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Leader comment: Why politicians can only ever blame ‘them’, not us

17 May 2024

THE Government’s website has some quaint conventions. The transcript of the Prime Minister’s 30-minute stump speech on Monday, otherwise known as his address on security made at the Policy Exchange, is interspersed with the announcement: “[Please note political content redacted here.]” The implication is that the rest of what Rishi Sunak said was apolitical, just a statement of fact, really. Such as: “Illegal migration is placing an intolerable strain on our security and our sense of fairness.” Or: “From gender activists hijacking children’s sex education to cancel culture, vocal and aggressive fringe groups are trying to impose their views on the rest of us.” Etc. The message was that the world is a scary place, but “you can trust me to keep you and your family safe and secure from the threats we face at home and abroad” — unlike [redacted] that other bunch. He ended: “There are storms ahead. The dangers are all too real. But Britain can feel proud again.” Project Fear meets Irving Berlin.

Or Project Hellfire. Doom-mongering used to be the preserve of the Church, warning the unregarding populace that they stood under God’s judgement. In the words of Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century revivalist preacher: “The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow,” and so on (sermon preached at Enfield, New Hampshire, 8 July 1741). There has been a profound theological change since Edwards’s time, of course, emphasising God’s love for creation alongside his infinite mercy. This present life, part of God’s redeemed infinity, is not to be cast aside, but cherished and enjoyed.

But only because of Christ the Redeemer. And this is where a modern politician differs from even the mildest of Edwards’s successors. The life that people enjoy does not depend on their own merits. Mr Sunak can fill 30 minutes criticising others, but cannot criticise his audience. He can call for “a new patriotism: a confidence in ourselves and in all that we can achieve”. He cannot deliver the stark message that many in the UK need to hear: that they are careless of the bounty that they have enjoyed at the expense of the planet, complacent about peace, too easily swayed by appeals to their own material concerns, too willing to fear outsiders, ignorant of the Christian faith that has informed the country’s laws and institutions, and lazy when it comes to interrogating the truth claims of politicians. Edwards had no qualms about confronting his listeners: “The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.” Rhetoric of this kind says more about Edwards and his times than it does about God, but it does target individual conscience and responsibility. In a healthy democracy, the electorate accepts responsibility for its present ills and for effecting a remedy. It is the electorate rather than the politicians who will show how healthy the UK democracy is in the coming months.

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