Thursday, February 19, 2009

The New Localism?

I'm not given to party politics, but I am detecting some interesting new noises coming from the Tory party, noises that chime with my thinking and concerns about how we live today from a Biblical worldview.

I should qualify that of course – I am a Thatcher Child – I came of age under a Tory Government, I was out there as a young man protesting against the Poll Tax. I grew up mistrusting the Tories as the party of the rich and the powerful, of self-interest. Thatcher's famous "there is no such thing as Society" quote was the death knell for my sense that the Tories were a party that had anything for me or ordinary people of my generation. For most people of my generation, the idea of even engaging with Tory policy, let alone voting for them sticks in the craw and makes the flesh creep with horror!

And the legacy of Thatcher era Toryism is with us still, in the collapse of families, the atomisation of society, fear and mistrust of strangers, etc. It is also with us in the legacy of Reaganomics and the New Right, with the increasing monopolisation of financial systems and markets by a hard right, neo-liberal consensus that encouraged the sort of cavalier risk taking that helped stoke our current financial meltdown.

In short, Thatcher era Toryism, and it's bastard spawn, New Labour, have promoted a system that is, frankly, Godless, self focussed, and ultimately as ethically and financially bankrupt as communism and fascism were before it, albeit with a thin veneer of liberal democracy instead of brutal totalitarianism (although Labour's control & command approach to social policy is creeping in the direction of the totalitarian).

Globalisation was the proudest achievement of this way of doing things, but with it came an increasing impoverishment of marginal and developing world communities, reactionary religious and then secular fundamentalism, and ultimately exposed the economies of nations little involved in US or European financial systems to the catastrophic collapse of US, Japanese and EU markets and economies.

But there are signs of something changing. Two articles in this month's Prospect Magazine illustrate an interesting take on the way local communities are beginning to rest political, financial, and cultural control from the old centres of power. Phillip Blond argues in "The Rise of the Red Tories" that the Conservatives need to rest the discourse away from the consensus that they and Labour have built up, and move towards recognising local communities as the political, cultural and economic power bases of society. In the same edition, Peter Bazzlegate argues something similar with respect to Public Service Broadcasting – getting local, web based PSB publicly funded and moving away from the monolithic structures of the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

The Tories have just launched a series of policy initiatives that is moving in that direction as well (see below)

Now, I am not jumping on board and saying this is it, wow, let's all vote Tory. I am still waiting to see the fine print and how this might work in practice. But I am excited, because we need to build community again in this country, and every political, economic and social trend over the last four or five decades has systematically eroded this. Anything that seeks to reverse that trend, and move us towards a more healthy and human way of functioning as a society is worthy of serious consideration.

The Biblical model is useful to consider – because it emphasises relationships. Justice is relational, compassion is relational, faith is relational – we work these things out through communities, congregations, shared stories of what God has done, what He has asked of us, what He has promised us. We grow in all ways together, not in isolation, and our salvation, while not a result of birth or group membership but born of a one-to-one relationship with God, is mediated and outworked in practice in the context of a congregation, a family, and a community.

The impersonal, the money driven, the self centred are all condemned throughout Old and New Testaments, time and again. But what is lauded in scripture is not community for its own sake, but a community that is in right relationship first and foremost with God, and then with one another, with neighbouring communities, and with the environment. All relationships are contingent upon one another, all start and end in our relationship with God The Hebrew word for this is Shalom, which we often translate as "peace".

Will the churches engage with this new localism? Is it just another fad that will pass, or is it the start of a new, dramatic paradigm shift in British society and politics? Time will tell, but I for one do not want to see this opportunity to see a profound change slip past.

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