With acknowledgement of an article by the Bishop of Sheffield:
I Kings 12:1-14
There are more trees per square mile in Surrey than any other county in England, and Farnham has it’s beautiful Georgian town centre. However, you don’t have to look much further than the town centre to find, even in Farnham, people face something of the same difficulties so many people face.
I grew up in a grimy industrial town in the Midlands, which never really recovered from the steady decline of the British engineering industry since World War Two. My grandfather grew up in a Glasgow tenement long since demolished in the name of slum clearance. When I lived in Durham I didn’t confine myself to the world heritage site that is the city centre. All over County Durham are towns and villages that were left without future and hope with the progressive decline of the coal mining industry since the 1960s, accelerated from the late 1980s. When I lived in Oxford I saw not just the dreaming spires, but a city that grown on the back of the British Car industry. In the 1950s Temple Cowley Congregational Church was Morris Motors at prayer, but the death of British car manufacturing took a heavy toll on east Oxford.
The point of that is not just a personal reminiscence, but to make it quite clear that although I live in Surrey and don’t drop my aitches, I’m not totally ignorant of the situations some parts of the United Kingdom have lived with for many years.
Whichever party you supported in our general election, the result is quite clearly a divided nation. Scotland voted one way, and England clearly voted in a different way. Millions of supporters of smaller parties of all flavours secured far larger shares of the vote than their few MPs. Whatever your politics are, the inescapable truth is that we’re now more than ever within living memory, a divided nation.
This is where our Bible reading from 1 Kings comes in. This is a story about transition. King Solomon has died. All the tribes of Israel have gathered to make his son, Rehoboam, the new king. But there is widespread discontent. A delegation comes from the northern tribes, requesting an easing of their burdens.
Rehoboam has a choice to make, and he asks for three days to reflect. He consults two sets of advisors. The first group, his father’s counsellors, advise him to listen to the people, to be their servant, to reach out to the disaffected and lead from this foundation.
The second group, his own contemporaries, give him the opposite advice. Discontent should be met with harshness. The burdens on the north should be increased still further. The new government should start as it means to go on.
Reheboam makes his choice. It is a fateful one. He listens to the younger, harsher, more strident voices. A few years later, the kingdom is divided, at war, impoverished, and in chaos.
I have no doubt that the Prime Minister is receiving both sorts of advice now and in the coming days. There will be those who counsel him to reach out to the whole nation, to connect with the disaffected, to listen to the people and to be their servant. But there will be those who see the Conservative majority as a mandate to fulfill and go beyond the manifesto commitments, blind to the risk of increasing the burdens of those who already bear the heavy load of sickness, disability or the struggle to find sustainable employment.
The Prime Minister’s speech on the steps of Downing Street moved clearly in the first direction. He spoke of one nation, and sought to connect more deeply with those who had voted for other parties, with the people of Scotland, with the regions. He promised to bring our country together, to help working people, and give “the poorest people the chance of training, a job, and hope for the future”.
Much of this rhetoric is encouraging, but now it needs to be supported and backed up with action. That action needs to be taken swiftly to begin to draw the United Kingdom back together again and begin to build for the future. The choices made about priorities and plans for legislation in the next year are critical.
So here are some suggestions for a big, open, offer from the Prime Minister to every part of the United Kingdom:
Make an early, concrete and clear commitment to safeguarding the environment, and to leadership in the key climate conferences this year through the appointments you make and in the Queen’s Speech. Action on climate change is integral to economic growth.
Abolish the bedroom tax. It hasn’t worked. It has generated more resentment than revenue. Repealing it would demonstrate a capacity for change and to think again.
Promise an early review of benefits sanctions as part of the ongoing reform of welfare. Sanctions cause massive hardship. They are our foodbank in Farnham is so busy. They are tangential to the main welfare reforms. In the meantime suspend sanctions for families with children and people suffering from mental ill health.
Encourage the Living Wage as part of growing a sustainable, strong national economy.
Take a long view of constitutional reform. Acknowledge the concern revealed by the election outcome. Entrust it to some kind of independent commission which has time and space to think. Don’t rush the key decisions which will affect the whole future of the United Kingdom.
Revisit the Big Society ideas, if not the language. Place active partnership, between national and local government and the faith and voluntary sector, front and centre again, not as a replacement of government initiative but complementary to it.
Accelerate the provision of truly affordable housing, and prioritise this as part of investment in the future. Protect and strengthen social housing provision to ensure that everyone has access to a decent home at a price they can afford.
Reach out to the English regions, as well as to Scotland, in swift and tangible ways. In particular make investment in the northern powerhouse a key priority for the first two years of the new government.
The word Minister means servant. A Prime Minister is called to be one who serves the whole nation. If Reheboam had listened to different advice the whole story of Israel would have been different. I hope that our Prime Minister will take a moment to read and ponder this story: to listen to all the people, to lighten burdens, and to build one nation, for the benefit of all.