Perhaps that is how many readers of this blog will feel after the dramatic and unexpected Election outcome.
I may be wrong, but I guess most Modern Church members and sympathisers would describe themselves as left of centre in one form or another, and were hoping for a left-leaning coalition or minority government. One which might tackle the failures of community which governments of different colours have presided over in recent decades, identified in the Bishops’ document Who is my Neighbour? Whereas what we have got appears likely to be more of the same, and with some major constitutional problems thrown in.
In his post of 14th April, Jonathan Clatworthy contrasted the statist approach of the 1945 Attlee government and the individualist approach of Thatcherism, and asked whether there might be a third way. It seems as though – by quite a small margin, and not in London or Scotland – the 2015 electorate this time were sufficiently afraid of a return to the Attlee philosophy that they were prepared to give neo-Thatcherism a further five years. And they roundly repudiated any idea that the Liberal Democrats might provide a third way.
The temptation is to follow Brecht’s suggestion that we should dissolve the electorate and get a new one. Is it not obvious that too many voters are ignorant and prejudiced, and in some respects just turkeys voting for Christmas – swayed by the falsehoods promoted in the media, and even overly influenced by opinion polls? Such patronising attitudes are unhelpful. Whether we agree with the views expressed in the ballot box, or not – perhaps especially if we do not – we need to listen to them. Fear of change has surely been a potent factor.
Jonathan cites Maurice Glasman, the “Blue Labour” guru, as arguing for a more genuine third way, giving greater power to the intermediate institutions of civil society, not least local authorities but also trade unions and very many others. This is a mirror image of Philip Blond’s “Red Toryism”, of which we have not heard much lately but which, with its links to older Catholic social thought, might well chime in with the Bishops’ pronouncements. It is not quite the same as the early Cameron’s “Big Society”, which, insofar as it has survived at all, has turned out to be mainly a franchise for foodbanks. But its attraction – though perhaps its weakness in neo-liberal eyes – is that it gives a greater sense of stability to a society. A manifold cord is not easily broken.
Jonathan further follows Glasman in drawing attention to the success of this model in Germany. There are elements of German culture which are very different from ours and have survived even the dreadful interruption of Nazism. Notably, social responsibility amongst employers seems to be neither a dirty word nor a form of “greenwash” as it so often appears to be in the English-speaking world. Those cultural features are neither above criticism nor immune to attack from the general Western trend towards neo-liberalism. But they exist. So how do we change our own culture, without exacerbating that fear of change which is part of the problem?
One positive thing to come out of this election has been the reiteration of the Conservative commitment to “the northern powerhouse”, notably in the form of Osborne’s project for radical devolution to (Labour-dominated) Manchester. Nothing like that would have happened under Thatcher; think how she treated the GLC, and how that has led to the demoralisation and virtual destruction of local authorities as a positive social force. Is this, too, just something equivalent to greenwash, or a real willingness to learn from Blond and Glasman? Can the parties of the Left learn anything from the role which Manchester has played in the inception of the project? Could it, even, be the beginning of a cultural shift?
One thing seems clear to me. The churches must have a role in any cultural change. All the work of Linda Woodhead and others on the residual religiosity of our nation points to a great opportunity here. All honour to those churches, not least in northern urban areas, which have made a positive contribution to the cultural identity of their communities.
In another post, Jonathan laments the fact that the rhetoric of our leaders about the Church of England’s future seems to be leaving out of account this cultural dimension, and indeed the importance of the Bishops’ paper.