The sea change

By Mark Wakefield

The Winter of Discontent.
The Winter of Discontent in 1979 precipitated the end of the social democratic consensus. Is the epoch of neoliberalism that it ushered in facing its own sea change?

We’ve been in business for just over three years now and in all that time we have consistently championed the idea of socially responsible business. When we started we were sure we were onto a winner. Our credentials in understanding and communicating the idea of social value opened doors. But we quickly realised that, much as people liked to talk, no one was much interested in spending money on this. As in the world of business, so in the world of politics. All the party leaders have talked about the need for a more socially responsible, less predatory capitalism but so far nothing has come of it. We are still, for instance, five years away from the Vickers report on banking regulation being fully implemented, and there are many who argue that it goes nowhere near far enough. Meanwhile, executive pay continues to rocket while the great majority see their incomes lagging inflation.

Tempted as I often am to throw up my hands up in despair, something happened just recently that encouraged me to think that change is on the way, though it will take time to be fully realised. When I’m not working for Vogel Wakefield, I have an unpaid role as a priest at St. Mary the Virgin Primrose Hill. A few weeks ago I preached a sermon on the subject of money by way of launching a money season at the church. Inspired by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s campaign on payday loans and in conjunction with the Centre for Theology and Community, our aim in the money season has been to support individuals in reflecting on the ethics of making and spending money, and to encourage the whole church to identify local needs that it can help address.

I took as my starting point the financial crisis of 2008, the chief victims of which have been the poor, and how the roots of it lay in the promotion of short-term profit as the overriding goal of business to the exclusion of other considerations. I then reflected on Christianity’s surprisingly (to some) nuanced view of money. It’s not “the root of all evil”, for instance, that being a misquote. Rather, it’s “the love of money” that is so. And while there is nothing in the bible that suggests that money is anything other than necessary to the workings of society, it remains the case that it is seen as fraught with moral and spiritual risk.

Chief among the risks is money’s tendency to induce in us a pride and self-sufficiency such that we feel that the more we have the more we are defended from life’s vicissitudes. By contrast, true wisdom lies in accepting that much of our lives are shaped by unseen and sometimes unwelcome forces that can play havoc with us. And it’s precisely the spurious pride and self-sufficiency that money induces that has the sad effect of breaking the common bonds of humanity between rich and poor when inequality breaches certain limits, as it seems now to be doing here in Britain.

Aside from the bible referencing, so much of the above will be familiar to anyone who surfs this website or reads our blogs. It was certainly not familiar, however, to my congregation who were hugely appreciative of it. I can’t recall having delivered a sermon in the seven years I’ve been at St. Mary’s that struck such a chord and has continued to be commented on and discussed.

What was particularly interesting though, was that it wasn’t the greed-bashing bit of the sermon that people remarked on. Rather than point the finger at others, they remarked on how it has caused them to ask questions about how they and their organisations went about their business and whether this was consistent with serving a higher and nobler goal than simply making money. It was this sense of personal reflectiveness that I found most interesting and encouraging and that suggests to me that change might be on the cards after all. It’s one thing to say that others – typically “the bankers” – need to change. It’s quite another to ask questions about what our personal role in this current mess is.

What then further surprised me was that the local paper picked up on the sermon. This is the first time this has ever happened in my experience. Even if, as I suspect, they had some space to fill at the last minute, it’s interesting that they thought this a story at all.

Maybe I’m clutching at straws here. But I have a hunch that I’m not and that there is genuinely something in the air. The failure of politicians to reflect public anxiety about banks that are too big to fail and businesses that are heedless of their wider responsibilities, such as giving the lower paid a fair deal, is at least as likely to explain the current disconnect between the voting public and Westminster as UKIP’s relentlessly pursued EU/immigration agenda. Not just that, but it matters far more to many more people.

Those old enough to remember will recall that in the late 1970s there was similar despair at the ability of politicians to square up to the economic problems of the day. The old social democratic consensus of the post-war years was bust and and there was no consensus about Mrs Thatcher’s free market alternative. That didn’t stop some feeling a sense of inevitability about a change in that direction. As James Callaghan, the then Prime Minister, noted before the 1979 election:

“You know there are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea change and it is for Mrs Thatcher.”

Now it’s the free market/shareholder value model that’s well and truly broken despite only becoming the consensus with New Labour’s rise to power in the 90s. No one knows for sure what will replace it or when, but what we now seem to be sensing are the birth pangs of something new. We can only hope that it will be more gracious, more humane and more supportive of human flourishing, and that it sees the light of day before the old, broken model casts us into another, perhaps even more catastrophic crisis.

Image courtesy Alan Denney.


[tweetthis]The sea change: signs of the passing of the old order, but what will replace it isn’t clear. [/tweetthis]