Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Describing the Church of England’s book On Rock or Sand? Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future as an economic manifesto is wrong. The book is largely a religious text, heavy on morality and parables with little economic theory, equations and data. This will increase its appeal.

The chapters vary in sentiment and substance with much more anger displayed, for example, by John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, than by Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury and the most senior CofE cleric.

If there are common themes for the secular reader, they are that Britain suffers from too many inequalities, that it requires greater solidarity between its citizens and deserves more responsible companies. These ambitions will chime with most readers, since they stem from values shared by a majority of people in Britain.

The weakness of expressing such views is that in annoying few people, the ambitions can be rather empty.

Calling for fewer inequalities, more morality and greater solidarity smacks of politicians seeking more justice, education and healthy living, without a detailed prescription of the changes needed.

Mr Welby’s most damaging criticism is to rail against the view that if Britain can fix the economy, it will fix society.

“That is a lie,” he says, “because it is a narrative that casts money, rather than humanity, as the protagonist of God’s story”.

True, economic growth is no panacea. But it is almost certainly a necessary condition of a more cohesive society with more shared prosperity, particularly for the poor and the towns he sees as in a “downward spiral”. That point is made in a subsequent chapter by Andrew Sentance, an economist and former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee.

Dr Sentamu rails against the political process “where parties rush to outdo each other in enticing and beguiling the swing vote of Middle England”.

This is partially true, because politicians compete as much for the large grey vote with ever higher pensions, as they do for the favours of Middle England.

More importantly, the trouble with railing against the political process is that appealing to swing voters is the essence of representative democracy, a model of government that has served Britain well.

In portraying the “evils” of income inequality, some of the authors are more careful than others with the facts, since overall wage and income inequality in the UK has been broadly steady since the early 1990s.

Mr Welby’s concern about “unacceptable [level of] inequalities” is much more convincing than Dr Sentamu’s undated criticism of “growing inequalities in Britain”, which Mr Sentance correctly attributes to the 1980s in a footnote.

Billed as a foundation for the future, the book is more a description of Britain’s recent past in a distinctly CofE context: stronger on moral principle than practical policy.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics mentioned in this article

Follow the authors of this article