Over the past few days, I have been wrestling in my mind with the issue of politics. The reason for this is that I feel that some of Chris’ concerns for the disadvantaged and poor need to be approached as a political issue. Theological platitudes will never on their own be adequate to deal with the real problems of society. This blog post is, however, not going to be an adequate response to many of the issues of poverty and deprivation but merely to indicate how difficult I find it to have a secure political opinion. My problem in finding it difficult to take a strong political position on most issues is one probably shared with countless others. As far as I am concerned, most political issues draw from me two separate responses. One is my outward approach to political questions which is based on my reasoning, intellect and Christian outlook. The other is my personal emotional reaction to the same political questions. This latter reaction arises out of my family background and the particular experiences of life that I have had.
I want to start to start with second of these two approaches. I realised, as I was reflecting, that the story of my grandparents’ families has affected the way I think about certain political questions . In each account there is a story of struggle. As far as my paternal grandfather was concerned, it was the story of his struggle to cope with poverty and the effect of losing his father while still a small child in the 1860s. The family moved from Brighton to London to live with an aunt while my great-grandmother eked out a living as a seamstress. My grandfather was, however, fortunate. He, with a group of other bright boys, attached themselves to a sympathetic schoolmaster in Tottenham for extra teaching. Thus he was taken through an enhanced curriculum which included Latin and English literature. He was able, in due course, to get a reasonably senior job at the Church Times. He also acted as the English Correspondent for an American church magazine. We still have the volume that Living Church sent him after his retirement from that post in the mid-30s. This grandfather died the year I was born, 1945.
My maternal grandfather died in 1924 leaving behind my grandmother and my mother, then a child of 10 and three other siblings. The family had been reasonably prosperous but their world was turned upside down by this catastrophe of his death. My mother’s childhood was overshadowed by the real fear of poverty, not the extreme kind, but one that threatened the loss of the middle class status that they had enjoyed up to that point. Somehow my grandmother juggled the finances so that she never had to go out to work, but it was a lean period. In those pre-war days, all education had to paid for beyond school and it was by hard effort that a Trust Fund was tapped to release some money to enable my mother and her sister to attend teacher training college.
These family stories have of course seeped into my thinking about political issues. I recognise that access to education, beyond the basics, has played a big part in my family’s history. My own valuing of education is in particular inspired by my grandfather’s story. In his case education was the route out of abject poverty while, in the other account, education allowed my mother to retain her future (and her middle class background).
Access to education is one crucial area of political debate. It is clear that the better educated part of the population possesses greater wealth and status than those without such advantages. Logically if everyone recognised this fact, as my grandfather did, then there would be an enormous struggle to learn on the part of all. As it is, it is the ‘pushy’ middle class parents who juggle the application criteria to make sure their offspring go to the best schools. My own children both received very good educations but I am haunted by the tens of thousands who do not receive the best possible chance. There are various reasons for this. Some are political, the lack of financial resources provided to schools, but there are also problems with an endemic lack of understanding of what education is for on the part of many parents. It is here my Christian outlook and my reasoning powers come into play and I find myself in a conundrum. Instinctively I recognise the desire of ambitious parents to do the best they possibly can for their children. That may include the right to spend money on school fees when practicable. I also recognise that the very effort and sacrifice put in by these parents acts as a divisive factor in schools, with some children left at the bottom of the heap in schools which lack ambition on behalf of the students. If no one believes in you and your potential, then there is little chance that you will be able to achieve.
It is here in the educational debate that I am divided internally. My left wing side says that every child should reach their potential in education whatever the cost. My right wing side says that we must honour the struggle many parents and their children make to acquire a good education. Any attempt to discourage these sacrifices, whether financial or in terms of effort, should be resisted.
A similar conundrum exists within me over wealth. My left wing reasoning (Christian?) side says that a greater equality in wealth is desirable. My right wing emotional side tells me that motivation and reward for hard work is a good way of organising our economic life.
I leave the reader with my dilemma. Is it possible to resolve, internally, these and other political attitudes and retain consistency? Chris has made me more acutely aware of the problems and issues around those who are disempowered in society. He has also emphasised how right wing attitudes, that are tolerated by many Christians and espoused by Thatcherism, have made inequalities worse. Should a Christian ever collude with policies that may cause disadvantage to a group in society? As far as education is concerned, is it actually possible for everyone to get a decent education? A good education would itself empower many vulnerable people and help protect them from the danger of exploitation by employers or by churches? That is one of the issues raised by this blog on behalf of the abused in churches. There was someone who once said that he could never enjoy the blessings of heaven if he thought that a single individual was being tormented in hell? If that is a true Christian sentiment, then it might also be right to ask if it is possible for one child to enjoy a first rate education which, indirectly, contributes to another child being let down by the system.