What follows comes with my very best personal wishes for a joyful Christmas and happy and healthy 2020, to all those who follow these pages.
If you’ve been unlucky enough to have made a comment on a previous post and not seen it reflected here, it doesn’t mean that I’ve rejected it – all comments have been approved to date but some, for some unknown technological reason, have disappeared. My apologies for this.
The General Election and Christmas
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
5 For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.
Psalm 100:4-5 – NRSV
Like most people, I’ve been following some of the debate about the General Election on the radio and TV. And the thing about it that’s struck me most is how pessimistic it all seems to be. It wouldn’t be difficult, listening to the debate, to reach the conclusion that we live in a world that’s very badly broken. Sometimes, the depiction is almost Dickensian: people starving, people dying from disease, people suffering from historic levels of poverty.
I must make one thing clear before pursuing my thoughts on this – I know that life is incredibly difficult for many people. In fact it’s a rare person who doesn’t have some kind of major challenge in their life: a sick child, perhaps; or a relative with dementia; a job that’s so demanding that there’s room for nothing else; a family relationship that’s gone wrong; a deep loneliness perhaps; a brutal boss or maybe a massive financial challenge or debt problem. Life, unfortunately, just isn’t easy for many of us. I absolutely do not want to downgrade people’s problems.
A great deal of our political debate, maybe quite rightly, deals with these issues. And it also deals with the fact that for so many, there are signs that are impossible to miss, that others are doing so much better than them. And that can, in addition to the pessimism, make the debate sound very selfish: What are the parties and the putative Prime Ministers suggesting they are going to do about MY PROBLEM? So when parties offer us ‘bribes’ for our votes, maybe it’s because we’re actively encouraging them to?
62 years ago
On 20th July 1957, the Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan stated this in a speech:
‘Our people have never had it so good’.
It opened him to ridicule by his political opponents, because then, as now, politicians showed no mercy to those who like to claim that things weren’t really that bad. As a result, Macmillan’s phrase has gone down in history as an example of how out of touch he was with those at the bottom of the social heap in the late 1950s. So much so, that I’m unable to point to anything else that he said at any point during his time in office.
I don’t know if Harold Macmillan was upset when he was criticised, but he may possibly have had cause to be because, amazingly, research has actually shown that 1957 was indeed
Britain’s happiest year, when surveys showed the British people were at their most contented. Ever.
To a modern electorate, this is impossible to understand. After all, think about some of the facts that coloured life in 1957:
One in five homes had a washing machine. Only one in in twenty had a fridge. Most had outside toilets. Only a tiny minority of people enjoyed a foreign holiday; people worked six day weeks and the diet was appalling in comparison with even the poorest families now. Central heating was completely unaffordable. People scarcely ever ate out; if they did, the choices were extremely limited. A very few had a television set with a tiny 12 inch screen and boasting just two black and white channels. Petrol was still being rationed after the end of the war. Cars, for the small minority who could afford one, were hopelessly unreliable and the first motorway didn’t open until 1958. London suffered from ‘smog’ pollution, which in the worst weeks killed 2,000 people above typical death rates and hospitalised thousands more. Prejudice against race was completely normal; homosexual acts between consenting adults landed people in prison. Many children suffered from Rickets disease, caused by poor diets. People were still being executed for capital offences, including some who we now know were actually innocent. Canings were routinely carried out in schools and in many homes ‘the strap’ was administered.
And lastly, perhaps most shockingly of all, I would now be dead rather than about to enter my seventieth year – average life expectancy for men was 68.2.
And despite all this, ‘you’ve never had it so good’?
Perhaps our views now, 62 years on, tell us something about us as a people, rather than about the world that we live in?
We’re rapidly heading towards Christmas, which for Christians is supposed to be a time of joy and celebration for what God’s done for us and a time of gratitude and thanksgiving for the coming of Christ.
Perhaps we should consider the story of Martin Rinkhart, who was responsible for writing the words of a hymn which is sometimes referred to as the ‘German Te Deum’. He was a pastor in Eilenberg, south west of Berlin, during the 30 years’ war, which started in 1618. At that time, Eilenberg became a magnet for refugees suffering from epidemic and famine. Rinkhart personally buried 4,480 people (including his wife and virtually his entire family) out of a total population of 8,000 in this small town, sometimes conducting as many as 50 funerals in a single day. Peace came in 1648, but he died the year after. He offers us, from the comfort of our lives in the UK in 2019, an incredibly challenging role model. For in the middle of that war, surrounded by death and horror and with, (those in 2019 might think), little for which to be grateful, he was inspired by his faith to write these soaring words:
Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom his world rejoices; who from our mother’s arms hath blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
Maybe we should all ponder this, as we enter the season of hope, of good will, and of thankfulness, for surely even those with the biggest challenges have something to be thankful for in comparison with 1957, let alone 1648?
And maybe when we enter the polling booths on Thursday, we should also thank God that we live in a country and at a time when our vote does actually matter.