The deafening silence
No apologies, I hope, are necessary for returning to inflation in the last of my articles before the summer holidays. It may cause a little surprise that in 12 contributions I shall barely have touched on urgent issues on which the Church expresses, on the whole, unequivocal views. Abortion and pornography, for instance.
Their turn should come.
Inflation presents Christians with a different class of challenge.
The leaders of all the churches are criticised not infrequently for silence or muted utterances on what is sometimes called "the greateSt question of the day." There have been, no doubt, many utterances in sermons and otherwise which are not reported. There have been the occasional denunciation of greed from archbishops, one of which I quoted last week. But if this Cabinet or another one looked, at this juncture, to the Christian churches for explicit guidance in dealing with the inflation menace, they would look in vain.
Is this a matter for criticism? Yes and no. It is certainly no reason for Christian complacency. Let us begin, however, by pitying the poor archbishops and trying impertinently to stand in their shoes. Mr Healey, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has just produced a mini-budget which is extensively pronounced on in the leading newspapers. Most of them are, admittedly, much more sympathetic to the Right than the Left. The mini-budget was, in fact, received with loud cheers from Labour MPs, so it is not surprising to find it described by the Daily Telegraph as an election Budget. It would be an affectation to deny that there was any truth in this whatever.
During the eight years that I was chairman of a bank (19551963), I found it increasingly assumed in the City that the Budget in an election year would be tailored to suit electoral requirements. The Tories were in power in those days. Since then, whatever the Government, the supposition has continued.
When a Chancellor seems to ignore this expectation — for example, Roy Jenkins in 1970 — he is not quickly forgiven by his own supporters. Samuel Brittan, in the Financial Times, puts the matter indulgently in an article entitled "We have been here before.
"It is no rebuttal," he comments, "to say that the Chancellor has acted in accordance with impartial official forecasts. Every single preelection tax-cutting Budget has been supported by official advice; and every one has proved wrong and has to be taken back consequently." The question, he concludes, is "how many more turns of the cycle we will require before some upheaval brings about a shift to a different way of running affairs." It is unlikely, however, that economic experts are going to discover for us this philosophers' stone. "Seldom of recent years," says a leading ar ticle in the Financial Times, "have professional economists been so much at variance with one another shout the state of the economy and the steps needed to avoid both accelerated inflation and a rapid -rise in unemployment." Even if there was no prospect of an election this year, it is arguable that Mr Healey would have needed to produce some such Budget as this to establish the Social Contract with the trade unions. In a national and not just a mere party sense, the Social Contract is the greatest single hope which the Labour Party is entitled, at this moment, to offer the country.
The Daily Mirror, the most friendly of the national papers to the Labour Party, is outspoken here. "Mr Healey's modest little Budget certainly
did not go as far as tackling inflation at its sources which was what the Chancellor claimed for
How could it? asked the Mirror. The real question still remains: "Are the unions going to co-operate in the fight against inflation? Will they deliver their half of the Social Contract by going easy on wage claims?"
In other words, three issues, all intertwined, face Mr Healey and all of us. What policy will win the election? What policy will secure the co-operation of the unions'? What policy will satisfy the economic experts and, incidentally, our foreign creditors, from the Shah of Persia downwards?
Where, if anywhere, can the Christian leaders get a word in? I assume that they will be neutral between the parties and will not set themselves up as financial wizards. So they are left to pronounce on the moral aspects.
Here, yet another danger confronts them, the danger of seeming to aim their pleas for restraint at the trades unions alone. In a doom-watch article of extraordinary force in The Times of July 1, Peter Jay made great play with a quotation from the Government's employment policy White Paper of May 1944, He reminded us more than once in his article that we were warned from 1944 onwards that if full employment was to succeed, employers and workers "should exercise moderation in wage matters." And as his article rose remorselessly on, he drives in • the lesson that the opposite of this has happened and that less and less restraint is being shown.
He quotes the reference to employers and workers, but the impression left on the reader, whether deliberately or not, is that the workers, more particularly the trade unions, are primarily to blame. And the language of the Daily Mirror amounts to-the same thing.
Personally I find this a very one-sided approach. During my years in the City, I found plenty of businessmen who went far beyond the line of duty in private charity and good works. But certainly I always found the assumption not literally in the Bank of England, but almost everywhere else, that the pursuit of the self-interest of one firm was what made the wheels of business go round. And from the time I first learned economics, now 50 years ago, I have regarded this as the basic economic assumption from Adam Smith onwards.
When the trade unions pursue their group interests, they are giving effect to the philosophy which was the traditional essence of orthodox economics. Before the war, their position was not strong enough to give them the dominating position that they have come to hold. But with full employment, which I heartily applaud, the present situation was ultimately bound to arise.
At the time when the Government produced its fullemployment paper, I had been waiting with Sir William Beveridge on his own fullemployment report, later published as a book. He forecast then, more bluntly in private than in public, that all plans for full-employment would break down unless a high degree of public spirit were exhibited, as against mere fictional advantage.
It is at this point that the Church leaders and all who call themselves Christians should be asking themselves how they can affect by precept and practice the assumptions about national conduct on which any realistic policy must be based. Any change of attitude and conduct must take place not only among trade union leaders and businessmen, but among workers of all kinds and the general public, whatever our way of life. There is no limit to the improvement that could be brought about in the immediate future.