Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Choose your scandal

What constitues a moral scandal?  I only ask because of the debate which grew out of yesterday's Government defeat in the Lords on the proposed benefit cap.  The charge was led by the Lords Spiritual, who with the unexpected and opportunistic help of Labour and the opposition of some Liberal Democrats, managed to prevent Child Benefit from being taken into account when the cap is calculated.  Although the Government is likely to try to reverse this when the Welfare Bill comes back to the Commons, the Bishops were momentarily and unusually hailed as heroes by those who oppose the cap, the Coaltion, and all its detestable enormities.  One commentator said that it was the best publicity the CofE had got since the Royal wedding.  Well, it was certainly the most publicity it had got since then; but how good it was depends on what it yields in terms of the Church's public standing. Opinions on this may differ.  And sure enough, differ at least one of them did this morning, in the form of an article by Lord Carey in the unspeakable Daily Mail.  In it, the former ABC criticises (in fairly reasoned terms, it must be said) the Bishops' opposition to the Government's proposals on the grounds that he couldn't "possibly believe prolonging our culture of welfare dependency is in the best interests of our children"; and that "the sheer scale of our public debt... is the greatest moral scandal facing Britain today".

This did not go down well Churchside.  It was a bit disloyal to start with; but worse, it took the shine off what had looked like a much-needed clear win for the Church and those who oppose the Welfare Bill and the Coalition generally.  Now while I have to confess myself not the former Archbishop's greatest admirer, I do think he has a point - our huge public debt is indeed scandalous, it cannot be blamed entirely on bankers, and is at the root of a lot of other unwelcome measures - of which the benefit cap is, partly, one.  And while he might have mentioned a few other contributory scandals - eg the sheer greed of some people inside the banks and elsewhere - to rubbish his view quite as comprehensively as some have done today, strikes me as both unfair and an over-reaction.

But it has led to some interesting discussion about what constitutes a moral scandal.  There are a good few to choose from at the moment.  Phone hacking, bankers' bonuses, MPs' expenses, gay bishops, abortion advertising, and assisted dying are among them.  We all have our favourites.  But all these issues involve our being scandalised by others, safe in our own moral fastnesses.  Is there anything closer to home? No? Sure?

A colleague confessed that he was recently very badly affected by a visit to his elderly mother who is in care, suffering from Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.  While she is ill and confused, she is being looked after perfectly well.  Pretty much everything that can be done for her is being done.  The moral scandal for him is our (including his own) failure to care for our own elderly and infirm as he perceives we used to, and as some cultures still do (even here). He is her only relative; he was moved and upset by her condition, and conscious that, despite the best comfort that could be provided, despite the presence of carers and neighbours, she was utterly alone.  Because that is what we do with mad, ill, old people. 

Phone hacking, did you say?

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