This is the second in a series of guest posts, in which regular readers of this blog explaining why, from a Christian perspective, they intend to vote for a particular political party—or, in one case, why they intend to spoil their ballot paper. In this one, Revd Patrick Gilday, who is Curate at All Saints, Ascot, explains why he intends to vote Conservative.
In 1987, Margaret Thatcher famously said in an interview, ‘There is no such thing as society.’ Though her comment sparked a tidal wave of criticism that her political philosophy was too individualistic, in fact what she meant is that the contemporary idea of ‘society’ is an abstraction, a concept of something ‘out there’, removed from people’s control. It’s a useful notion for political science classes, but the fact of people’s real lived experience is that ‘society’ doesn’t really exist. It’s not ‘society’ that raises children, it’s parents; it’s not ‘society’ that tends the sick, it’s clinicians and carers; it’s not ‘society’ that funds government spending, it’s people with jobs and bills to pay from whom taxes are demanded. Thatcher’s point wasn’t actually anything to do with the primacy of the individual. It was that lots of commentators were guilty of inventing a concept that was little more than a political-science lecture thought-experiment, outsourcing to that invented (and unreal) concept all sorts of responsibilities, and then insisting that when it proved incapable of bearing the very real responsibilities that had been outsourced to it, that the problem was that it hadn’t been given enough money to play with.
Broadly speaking, I belong to the group of people who think Mrs Thatcher’s diagnosis was basically right. I don’t believe that a single national, cohesive society exists – however much we might like it to. I do believe in much smaller, dynamic, constantly developing relationships between persons and families at a much more atomic level, however. I believe in the Body of Christ – a perfect and eternal society united by our common allegiance to the Head of the Body, Jesus himself. I believe in families, where bonds run deep, where children are brought up and the elderly cared for, and where lifelong mental health can be forged or broken. I believe in friendships that are laid down for long periods and even lifetimes, where people at opposite ends of the country geographically can rely on one another. I believe in the power of rural (and, increasingly, urban) communities to close ranks and protect their own. I believe in the kindness of strangers. I do not believe that all British people somehow belong to a conceptual unit called ‘society’ to which we should all pledge allegiance and to which we should all submit our own, or others’, needs and responsibilities.
There’s admittedly a long strain of Christian thought that insists to the contrary – that we are, in fact, all members of some great national society. Some of that strain is still stuck in the era of Christendom. There was a time when we could reasonably assume that everybody who was British was also a member of the Body of Christ, which meant that all the instructions the bible gives about how Israel, and then the Church, are supposed to live as a holy nation before God, could also be applied to Britain for (so the theory went) Britain, too, was a holy nation before God. Whether it ever was is up for discussion; but it certainly isn’t now.
Some of it is pure romanticism: we really like the idea of there being a national ‘society’ which we can bless. That’s particularly true in the Church of England where, desperate to think of some enduring national role for our Church now we’ve largely vacated the position of national moral arbiter, we’ve got to come up with some national social worth in order to justify our continued establishment.
But some of the Christian idea that we Christians ‘belong’ to a national ‘society’ strikes me as exegetically dubious. For instance, there are those who are all too happy to globalize Jesus’ ethic for his (non-national, faith-based) kingdom to apply to a secular society without realizing that (a) it’s obviously going to be impossible since only the Holy Spirit dwelling within every believer makes such an ethic possible in the first place; and (b) throughout the bible, societies and politics other than God’s own are to be shunned rather than embraced. Moreover, some of the modern-day Christian thinking that romanticises secular ‘society’ borders a little, I think, on the potentially idolatrous, and the concomitant assumption that if we only organize our ‘society’ a little better we will suddenly make the world a better place strikes me as a touch too Pelagian for comfort.
All of this means that I have a little bit of a difficulty with the welfare state. The welfare state is, if you like, the concrete expression of the invented national ‘society’ idea that I believe is (1) entirely made up and (2) problematic for the Christian to support. Established with laudable goals in mind (and often achieving spectacularly laudable outcomes), the welfare system of the UK is premised on the idea that a national ‘society’ requires a national bureaucracy to manage its outcomes. But since I don’t believe in national society at all, the existence of a national bureaucracy is an issue for me. For one thing, the existence of the welfare state effectively forces into existence the formal structure of the (non-existent) national society, and thereby functions as propaganda for the whole national-society idea. (Remember the opening ceremony for the London Olympics? In order to try and represent ‘British society’, Danny Boyle could not think of anything more concrete than the NHS. There, on a global stage, for all to see, British ‘national society’ was conflated with its welfare system.)
But much more importantly: the welfare state is like a black hole that, in time, has the capacity to suck all human social action into itself. What was once the province of parents (care for children) is increasingly regarded as a state duty usually devolved to parents (consider the recent Scottish proposal to give all children a ‘named person’, whom they might as well have named Big Brother); what was once the province of families (the provision of safe and secure environments in which all can thrive and grow) is now considered a ‘government priority’; what was once the duty of teachers (developing children’s learning) now belongs to a centralized curriculum with Ofsted inspectors looming and a Department of Education that is constantly shifting its list of demands.
And I think all of this is a bad thing. I believe that the idea of a national society to which we must all pay obeisance – complete with its central concrete manifestation, the welfare state – is actually gutting families, bonds of friendship, local communities, schools, you name it. It is taking away their responsibilities and rights and making them into nothing more than rhetorical categories for political campaign purposes. And at the same time, those institutions that the welfare state is gutting of moral worth are deteriorating as a result – it is not, I suggest, a coincidence that as the welfare state has grown and taken over all our social thinking, mental health, religious adherence, interpersonal relationships, and common decency have all deteriorated markedly in this country. The two are related, I submit. And it goes without saying that I don’t think Jesus would be very happy with this state of affairs.
So for someone like me, how I vote is determined by roughly this one question: which party, which candidate, has a general policy platform of supporting the institutions of family (marriage, household, personal stability), household (reducing the burden of taxation so that people can spend more of their money where they need to), locality (undermining centralized bureaucracy and relocating power back to persons rather than departments), and morality (emphasizing religious freedom and personal responsibility)? And, as a corollary: which party, which candidate, has a general policy platform of reducing the concrete manifestation of the made-up national ‘society’ fetish, the welfare system?
This is why I’m intending to vote for the Conservative candidate at this election.
If you’re a left-wing Christian reading all this, I expect you’ll be thoroughly confused as to how on earth I could think this way as a Christian. That’s instructive – I (and plenty of other politically conservative Christians) are frequently lambasted on social media and in day-to-day conversations for thinking this way. But if you are confused – well, actually, that’s helpful, because it allows me to set out something that strikes me as very important in explaining why I, as a Christian, intend to vote Conservative this election. Left-wing Christians and right-wing Christians have thoroughly different starting points when it comes to their political views. There’s no point in looking at my right-wing political leaning and trying to make sense of it in your left-wing terms. There’s just no overlap.
The left-wing Christians I know, broadly speaking, think that if we can only make the system work better, we can improve matters for people. But I believe that the system is the problem. As a Christian, I am firmly of the belief that human beings make up systems and structures in order to perform a psychological trick by which they can offload the responsibility for human brokenness and evil on to someone or something else. And I think that psychological trick is, by and large, original sin redux. I happen to believe that Jesus came to free us from it – to invite us into a real society, of which he is the Head – so the last thing I think a Christian should do is try and prop up a fake society.
None of this means that I think the Tories are gloriously right in every way. Of course they aren’t. It is only too painfully clear for me to see, when a friend’s disability benefit is cut and her quality of life ruined owing to a policy that I broadly support, that good policies can be executed in dreadful ways. Nor does it mean that I think there is no room for welfarism or state intervention at all.
But it is about the principle of the thing. I have lost track of the number of times left-wing friends (and acquaintances) have gotten irate with me saying any of this, thrown up their hands and said, ‘but what’s your alternative to the growth of the welfare state? What other way is there of trying to care for people?’ But to me, that’s not exactly the point of casting a vote. One votes for a philosophy, an idea one wants to get to, and one works out the route once one has set off in the general direction of the destination.
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