The Archbishops of Canterbury and York are on slippery ground when they criticise ‘inequality’

The Archbishop of Canterbury and Archbishop of York (John Giles/PA Wire)

It is good to know that even today a pronouncement by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York can still make the front pages. Moreover, it is good to know that the two archbishops are able to communicate something that needs to be said, and which is in clear continuity with the content of the Gospel and Christian tradition.

Their Graces have produced, with others, a collection of essays entitled On Rock or Sand? The biblical allusion will not be lost on those who are familiar with Scripture. The Archbishop of York , who has edited the volume, says this of it:

The book addresses crucial questions about the moral principles that undergird the way Britain is governed. It is about building firm foundations for Britain’s future and setting out the essential values we need to build a just, sustainable and compassionate society in which we can all participate and flourish. We need to rediscover the true meaning of the word economy – it means a household, a community whose members share responsibility for each other. The giant that must be slayed is income inequality – where some few have far too much and the many have too little.

Much of the commentary that this book will provoke will concentrate on how this applies to the current political situation, and our already underway election campaign. Indeed this is the approach of today’s Daily Telegraph, which has had a preview of the book. This in itself is not to be deplored: after all, we all want people to think about what is at stake in the coming General Election.

Anything that arouses discussion and interest is to be welcomed. But it would be a pity if this book were to be dismissed as the Church of England wading into the campaign and taking up a position in favour of one side alone. We must hope the current volume does not suffer the fate of Faith in the City, which was dismissed as “Marxist theology”.

The archbishops are doing something far more important: they are questioning the moral principles that lie behind our actions and our policies. Put another way, their contribution ought to be seen as a contribution to the ideas department, an area where most of our politicians are woefully under-informed. One notes too some of the key words that spring from the page: solidarity, common good and subsidiarity. These should all sound familiar and should be welcomed by Catholics in particular, whose patrimony they are – a patrimony too that we wish to share.

Where the book is on less stable foundations is when it talks of inequality. “Equality” as far as I am aware, though I may be out of date on this, is not and has never been one of the buzzwords of Catholic social teaching, in the way participation, subsidiarity and the common good have been.

There is a reason for this: “equality” is a term that leaves you with questions: equality of what? Of opportunity? Or of outcome? The book is on a firmer foundation when it speaks about redistributionism, in that this has a longer and more respectable history.

We are all redistributionists these days, in that we all believe that the rich should pay more tax, and that the state should provide according to need rather than ability to pay. But, and it is a huge but, there are quite a few questions to be asked about how we are to ensure the sort of outcome we all want.

The sort of taxation we have in this country, along with our hugely expensive welfare state, seems neither sustainable or to be producing the fair society that the archbishops envisage. There are many places that seem a thousand miles from London and the South-East: is more funding really the way to solve their problems?

I agree when the archbishops tell us that money and economic productivity are not the only worth, but I am not sure that the state is the best way to deliver solutions. Indeed, one is tempted to think, as some do, that the state is part of the problem, not the solution.

What are we to make, in particular, of Archbishop Sentamu’s words to the effect that “The giant that must be slayed is income inequality – where some few have far too much and the many have too little”? The Church must certainly protest against the injustice of low pay, and the way that many workers are simply not adequately rewarded for the hours they put in. The Living Wage campaign has addressed this and it surely is beyond contradiction that we should end the farce where the state tops up people’s pay simply because their employers will not pay them enough. But how do we stop some people being paid too much? Can that be done? If we have a minimum wage, can we have a maximum wage too? how would that work for the self-employed? Is it practicable?

If legislation is not possible in this field, as I think may be the case (though I would rely on an economist to advise me on this), there is still much to be done to promote solidarity. This does not simply mean that the rich should give more to charity – though if they were to do that, that would be good. (Let us remember how the rich of America, people like the Carnegies and Mellons, have endowed endless museums and other institutions for the public good: America far outstrips Britain in this regard.)

What is needed is not only philanthropy but solidarity with those who are worse off. Much of what the archbishops write seems to suggest that we are two nations, harking back to Disraeli’s famous novel Sybil.

The virtue of solidarity would tell us that in fact the rich and the poor and those in between form one human family. One of the problems of modern Britain, unlike some other countries (one thinks of Italy and Japan) is that rich and poor lead such different and separate lives. Our elites seem to be out of touch: those in management may never spend much time on the shop floor. This is not good.

It is said that in every company in Italy, big and small, there is only one canteen, and thus every day all the workers mix at the same table. Whether this is still the rule, I am not sure. But if it is true, that, for example, Gianni Agnelli or Luciano Benetton mingled on equal terms at the lunch table with their employees, this is a sign that the enterprise was shared one, and that they were, in some sense at least, all in this together. But Britain is not a classless society. That needs to change.