St Paul's Institute

Bound to the Poor - or just helping when we choose?

by The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby

Posted: 4 Oct 2012

Speaking realistically, of course, everyone knows that any thought there might have been about joining the Eurozone is nowhere near to being on the political agenda. The fashionable view is that the whole thing was a disaster or, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer is constantly saying, has an irresistible logic about it that leads to fiscal and economic union, and beyond that probably to political union as well. He makes that point, no doubt, because he wants to encourage the Eurozone countries to grasp that logic - as Angela Merkel wants them to as well - as the only route to stabilising the beleaguered currency and put an end to emergency bailouts.

But he has another reason for saying it too: it's a convenient way of adding to the weight of argument against the UK ever joining the single currency: 'who wants to be part of a political united Europe?' is the unspoken question, with the clear assumption of an overwhelming 'nobody' from the British electorate. It's politically helpful too in the argument against Scottish independence: 'if you leave the union', the argument runs, ' you won't be independent at all; you'll have to join the Euro, and Scotland, so far from being independent, will be tied into a European super-state.'

These arguments gain support from the sense that we gain from having control of our own currency, so that if economic times demand it we can devalue, or allow the markets to do that for us, and so promote our competitiveness in world trade. They are given credibility by the spectacle of Greece, along probably with Italy and Spain ('the south') suffering the consequences of what is claimed to be their profligacy, their living on inflated debt. This is a version of the common enough perception that when it comes to the gap between rich and poor it is the poor who are the problem, and when it comes to indebtedness it is those who owe little who are 'living on debt' (the truth is that it is the wealthy who borrow the most in live on debt the most also).

Underneath these arguments, highly questionable as they are even in their own terms, is a form of voluntarism which it is very tempting for the comfortably off to espouse, and has a particular temptation for those who hold religious convictions. That 'voluntarism' is the belief that it is morally better to be generous or charitable out of what is seen as a spontaneous and free choice than to make systemic adjustments that will take 'freedom of choice' away. Even if it can be shown - as it surely can be - that only systemic adjustments produce adequate benefits for the poor, the affluent will resist those adjustments in the belief that they must have the right to choose whom to help, how much to offer, when and on what terms. Such 'free' choices are more virtuous, the argument runs, than having a system which is more effective but at the cost (to the affluent) of taking away the sense of free choice.

The fashionable political consensus for the present is that we should be grateful for not being part of the Euro, for having the freedom which having our own currency gives us to manage our own economy, and so not to be dragged down by the impoverished and indebted countries of southern Europe. On which there are three things to be said: it is as a result of not being in the Euro that we are not tied into the lives and needs of Europe's poorest citizens: we are able to exhort them, even to condemn them; but we are not tied in with them, and they are not part of our lives as they would be if their economic and political decisions had actual perceptible effects on us.

Secondly, in fact ultimately we are tied into the fate of the poor - not in fact just the poor of southern Europe but of the world: the pressure to be generous comes not just from altruism but from the accurate perception that a world in which some are too poor to survive is not going to be a good world for any of us. We are one with another; this is a small planet and we manage its resources together or we shall not manage them at all.

And thirdly, however economically attractive our position apart from the Eurozone's crisis may appear at present, a week is a long time in economics, not just in politics. Who would dare say that in a world in which China, India and Brazil will rival the largest economies the time might not come, sooner than we perhaps think, when we shall be in the position of a Greece or even of a Chad or a Congo, when we would be only too glad if those in positions of economic power saw themselves as bound in with us and sharing our fate, and not simply helping us when they chose, and ignoring us when it suited. Times change, and with the change may well come an altered perception. Would it not be better to mount the argument for systems of real solidarity now while we have the choice?

About this author

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is the former Bishop of Worcester. Following his role as part of the Interim Directing Team from 2012-2014, he continues as an adviser to St Paul's Institute.

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