Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Recession and Generation Y

Frog Orr-Ewing of the Millenials Think Tank and Latimer Minster project has written an intriguing article exploring the impact of the recent recession on ‘Generation Y’. Published on their blog, it is entitled The Psychology of Recession & Big Society.

In it, he focuses on the “negative psycho-social effects of recession” which include the feelings of social rejection which come from failing to secure employment.  The problem of deferred and dashed hopes among the younger generation is complex.  It is not simply a story of betrayal but, as Frog rightly points out, also a question of over-inflated and sometimes unrealistic expectations.

The risk being run is mass disengagement.  Frog sums up the problem like this:

The double whammy of recession depression and hope deferred, means that the very individuals who have a lifetime ahead of them and who need to be harnessed effectively to create an economically and socially robust future, are those who feel like they have been saddled with the social and economic ills created by the irresponsibility of the generation above their heads, and have had their perceived contract with society broken.  It is perceived (however incorrectly) almost as if a company who has fired you is asking for your help, or parents who have thrown you out of the home are asking you to pay rent.

The implication of course is that young people who feel betrayed by society are unlikely to want to contribute to it.  There is a certain logic to this position and the Millennials Think Tank are right to flag up the issue.  Yet to do so does beg a number of deeper questions.  Of these the most important is whether a contract is really the best way of describing society?

Perhaps as a descriptive term it is appropriate.  People certainly seem to believe that if they put something in they should get something back.  “But that is what I pay my taxes for”, is a common refrain when complaining about a service not being supplied as expected or desired.  It is preferable, of course, if they get back more than they put in.  Such is the result of politicians promising ever greater returns on an ever smaller investment (the age-old problem in the UK of wanting Scandinavian social services on American taxation levels).

This seems to be the attitude that Frog identifies as affecting young people.  They feel in the midst of a recession that too much is being asked of them.  This feels particularly acute when set against the apparently comfortable existence of the majority of baby-boomers; an argument set out in detail by David Willetts MP and the authors of Jilted Generation.

The challenge, though, is not simply to try and resolve the dilemma of unmet expectations within the existing framework of contractural social relationships.  It is to explore whether other modes of social interaction might be better suited to confronting the problems facing us.

In his excellent article exploring the Big Society, Luke Bretherton argues that a good citizen is not best thought of as a volunteer but as a vow keeper.  Voluntarism, after all, maintains power differentials and builds no relational strength.  Instead, Bretherton argues that the qualities needed among a healthy society are reciprocity, mutuality, and solidarity.  These are the values which should underpin the Big Society.  They offer more chance of success than mere voluntarism because they involve sharing each other’s lives; that requires a much deeper sense of mutual respect than rattling a collection tin or handing out blankets to homeless folk ever could.

Frog suggests that a “fresh social contract needs to be published for the next generation”.  It is certainly true that we need to reimagine what is expected of our young people, and we certainly need to face up to some of their unmet aspirations.  Yet the foundation for doing so may need to be stronger, and deeper, than a contract.  Perhaps it is instead a new covenant of mutual social commitment that is needed.

And if anything has the resources to help us think about what a social covenant might be and how it might differ to a contract, it is going to be religious belief.

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Film on Nehemiah 5 Challenge

Leaders from our Pentecostal partner churches explain the Nehemiah 5 Challenge – a Biblical call to action against exploitative lending – in a film directed and produced by Jellicoe intern Liliana Worth.

The Nehemiah 5 Challenge will be launched by Citizens UK at a service on May 2nd at Emmanuel Evangelical Church, Westminster at 10.30am – before a 2000-person assembly in Methodist Central Hall. This is part of Citizens UK’s Day for Civil Society.

The Contextual Theology Centre has further materials for congregations in Citizens UK on a new website – http://tools4organising.org/.  These include a booklet on The Bible, Debt and Usury by Dr Sola Fola-Alade (Trinity Chapel, Beckton) and Centre Director Dr Angus Ritchie – and a briefing on Christian teaching on usury by Centre Fellow Dr Luke Bretherton.

Andrew Brown: Behind the Burqa Ban’s Reasoning

Andrew Brown has posted a characteristically balanced and intelligent article on the Guardian website about the ban on women wearing the burqa or niqab in public just introduced in France.

He is caustic in his argument that the ban is not about free speech as such, but about the state’s right to make and promote value judgements:

This seems to me to be less about speech than about beliefs: it implies a claim that French citizens believe – or at least live as if they believed – in particular values. Is that something that a state can legitimately ask? The question is idiotic. It is something that all states do, in fact, demand. In the case of France, there is a well worked-out set of principles to which all citizens are expected to subscribe. This is more than Charles de Gaulle’s “certaine idée de la France“: it is a particular idea of being French. Values and people cannot be disentangled. A state that is grounded on particular values demands that its citizens live by them, too.

Though this remark evokes a fair degree of chagrin in the comments section following his article, Andrew Brown’s argument has a touch of the Emperor’s new clothes about it.  It is incredibly hard to sustain a convincing argument that the state can be genuinely neutral. Indeed, Britain may not be the ‘Christian’ society it once was but it remains heavily value-laden. Laws against discrimination – especially when some rights are decided to trump others – or the expression of hatred, for example, clearly express values.

Yet acknowledging that our society remains underpinned by values – however opaque – is an uncomfortable truth for many to hear when set alongside the liberal mantra of free choice. It is a truth which exposes those values to scrutiny. That is not to say they are necessarily wrong, but it does caution us to not see them as immutable.

This is particularly important when it comes to the issue of social cohesion. If we lose sight of the values underpinning the state and therefore stop articulating, justifying and defending them, then we should not be surprised when people ‘turn off’ from politics.  As Andrew rightly observes, a state that rules by force alone is tyranny.

A constant refrain among critics of the current government is that people did not vote for them. That may be true, but it exposes an ignorance of how a plural democracy is supposed to work. Competitive electoral systems like ours often have a fragmentary impact on political and social divisions, breeding a ‘winner takes all’ attitude. In the absence of a shared conception of the common good for which our government should strive, a democracy gives the victor all the power and all the decisions. Opponents feel powerless in response.

Losing a sense of the values underpinning our state may well be a contributory factor feeding the current sense of political discord and disillusionment. The answer to that will not be a change of government. It may be to recognise once more that our state, like any state, is based on values. Identifying, sharing and defending those values might just be a step in the direction of a more consensual system and more empowered electorate. And it might help us think more clearly about what is going on elsewhere in Europe.

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Fear and Hope

The Searchlight Educational Trust has recently published Fear and HOPE.  This report, based on extensive polling research, gives a fascinating snapshot of current attitudes to identity and extremism in Britain today.

The report captures both the good and the bad.  It demonstrates widespread suspicion of ‘the Other’ – especially Muslims – and shows growing support for a non-violent alternative to the EDL.  A clear correlation between antagonistic views of immigration and economic pessimism means that in the current fiscal context the issue is only likely to worsen.

One the more encouraging side is the apparent fluidity of attitudes to identity, and in particular the openness of younger people.  Furthermore, a huge majority of people reject anti-Muslim extremists as being as bad as Muslim extremists.  Around 60% of respondents believed that positive approaches – including community organising – were the best way to combat extremism in their communities.

The report is worth reading for its empirically based insights into the current situation.  It highlights graphically the dangers of leaving the issues of race, immigration and integration unaddressed. The report’s authors deliberately throw down the gauntlet to the political classes to confront the issue head-on.  As Jon Cruddas MP argues in the Foreword, the core findings of the report “should ricochet through the body politic”.

Yet while the report is focused on “the politics of identity” it also raises interesting questions for Christian readers.  If the imperative to respond is so great for politicians, then surely it must be so for church leaders too.  Does the church today articulate a robust enough “theology of identity” in an age when the search for belonging and community seems to be growing?

Of course there are Christians articulating answers.  Organisations like the Presence and Engagement Network are beginning to address this question by resourcing church leaders and congregations.  Recently, the Contextual Theology Centre helped secure a bid by the Church Urban Fund to run the Near Neighbours programme.  Yet however valuable they are these remain limited in resources and geographic reach.  It is also obvious that Christians need theological resources as well as practical ones to feel equipped for the debate that is becoming unavoidable.

How do we affirm our common humanity with those of different cultures and religions while also engaging with the very real concerns felt by the majority of the population?  In seeking to be hospitable to the alien in our midst, who might the church risk alienating?  How can the local church be a catalyst for community cohesion?

These questions and more need to be answered.  In the meantime, Fear and HOPE provides a much needed look at the state of the issue today.

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Billy Bragg: Not So Blue

It is a sure sign that an idea is gaining ground when those opposed to it begin doing so publicly.  Yet it is also concerning when that opposition is based on a fairly fundamental misunderstanding.

Billy Bragg is the latest figure on the left to come out against ‘Blue Labour’.  He describes it as economically liberal but socially conversative.  It’s main flaw, Bragg believes, is the same as New Labour’s: being “too blue”, or “too free market”.  Anyone who has actually listened to Maurice Glasman describe Blue Labour wouldn’t recognise this accusation.

Bragg’s conclusion for what Britain needs, though, is straightforward:

What they want – what they need – is a Labour party that remembers what it is for: a party that defends the ordinary working people against the ravages of the free market; a party that holds those who wield great financial power to account; a party that provides people with a sense of security in an ever-changing world.

Last time I checked, that’s precisely what Blue Labour is meant to be.  Several times Bragg contradicts himself by denigrating the use of tradition, while also plaintively calling for Labour to return to its roots. 

It is perhaps not coincidental that Bragg’s condemnation of Maurice Glasman appears on the same webpage as an article co-authored by Glasman and Jon Cruddas MP entitled “Theft in a City State”.  If you’d just read Bragg’s article, you may well think it was a tirade against new taxes.  But no, it is an attack on the City of London’s treatment of the Billingsgate fish porters.  That sounds a lot like defending the ordinary working people against the ravages of a free market.

This small snapshot of the confusion facing the Labour party as it seeks to determine what it is for (and against) in the post-New Labour era is instructive.  Those seeking positive renewal (defining Labour as being for something, and not simply against what it perceives the Coalition to be doing) of Labour have a lot more explaining, and discussion, to do.  Until those hard conversations take place, expect to see many more straw men.

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