I am writing this piece soon after Vincent Nichols declared that the UK Government’s changes to the benefit system are “punitive” and a “disgrace.” Two strong words quietly spoken by a man about to be appointed Cardinal by the Pope. Since then, twenty-seven Anglican bishops and sixteen other clergy have followed suit, accusing the Tory-led coalition Government of creating, through its policies, hardship and hunger among very large numbers of people living here on these Islands. The sixteen non-Anglicans include Quakers and Methodists.
But the Government’s answer has been remarkably blithe. The Roman Catholic Vincent Nichols and his Anglican, Methodist and Quaker colleagues are simply wrong or are exaggerating, say its two front men, Cameron the Tory and Clegg the Liberal Democrat. On the contrary, in deliberately allowing Want to wash back over the weakened flood-defences of the Welfare State, our welly-shod, deer-hunting, ex-Etonian Prime Minister claims to be restoring “Hope.”
There is no question in my mind that Nichols and his colleagues are right in what they say. Unlike the Government apologists, they are speaking from a place of reality and integrity. Their information is accurate and they are drawing correct conclusions from it. And they are right and dutiful in urging the Government against continuing down this path. Further, they are not talking here as politicians toeing some prescribed party line in well-drilled chorus, party functionaries and creatures. Each has separately and independently come to the same conclusion, based on a common reality each has been faced with, and so they have chosen to speak out as a group. It underlines the urgency and authority of their truth as expert witnesses who have integrity. They speak the truth for us all. They are “whistle-blowers”. They describe not just uncivilised behaviour by instruments of the State, leading to degrading living conditions for many of our fellow-citizens, our neighbours ; they describe a situation which disgraces all of us, since all of us are party to it. Our nation is being de-civilised by privileged hooligans whom we have allowed to act for us as our leaders.
For, just as I am sure that Nichols and his colleagues are truth-tellers, so I am sure that Cameron and his are not. And as the former are acting here as true leaders of a whole nation, speaking for its and our integrity as a people, Cameron and Clegg et al are just propagandists for a clan and a dogma, speaking only for an elite and self-serving minority group, for whom these truths and this truth-telling are simply irrelevant. Let’s just bat the Truth away and put our gloss in its place. The unregulated and disreputable right-wing Press will support our lie. The gloss suits all of us better.
It matters not a jot to these politicians and their supporters that in their spinning they deny the integrity of the Bishops and the lived experience of the thousands of fellow-citizens for whom the Bishops speak. Like dishonest grocers, they measure success not by clean sale but achieved deceit.
For this is not just disagreement. It is a lack of interest in truth and fact on the part of those in power. It involves a slick yet brutish dismissal of the expertise and integrity of the truth-teller.
And this confuses me to the core. All of us, surely, were brought up to believe that telling the truth is somehow the right thing to do, an end in itself. An interest in language – I am still naïve enough to believe – assumes an interest in words as a means of bearing and telling the truth. What else are words for ? When I get really excited, I say that truth-telling is worth dying for. Democracy, Community and Civilisation would die without it.
But look at what has happened here. The truth-tellers have been told simply to run along and play.
Granted, no cross or stake for them, no death in flames, no firing squad. But no notice taken, either, no listening, no apparent embarrassment or human concern. The conditions they complain of will continue. The spin to justify those conditions will carry on spinning. Should we give up truth-telling then ? Shall we stop bovvering ? Shall we revert to grunting ?
Should elections in future be just grunt contests ?
Prime Minister, in the interests of journalistic balance, could you give us your grunt on the government’s latest attack on the poor and disabled of this country, your country ? Your re-election will depend on the slickness and smoothness of your grunt, how briefly warmed it makes your listeners feel.
At present there is no discernible difference between the talk of dishonest grocers aimed at making a crooked sale through the spinning of illusion, and the talk of this nation’s elected political leaders.
I finish with this imaginary picture. It is evening. People subdued after a very long and hard day’s work, after a fraught journey home, are converging on the supermarket, forming a weary queue. Suddenly, they see someone gaunt and fragile being dragged round the corner by a bunch of roughs and rude-boys, very expensively dressed. The shoppers quickly turn back to compiling their shopping lists. They know what’s going to happen next, round the corner and in the shadows, and they don’t want to think about it. “I bet that person deserves all that’s coming,” say one or two to themselves, uneasily.
Is that imaginary picture a just description of our present society ? I believe it is and I am ashamed.
Thank God for the Bishops.