The Archbishop of Canterbury has issued a call for cross-party cooperation on Brexit because he feels the country needs “peace”, in the wake of terror attacks and the recent Grenfell tower block disaster. Certainly he’s got a lot on his plate, as a report he commissioned has accused at least one previous Archbishop of complicity in the sexual abuse of young men by another bishop. Today that ex- Archbishop has resigned from his present post and apologised, but those unfortunate enough to have heard a certain sort of upper class men talking about rent boys will doubt if this is sufficient penance.
But I regard the present Archbishop’s intervention in politics this week as a mistake in any case. He tries hard to justify his call for peace, when what he really expresses is an establishment fear of serious politics. There are a number of real divisions of opinion and interest in the UK at present, which will require passionate engagement, forceful public expression of views and political action over the next few years. Affecting almost all the other issues is the raw exposed fact that profit-seekers and their political allies cared so little about the lives of poorer people, that they allowed them to live in conditions that turned a minor domestic fire into a comprehensive death-trap within minutes. What this reveals about building standards is bad enough, but what it reveals about the savage carelessness of the managers of wealth is worse: men and women with friends and families of their own, they were ready to treat their poorer brothers and sisters as simply disposable.
The horror of “being disposable” has struck the survivors of the fire with an astonished rage, and has spread to others who live in similar housing and are likewise viewed viewed by the wealthy as surplus to requirements. We should be as precise as possible about the motives of the wealthy: it is not that they wish the death of the poor, but rather that their allegiance to Mammon has frozen the genial current of their souls, and left them without concern for the welfare of their neighbours. I am reminded of one of Arthur Hugh Clough’s alternative ten commandments:
“Thou must not kill, but needs not strive
officiously to keep alive.”
This attitude, institutionalised in aspects of public life has aroused the kind of anger which ought to be expressed in vigorous politics. Yes, this will involve division, debate and disruption which will be for the good of society. This what politics is for: dealing with the clear differences of vital interest which might otherwise lead to violent rebellion or repression. Democracy can cope with passionate disagreement provided the antagonists remain convinced that their cause can be advanced by full- blooded persuasion and solidarity, rather than by force. The denigration of politics and politicians over the last few years has served only the interests of those who possess power and wealth, leaving masses of people to attribute their problems to foreigners, immigrants, scroungers and Muslims. A return to politics and its boisterous arts can only benefit our society. But the whiff of powerful politics signals danger to those who benefit from the status quo; it suggests that down below the savage beast is stirring. So they counsel peace, as the Archbishop has done.
In the Old Testament of the Christian bible the prophet Ezekiel is recorded as facing opposition from the religious supporters of the status quo, who suggested that his criticisms of the national leadership were alarmist. He turns on them with a telling phrase from his God:
Yes, they have seduced my people
declaring peace when there is no peace
and when someone puts up a wall with no mortar
they cover it with whitewash.
( or when they want to maintain a crumbling tower block wall, they cover it with flammable cladding)
Peace in the biblical sense is never merely the absence of strife, but rather the result of justice. This is a time in our society when we must reconstitute the dignity of political action and discourse, and repossess the freedom of speech which has been prostituted by our popular press, if we want to achieve the justice which will lead to peace.