Reflections on the Tawney Dialogue 2012 – Towards a common culture
The Tawney dialogue was, this year, a “trialogue” with 3 excellent contributors, Rachel Reeves MP, Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Lord Paul Myners, who was Chair of Marks and Spencer and a junior Treasury Minister from 2008 to 2010 and the Reverend Dr John Hughes, Chaplain of Jesus College, Cambridge. I would like to describe what I thought were their key contributions and pose some questions that arise from those.
Paul Myners said he was “on the pavement outside” looking into both Christianity and the Labour Party. He was a socialist and had been on the Alpha course last year. He described in his contribution, and in his response to questions, how the rich insulate themselves from the rest of society.
He said that they live in gated communities, travel in first class on trains, business class on airplanes and generally manage not to see or to notice even the minimum wage paid cleaners who empty the bins in their corporate offices.
However, for those of us who are comfortable but not super-rich, is placing the millionaires in a separate category sometimes a way of absolving ourselves of our own responsibility to notice who needs our help in our community. The rich can indeed live in their own (champagne-filled) “bubble” but don’t we all really live in our own variously sized bubbles? If this is true, then wh
at is “our community” and how does it develop and grow?
“What a community requires, as the word itself suggests, is a common culture, because, without it, it is not a community at all” (RH Tawney Equality 1931). Tawney had the insight to note that a common culture “must rest upon practical foundations of social organisation.” He argued that a common culture “is incompatible with the existence of sharp contrasts between the economic standards and educational opportunities of different classes.”
Rachel Reeves MP described how in her constituency of Leeds West, they still haven’t recovered from the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, let alone the present one. She talked about how Ed Miliband was looking at how to deal with the “flaws with the economic model that Britain has developed over the past thirty years.” She implicitly criticised the last Labour government’s economic policy, in stating that “Just as the last Labour government repaired and renewed our public services, it could be the next Labour government that repairs and renews the British economy.”
Echoing Tawney’s analysis about the consequences of inequality, she said that, “We’ve seen that when inequalities grow ever wider, and people’s lives and experiences drift further apart, it becomes much harder to sustain any sense of solidarity and social responsibility. If we don’t feel that our fates our intertwined, the very concept of a common good can feel meaningless. It becomes harder to sustain the legitimacy of the welfare state we need for a decent society when benefit claimants are stigmatised, while the very rich opt out of using public services, and some avoid the taxes we need to pay for them.”
Places like Leeds have communities being crushed by economic forces unleashed over the last 30 years by governments that decided that the free market, unconstrained by morality or democracy, would bring prosperity for all. These communities face great challenges, but can be amazingly resilient. There are unsung heroines and heroes in all our estates, town and villages. More prosperous places find community face in different difficulties. The pressure to maintain a certain standard of living and the intensification of work for those in it, through the advent of the Blackberry, remote access to the office and the mobile computer, can reduce the time that families spend together and increase the stress within households. So commuter estates and villages empty out during the week and become places to eat and sleep rather than places to live. This is precisely what Tawney was arguing against in “Equality.”
The Reverend Dr John Hughes pointed out some interesting associations between Tawney and his contemporary, Karl Polanyi, who showed how human creations such as “the free market” are not natural but rather historically, culturally and politically contingent. It is symbolic of Polanyi’s marginalisation from economic thought that Paul Myners had never heard of him until he read Dr Hughes’ paper.
In response to a question, John Hughes maintained that Tawney was advocating equality as the goal of socialism. Perhaps Tawney’s advocacy of equality was not a seeking of equality as an end in itself, but rather equality as a means to the creation of a community underpinned by a common culture? In 2012, where the UK has many varied and sometimes competing cultures, what do we still have in common that can be the basis for a new, and doubtless different, culture that can underpin some sense of us still being part of a wider community, with all the moral obligations which that entails.
Surely Tawney from 1931 would warn us that we were repeating some of the mistakes of the 1930s and propose that part of the solution would be to find new ways of creating a common culture where the rich and the rest of us feel part of the same community, all prepared to participate actively in our life together and to pay our fair share of taxes for the common good.
The solutions offered by Rachel Reeves MP were a step in the right direction, in as much as she recognised, crucially, that Labour can still make progress in its aim while out of government, through successful campaigns for a Living Wage for example. Labour is not merely a party, it is a movement. She also showed that the next Labour government will be confident enough to reform markets where necessary to make them better for Britain and for all of us.
Matthew Fernandez-Graham is a member of CSM and of both the Labour Party and the Co-operative Party, as well as the GMB union. These are his personal views.