudders of misery being expressed by forgotten multitudes around our unhappy world. Veteran subversives know only too well this Establishment trick of labelling grassroots momentum as dangerous or uncouth, or in some way ignorant. We should be careful, because we risk once again nullifying the opinions of those who live in places where deprivation is the norm.

 

SO, WHAT are we to do? Churches and Christians are as likely to be as divided as the country, and we face the same temptation to abandon courtesy and foster resentment. Could this be the moment when we embrace the opportunity to follow Jesus in challenging taken-for-granted views of the world?

This would mean pondering hard the fact that, in the scriptures, poor people are poor because rich people make them so. It would mean naming the reality that the well-off (that’s most of us turning the pages of this newspaper) are hooked on consumption or ego-inflating experiences. It would mean challenging the feral practices of big business. In our churches, it would mean being more alert to our default mode of focusing on the question “How can we help the poor?” at the expense of the greater question of asking “Why are the poor poor?”

Alongside this exacting reorientation, we can encourage and promote what churches have always done. Research repeatedly finds that becoming a person of faith and going to church helps us to reassess the odds in a positive direction. Church helps us regain confidence that we have chances and choices. Doing business with God, and the solidarity that can characterise church life, help us to counter passivity and resignation as well as bring a change of perspective.

In addition, at a time when we are all at risk of social bigotry, church can more than anything be a place unfazed by diversity, because only when diversity is understood as an opportunity rather than a threat will we be able to respond to the challenges of a globalising rather than a Eurocentric world.
 

Ann Morisy is a freelance community theologian and lecturer.

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