Thought for the Day - Rev Dr Giles Fraser - 26/11/2012

A report just out by the TUC argues that Britain’s poorest families are facing further hardship as public services are cut back in order to meet the Government’s spending targets. Such cutbacks obviously impact the poor more than the wealthy simply because the poor rely a great deal more on public services. Some insist that these cuts, along with those to the welfare budget, are an essential route
to overall fiscal responsibility and therefore to fairness. Others argue that because they fall disproportionately upon the vulnerable they are therefore unfair.

So what then do we mean by fairness? It’s a question with which I have become increasingly engaged since I recently took up the Chair of the Tower Hamlets Fairness Commission. Our job is the unenviable one of trying to describe how a community like Tower Hamlets - already vastly unequal - can best navigate a fair path through a future of increasing austerity. What principles of fairness can be applied to
help triage limited resources in periods of economic hardship?

These are not, of course, theological questions. And yet they are ones on which pretty much all religious traditions have something indirectly to contribute. Yes, as one of the most diverse boroughs in London, the commission necessarily reflects a wide variety of religious and indeed non-religious perspectives. And looking for what we have in common can easily lead to some anaemic lowest common
denominator. Nonetheless, what all monotheistic faiths do seem to share is the idea that, as John Donne once put it, “No man is an island” - that is: we all have some fundamental responsibility for each other. This idea is, I suspect, historically connected with the development of monotheism and with the belief that because reality has
some unified origin then, however diverse we may be as a society, we are nonetheless fundamentally connected. In contrast to, say, Greek polytheism that imagined a world where the gods were forever at war with each other, it’s no co-incidence that the world’s first great monotheistic faith - Judaism - was also the first faith to develop an
ethics of equality.

Still, this only takes us so far developing a response to the question of fairness. Theology does not neatly hand out policy proposals or any detailed programme of action. And it’s here that religion can have nothing to do with politics. Nonetheless, politics works on many different levels. Those who speak on both the left and the right about the idea of One Nation Britain are emphasising the need for a society in which we are all called to
bear one other’s burdens. I know this can easily sound like some call for generalized benevolence. But it’s more than that. It’s a sense that my own flourishing is fundamentally bound up with yours. That rich and poor and not forever locked in some desperate zero sum competition over resources. And indeed, that without some sense of
underlying connectedness – from individuals, from business, from government - it’s hard to imagine that any form of politics will ever be able to make things right or indeed make things fair.

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