An Archbishop of Canterbury gave us Morton’s Fork; another should perhaps give us Welby’s Trap – though, admittedly, Morton’s successor is far from unique in being caught it in. It is as follows. If a bishop talks about politics in general terms, he is accused of spouting platitudes from his pulpit. If instead he champions specific policies, he is criticised for deserting it, and putting on a party political rosette. Either way, he cannot win.
The reaction to Justin Welby’s address to the TUC conference has shown the trap at work. But just as Morton’s policy had a point (Henry VII was working to curb the power of the barons), so did Welby’s speech. The churches have a tradition of social activism. In modern times, Pope Leo XIII set the tone with Rerum Novarum, which prepared the way for over a century of Catholic social teaching, based on the dignity of the human person. The Church of England has been thinking along similar lines since the war, which saw the publication of Christianity and Social Order – written by one of Welby’s predecessor’s, William Temple. The Thatcher years saw another of them, Robert Runcie, drawn into the political fray, when his Commission on Urban Priority Areas published Faith in the City – dismissed by one Cabinet Minister at the time as “Marxist theology”.
The Conservative reaction to successor’s speech will be the same in some quarters. None the less, one of Archbishop’s main arguments had force. For most of the post-war period in north America and western Europe, incomes for different groups grew at much the same rate. This began to change in 2004 – well before the crash, by the way. The explanation may be that the third industrial revolution (based on computers, the web, and mobile phones) is less productive that the second one. Capitalism is not creating well-paid white and blue collar jobs on the same scale as it did during most of the post-war period. It is working less well in the west than in much of the rest of the world.
Furthermore, some of Welby’s targets were fair game. Philip Hammond was reported recently to be considering an “Amazon Tax”. Whatever the Chancellor may be – in a lapse of its usual courteous standards, this site recently compared him to a donkey – he is certainly not a Marxist. And David Cameron’s Government announced curbs on zero hours contracts, such as clauses barring workers from accepting shifts with more than one employer. That was the right judgement. The state is the guardian of the rules of the market. If you doubt that principle, have a go at reading Hired, James Bloodworth’s horrible account of working in an Amazon warehouse.
So there’s nothing wrong with the Archbishop either propagating social teaching or floating particular policies. But if he is to do the latter, he must expect comeback. “Zero-hours contracts have a place in today’s labour market. They offer valuable flexible working opportunities for students, older people and other people looking to top up their income and find work that suits their personal circumstances.” Those are the words of the Cabinet Minister in the Cameron Government who announced the exclusivity ban – Vince Cable, not exactly a free market fundamentalist. That’s a more balanced take than Welby’s – “the reincarnation of an ancient evil”. The gig economy pays low wages. But these can be a stepping stone to higher ones. If it did not exist, some people who receive low wages might not be receiving any wages at all.
The Archbishop said that if companies like Amazon “can get away with paying almost nothing in tax, there is something wrong with the tax system”. This could mean that if the company is avoiding tax, it shouldn’t be allowed to do so, or that Amazon should simply be taxed more. We are suspicious of the doctrine of “aggressive avoidance”, which gained projection under the Coalition. No-one has a duty to maximise their tax take. If Welby meant instead that the Government should simply slap higher taxes on the company, then he has a case.
There is also one for it and others to provide fuller accounts of their tax arrangements. But Ministers will be wary of taxing Amazon more. The company isn’t Donald Trump’s flavour of the month. But the fissile President could respond to new taxes here on American companies by pushing for new taxes there on British ones – with consequences for investment and jobs. In any event, it isn’t at all clear that the Chancellor was floating the targeting of Amazon. He was mulling an online retail tax, and didn’t specifically refer to the company. But are new taxes really the right solution to the problems of the high streeet? Lower business rates and reform of property rent caps offer an alternative solution. Too often, higher taxes are offered as a solution to a problem better addressed by lower ones. Though the latter of course must march in step with their necessary companion: public spending control.
There is a moral here for the Archbishop. If low wages are to be higher, companies must be profitable. If they are to be profitable, they must be more productive. And if they are to be more productive, the merits or otherwise of hiking taxes on a few big multi-national players is not so much right or wrong as irrelevant. Keeping tax rates competitive is more to the point. The real objection to Welby’s speech isn’t that he went to the TUC, or that even that the Church of England itself uses zero hours contracts, as today’s Times reports. (The Archbishop cannot be expected to manage Norwich Cathedral’s refectory arrangements, though the Church Commissioners’ big investment in Amazon leaves him embarrassingly exposed.)
Rather, it is that implicit in his account of what government can and should do are checks on what it can’t and shouldn’t do. “Governments of any party, all parties, will fail, act foolishly, be far away,” he said, stressing a “partnership between governments, civil society…business and community that sounded not unlike Cameron’s Big Society. The Archbishop is an Eton-educated former oil company executive. That may help to explain his visit to the TUC and his presence on an IPPR Commission: after all, he wouldn’t want anyone to think that he is an embodiment of “the Tory Party at prayer”. But at any rate, he has experience of the good that business can do as well as the harm, and will have a theology of wealth creation as well as government action. A major speech at, say, a small business conference is in order.