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Politics – Tawney Dialogue 2017

July 2017

In Evangelical Times March 2017, Shirin Aguiar reported on the Conservative Christian Fellowship’s Wilberforce Address. In April, Shirin also attended Labour’s ‘Christians on the Left’ annual address — the Tawney Dialogue; here, she reports on its two keynote speeches.

The Tawney Dialogue is named after Christian Socialist R. H. Tawney. At the 2017 event, Rt Hon. Hilary Benn MP gave the parliamentarian address, ‘Business in Brexit Britain — avoiding the race to the bottom’. The non-parliamentarian address, ‘Brexit — economists dangerously irrelevant’, was from Dr Ann Pettifor, Director of Policy Research in Macroeconomics and a leading figure in the Jubilee 2000 debt campaign.

Winter of discontent

Labour heavyweight Hilary Benn, chair of the Brexit Select Committee, told the gathering of 150 Christian Labour supporters in Westminster Methodist Central Hall that the UK had been facing, post-Brexit, a ‘winter of political discontent’ and needed a new ‘national common purpose’.

He said the story of ‘optimism, onwards, upwards, better, greater material wealth’ that the country had told itself for three generations now ‘seems somewhat less certain’. The global economic crash had shaken the financial system and people’s confidence in it.

This crash had given rise to concerns about immigration, migration, insecurity, stagnant wages, economic inequality, austerity, globalisation and a sense of powerlessness, as well as a desire not to be dictated to, a loss of identity, and a sense of loss.

All this had combined into the people’s use of the referendum ballot box to send politicians an unequivocal message. If their concerns were not addressed, it is not only Europe that would be divided, but the United Kingdom too.

National unity requires an answer to this central political question: how do we reconcile two great forces in our age — nations working together to secure better economic and social conditions for all, against challenges that ‘pay no heed whatsoever to national borders’; and thirst for national self-determination?

He said understanding and responding to these forces is urgent work, if we are to see off the populists who seek to exploit frustration, fear and anger, by promising a return to a fictitious golden age. They represent an inward-looking nationalism that offers no answer to the problems of the world, only a road to nowhere.

Common purpose

We must find a new sense of national common purpose to address practical tasks calling us at this moment in history. It is not just about Brexit; the current crisis in social care is the greatest crisis the UK faces, with social care failing and the National Health Service ‘creaking’.

The best Brexit deal is one that would ensure our country’s economic stability by maintaining tariff- and barrier-free trade with its largest single market (Europe). As a Select Committee report (published in the week of Mr Benn’s speech) has pointed out, if there is no negotiated deal, there will be a return of trade barriers, uncertainty over financial services and data transference, and uncertainty over the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Mr Benn concluded: ‘The single most important thing we can do is to hang on to the values that brought us into our movement. The task has always been for the Labour movement to apply our values to the world as it is today, as we seek to change it to the world we would wish it to be; never, never — certainly in the lifetime of those sitting in this room — has the task been more urgent’.

‘Dangerous irrelevance’

Dr Pettifor’s address, ‘Brexit — economists dangerously irrelevant’, was read in her absence, as she was delayed returning from overseas. Her speech maintained that any economic collapse because of Brexit will only illustrate the failure of our economists.

Dr Pettifor described economists as a ‘dangerous irrelevance’ who for too long have resisted calls for reform. She called for them to be brought to account, with a public inquiry into their failure.

In the referendum result the British people had not just rejected the EU, but also the dominant economic narrative, for the prospect of hardships to come had not proved a compelling argument for those already suffering low wages, insecure low-skilled jobs, bad housing, high rents, an under-resourced and increasingly privatised NHS, and other forms of public sector ‘austerity’.

She called for President of the Royal Economic Society Andrew Chesher to consider his position, since all these hardships were indirectly a consequence of the decisions of those economists who have led the way in financial liberalisation over the past 40 years. It is their policies that have resulted in the financial crises, soaring debt levels and insolvencies. It is they who have dictated the terms of austerity.

Even though their policies have failed, most of them have refused to concede wrongdoing or offer alternative policies. Even the Queen, she claimed, had implied they did not know what they were doing.

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the British public did not find the opinion of the Remain experts compelling, since Remain had chosen to focus on the economy to the exclusion of pretty much everything else.

Unsound theories

She lambasted the heavyweights of global economics — the OECD, IMF, Federal Reserve, Bank of England, NIESR, Institute of Fiscal Studies and London School of Economics — who had been wheeled out to warn the British people of economic ‘facts’, known and understood apparently only to ‘experts’. She criticised the Financial Times, who had ‘amplified their voices and repeated their dire threats and warnings, over and over’.

But the ‘experts’ and their economic stories have been well and truly walloped by the referendum result. And rightly so, Dr Pettifor said, because, while there was truth in the story that international co-operation and co-ordination is vital to economic activity and stability, there was no sound basis to the widely-espoused economic ‘religion’ that money, trade and labour markets must be unfettered, detached from democratic regulatory oversight and trusted to govern whole countries, regions and continents. The British people have now rejected this mainstream orthodoxy as deleterious to their economic interests.

Dr Pettifor said she voted to Remain and did not believe Brexit a wise decision, as it could energise the Far Right, not only in Britain but across Europe and the USA, lead to the break-up of the UK and the ‘political dominance of a small tribe of conservative Little Englanders, who will diminish this country’s great social, economic and political achievements’.

Financial elites

She insisted the British people are not to blame, but the economic and financial elites who had managed to engineer their own political and financial bail-outs after the grave financial crisis of 2007-9.

Economists had cheered on politicians and effectively urged them to transfer the burden of the losses incurred then on to those most innocent of the crisis. Society is now paying the price for a calculated, reckless refusal to make the City of London and Wall Street accountable.

Above all, economists have failed the British people by ‘pressing on with austerity. That is why we urgently need a public inquiry into the role of the economics profession in Britain’s financial crises’.

Rachel Buckley