Welby wades in on economic policy
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is putting a bit of stick about, and rather impressively scoring some direct hits. Yesterday in the Mail on Sunday he took a swipe at the energy companies for their excessive price-hikes; today in The Daily Telegraph he's going for growth. Not in quite the same way as the Chancellor of the Exchequer might; more after the fashion Thomas Becket, meddling in matters of political policy where his interventions certainly won't be universally welcomed.
If his predecessor at Lambeth Palace suffered from being aloof and, at times, spouting utterly incomprehensible expressions of muffled theological verbiage which said nothing to no one, Archbishop Justin is laser-like in his precision, and catholic in the appeal of his message.
The latest wave of hikes on the price of gas and electricity by SSE and British Gas does indeed look "inexplicable". And he takes his traditional theme of the moral obligation to act justly rather than simply maximising profit. "The impact on people, particularly on low incomes, is going to be really severe in this, and the companies have to justify fully what they are doing," the Archbishop said.
He continued: "I do understand when people feel that this is inexplicable, and I can understand people being angry about it, because having spent years on a low income as a clergyman I know what it is like when your household budget is blown apart by a significant extra fuel bill and your anxiety levels become very high. That is the reality of it."
Indeed. Heating the very draughty Lambeth Palace was hard enough when His Grace was there: being obliged now to maintain minimum working temperatures for an entire staff must be a considerable financial burden.
Like all good CofE clergy, Archbishop Justin grasps the social dimension: energy companies must be "conscious of their social obligations" and obliged to "behave with generosity and not merely to maximise opportunity" because "they have control because they sell something everyone has to buy. We have no choice about buying it."
But he also grasps the ethics of corporatism and the market: "It is not like some other sectors of business where people can walk away from you if they don't want to buy your product and you are entitled to seek to maximise your profit. The social licence to operate of the energy companies is something they have to take very, very seriously indeed."
And he veers toward Ed Miliband's narrative, asserting that fuel poverty is "a very severe issue.. because real incomes are flat or declining and the cost of energy has gone up". This, "ties in with the food banks and the debt. They are all part of the reality of life for many people today."
All this sounds as though the Archbishop would support Labour's proposal to freeze fuel prices for 20 months should they win the 2015 general election. The proposal is popular, and CofE bishops like to jump on social-justice bandwagons, especially where the harsh 'Thatcherite' free market of the capitalist 'Tory Right' is pitched against the Socialist gospel of compassion. It isn't all about profit, but when a company that makes £2.7 billion for its shareholders decides to burden its customers with a 9.2% hike, there's more than a whiff of fleecing.
Of course, the fact that the the Church of England is itself a shareholder in Centrica (to the tune of £7 million) and SSE (£6 million) gives the Archbishop some clout for ‘active engagement’ with company boards. But the Church itself invests in these companies in the hope of healthy profits in order to meet its own financial obligations. Any bishop who believes these profits should be diminished is ultimately volunteering for a reduced pension (not to mention further impoverishing many elderly parishioners).
“A deep spiritual base in the Christian tradition enables (society) to shape its way of life and care for each other in accordance with the teachings of Christ,” the Archbishop says. But what irks slightly is the fact that he spares the politicians - in this case the hypocrisy of Ed Miliband who, as Energy Secretary, set the course for those very Green taxes which are now adding £100s to people's fuel bills. Government taxes - especially those introduced by the EU - are beyond the control of companies. If we are to have the “healthy society” the Archbishop desires, then the overall tax burden must be decreased, which is a moral pursuit. Of course wealth generation is not the be all and end all of human existence, but no true Conservative believes that it is. Economic growth is to be celebrated because it produces confidence, and that confidence provides jobs, and jobs give people security, and security leads to happiness and induces acts of philanthropy.
A righteous government will house the homeless, feed the starving, heal the sick and educate the ignorant. It will also decrease the deficit and pay down debt because you cannot morally share with the poor that which you borrow from your children and grandchildren without their consent.