2008 or 1945 - Which crisis will we follow?
I’m sorry that my ‘Thinking Lunch’ talk on Tax Justice has been postponed, but that’s the least of our concerns in these troubled times. Like everyone else, I’m stuck at home, and very thankful for the radio, TV and internet. I was on the rota for Southwark Cathedral where we’ve been maintaining the Daily Office and Eucharist, with no congregation but streamed on FACEBOOK, but even that has now been put on hold. Nevertheless, we can carry on at home the worship of God, and the prayers of the people and for the people.
I’ve been asked whether the text of my talk could be circulated by email, but as with so much else at the moment, it’s difficult to know what to say, and what to propose for the future, until we know when the present crisis will end, and what state our world, our nation, our economy will be in when we start getting back to normal.
But what is “normal”? Our last crisis, which now seems far less significant, was what happened to the Banks in 2008 and the threat of a financial meltdown. Then, as now, the Government intervened in order to prevent economic collapse. It bailed out the banks, but at a cost, neatly labelled “Austerity”, which has been borne largely by the poorer and more vulnerable members of society: benefits were frozen, public services were starved of funds, while Bankers’ bonuses were restored and the obscenities of corporate pay continued. And little has been done to stop companies and individuals who have the means to do so avoiding paying their fair share of tax.
If nothing else the present crisis makes it abundantly clear that the failure to establish a fair tax system which provides for the needs of everyone in society can have disastrous consequences. The Church Action for Tax Justice website - https://www.catj.org.uk/ - carries a damning statement from Pope Francis: “It has become evident that those who do not pay taxes do not only commit a felony but also a crime: if there are not enough hospital beds and artificial respirators, it is also their fault.”
So when all of this is over, will we just return to “normal”? Or could this be a moment, rather like 1945, when we look at the suffering and sacrifices which people have gone through, and ask what kind of world and economy we want to rebuild? Is it one where the rich must be allowed to flourish whatever the consequences for the poor? Or could it be one where the current rhetoric of “let’s come together” results in a much fairer, more equal society?
That would mean much lower differentials in pay, recognizing as we now do that care workers are more essential (and indeed skilled) than people who make a living by just moving money around. It means companies and wealthier people taking responsibility for the societies from which they benefit, and so paying more tax to sustain them. And it must mean looking again at those who are “at the bottom of the pile” – are they dispensable, or only entitled to what’s left over, or do we really belong together?
When we start to return to normality, there will be those who will say that the priority must be rebuilding the economy, encouraging business, and so the poor will need to wait until that starts to pay off. There is here a stark theological issue: is the world so evil than only by allowing inequality and injustice can there be, eventually and in some small measure, any hope for those left behind? To put it crudely, is the Christian belief in new life only a future hope for those who will die from the Corvid-19? Or does our Creator God, incarnate in our Saviour Jesus Christ, working now through the Holy Spirit, call us, and empower us, to start making that new life real in the present, in the way we organise our life together, including our economy?
What happened in 1945 was resisted by those with vested interests, and there have been many attempts since to undo the Welfare State, but who would now question the National Health Service? In our current crisis a Government is again intervening, this time to protect the economy, to hold society together and to care for those in greatest need. It can be done.
When we emerge on the other side of this dark period, the fundamental question will be: if we can do all of this when everyone is threatened, why can’t we do it in “normal” times, to create a society and economy where everyone matters? And more broadly - because all of this, including taxation, is more than a domestic issue - can we turn back from the “sceptered-isle” nationalism which has recently driven our country and instead play a leading role, as again we did in 1945, in forming a new international order based on peace and justice – including fair taxation?
Michael Doe is Vice-Chair of Church Action for Tax Justice, and an Assistant Bishop in the Anglican Diocese of Southwark. He was due to speak at the St Albans ‘Thinking Lunch’ on April 2nd
Dr Justin Thacker is the National Coordinator for Church Action for Tax Justice