The Kirk's gospel
In recent decades the Church of Scotland's General Assembly has become a partisan and mean-spirited place as Margaret Thatcher found when she spoke there in 1988.
Having reversed the nation's decline she gave a unique insight into her views on religion, morality, family, welfare, taxation, education, race, immigration and civil liberties. It was by far the best speech I ever heard there but she was met with hostile contempt before being insultingly presented with copies of the Kirk's neo-Marxist welfare reports. Twenty years on, prime minister Gordon Brown was treated like a Celtic messiah though he had little to say, and after his decade as chancellor the nation's economy lay in ruins.
The Kirk generally waits for a Tory administration before commissioning a report on the government's economic incompetence and true-to-form one will be presented this year.
Having been given a wide brief, the latest Tory-bashing economics commission soon reduced the scope to the old favourites of inequality, sustainability and ending poverty. Yet to focus only on inequality rather than the drivers of poverty and the obstacles to economic opportunity obfuscates what really works in the realm of economic policy. Sustainability is just another green slogan, a buzz-word that crops up everywhere and it is basically a meaningless cliché conjuring up a vague sense of environmental virtue. As regards 'ending poverty', all political parties claim they will do it, even New Labour, but I cannot recall Jesus giving it as a direct command – he was much too realistic.
The report contends that inequality has grown to be 'unacceptably high', is now a 'serious problem' and to protect social relations it must be addressed by the government. This oft-repeated leftist assertion is backed up the committee's statistic that the average income of the top 10% of earners is now 12 times higher than the lowest 10%. But to use this ratio as the basis of a call for more taxation is wholly dishonest since it is a comparison of gross incomes and rigorous redistributive taxation is already in place.
Unlike Greeks and Italians, British taxpayers are essentially law-abiding and the actual take-home comparison of top and bottom deciles is about half that claimed by the report. However accuracy is clearly not important since the committee is simply warbling and makes no attempt to delineate what the optimum level of inequality might be.
It also ignores a recent Institute of Economic Affairs report showing that there is no evidence of contentment, or 'happiness economics', being affected by income inequality. In fact income inequality is a by-product of a well-functioning economy. Most of the fears about it are bogus, and its reduction is not really a worthy goal of public policy. As regards sustainability, the basis for all discussion in the report is the unsubstantiated assertion that 'climate change is creating impossible challenges for the world's poor'. There is no evidence this is true or that the Scottish Parliament's dash for wind or even promoting home-grown food at expense of Third World imports is the answer.
The Kirk is also wedded to Fairtrade which is a nice idea but it is another form of market manipulation and the inconvenient truth about Fairtrade is that it is not really very fair. It only offers a very small number of farmers a higher fixed price for their goods but these come at the expense of many other farmers who are left seriously worse off.
I would have preferred to see some discussion on the inherited culture of poverty in the UK where people feel marginalised, helpless and inferior, living only for the present.
More importantly, the scheme does not aid economic development but instead 'sustains' uncompetitive farmers on their land, holding back diversification and mechanisation. Hopefully this is not the 'sustainability' the committee has in mind but the fact is that both Fairtrade and the odious EU tariffs deny future generations the chance of a better life. It is also surely a matter of regret that the Kirk's attachment to global warming alarmism has made it antipathetic to air-freighted African delicacies and high-value products.
Many commentators on the report, including the Scotsman's Peter Smaill, have noted its relentless Presbyterian negativity and 'the dreary left-wing bias evident on every page'. While it claims that capitalism has pushed millions into poverty there is no mention of the 500 million who have escaped since 1990 under broadly capitalist regimes.
The report also ignores the probability that within the next couple of decades, two-thirds of world GDP will be held by nations which were developing countries in the 20th century. It contains plaintive echoes of the Make Poverty History march round Edinburgh in 2005 which attracted speeches from the great and the good and the downright deplorable. Who can forget the pious hokum proclaimed by Gordon Brown, Jack McConnell, Alex Salmond, Bianca Jagger, various defunct pop-singers and the usual clerical suspects? It was a prelude to the Gleneagles G8 jolly where, it was confidently asserted, real and lasting improvements could be achieved for the poor of the world, especially in Africa.
The fact that anyone believed that after eight years of New Labour a summit led by Blair and Brown would achieve anything bears witness to the triumph of human hope over experience. There was some modest debt cancellation but UK development aid fell by 2% which was particularly damning given that the pair had earlier paraded their virtue all over Africa. The Kirk's involvement in this fiasco is understandably not referred to in the report but its claim that ending poverty is an entirely feasible goal insults the reader's intelligence.
Jesus, by contrast, knew the inevitability of poverty in our fallen state and called upon his followers to respond personally in every opportunity to help the suffering poor. I would have preferred to see some discussion on the inherited culture of poverty in the UK where people feel marginalised, helpless and inferior, living only for the present. It makes them fatalistic with high rates of divorce, abandoned mothers and feral children and discourages participation in community life or the use of such things as banks.
It is clear that a similar culture exists in much of the Third World as well as countries in the early stages of industrialisation and it is obviously not limited to capitalist nations. Sadly the practical Christianity of such social reformers as Frank Field and Iain Duncan Smith is absent from this rather predictable treatise on the Gospel according to St Marx.
John Cameron is a physicist and former Church of Scotland parish minister