Politicians promise us the earth when they stand for election, but afterwards? Afterwards, reality kicks in. Sums have to be done; books have to be balanced, and choices made. The ideal world portrayed in the party manifestos, where we either ignore other countries entirely or we predict the most favourable conditions for ourselves, are quickly shown to be figments of the political imagination. The more religiously-minded among us may recall that it was the devil who promised Christ all the kingdoms of this world, and there is definitely a whiff of sulphur about promises that pander to our greed and ill-will towards others. Religious leaders will, of course, attempt to provide guidelines for voters without endorsing any particular political party (although, as the archbishops of Canterbury and York have discovered, that will not prevent their readers from making assumptions about their party adherence.) Simple souls like me will just re-read Populorum Progressio and the party manifestos and do a little thinking and praying.
Thinking and praying are both important. Prayer is not, and should not be considered to be, a substitute for thinking. We have to do our homework when exercising our right to vote, and, as I have often said, that may well mean we have to accept some policies we do not like or which we regard with some ambivalence purely because, on balance, X or Y represent the best choice we can make among those that are on offer. The questions we ask, and the answers we find (or fail to find), have a bearing on our decision-making. That is why it is so important that, at this stage, we continue to keep a close eye on the promises being made and do some hard thinking about them. Every day seems to produce another, and there are still some weeks to go before the General Election on 8 June.
At the moment, one of the questions bothering me is, how will any party be able to fund the promises it is making? There is certainly some naivety about tax returns and, for example, the possible implications of Brexit on the City which currently provides about 11% of our tax revenue. Unknowns and imponderables are a difficult basis for predicting outcomes, but we have to make an attempt at it. Another question that doesn’t rely so much on doing sums, is, how divided will we be as a result of some of the accusations being flung at the party leaders or, more generally, those who identify with one or other party. Many of these go far beyond dislike of their policies or doubts about their ability to govern fairly — or even to govern at all. One expects vigorous debate and some extreme opinions being voiced, but there is a thin line between scoring political points and defamation of character. I am sorry to say that some people, who in every other respect are exemplary Christians, seem to think that their conviction about the rightness or wrongness of some course of action relieves them of any responsibility to avoid rash judgement or libelling of others.
This would have been the feast of St Matthias were it not the fifth Sunday of Easter. I think it is worth re-reading the account of the way in which the early Church chose between him and Barsabbas (Acts 1.21–26). The apostles prayed, certainly, and expected the Lord’s guidance; but before they made their choice, they decided the criteria on which their decision should rest. That is precisely our situation regarding the General Election. Politics is not something ‘other’, something the Church should not get involved in, as though we all lived in a rarefied atmnosphere that had no connection with the ordinary business of life. On the contrary, the Church is very much involved in everything that concerns human beings and the life of society as a whole. She has a duty to apply to political decision-making just as much care as she devotes to the more obviously religious aspects of life. The question for all of us is, will we?
Note: I’m unlikely to blog again this week as I shall be in and out of Oxford most days for various medical appointments.