A new vision for Britain

John Ashcroft, June 2006

In July 2005 a group of MPs contacted a number of key Christian leaders from different denominations and organisations, inviting responses to the following question: if you could design, starting with a clean slate, the best possible environment into which children might be born tomorrow in the UK to give them the best possible prospect of maximising their God-given potential, what might that look like?

The purpose was to help develop a vision for Britain towards which the MPs and other Christians could work during the years ahead. The twenty responses were discussed at a meeting in November and a committee of enquiry launched to consider some of the issues raised in more detail. The MPs actively involved are Alistair Burt, Andy Reed, Caroline Spelman, Gary Streeter and Steve Webb, with a number of others who are supportive of the process. Also on the panel are:

Tim Anderson (City Life Church, Cambridge) Rt Revd Graham Cray (Bishop of Maidstone) Ann Holt OBE (Bible Society) Dr David Muir (Evangelical Alliance) Charles Wookey (Asst. General Secretary, Catholic Bishops Conference England and Wales)

The committee is running between February and November this year. Some of the sessions are focused on inviting expert witnesses on such topics as the future, community, family, environment, bio-ethics and work, interspersed with some closed sessions to review progress. Paul Woolley, director of Theos, the public theology think tank recently set up by the Bible Society, is acting as secretary to the group.

So far evidence has been heard from:

Care interns working with the participating MPs Patrick Dixon (Global Change) Michael Moynagh (Tomorrow Project) Peter Brierley (Christian Research) Rt Revd James Jones (Bishop of Liverpool) Jill Kirby (Centre for Policy Studies) Rob Parsons (Care for the family)

There are many encouraging signs in this initiative, not least the commitment to social reform and the confidence that Christians have an important contribution to make. I have personally found it heartening to see through this process the depth of faith and commitment on the part of participating MPs and their willingness to work together across party boundaries. There is plenty of cynicism about, and disillusionment with, the political process – and sometimes good reason for it. It is therefore important to remember that individual parliamentarians can be very deeply committed to working for the common good.

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No Magic Bullets

It is also important to remember that there are, in policy terms, no ‘magic bullets’ for issues such as the family. The role of an MP can be frustrating, bringing close awareness of social problems through meetings with constituents and through policy debates, but an ability only to influence (and sometimes quite indirectly) rather than directly manage issues. Shaping the environment within which children will grow up is a complex task. Clarifying the priorities for action, the possible solutions and the headline messages for public debate across the wide range of issues that may affect children will take considerable reflection.

Some interesting issues are already emerging. In a recent session on the family one of the topics explored was whether it was important specifically to affirm and support marriage. Whether support is best expressed financially through the tax and benefits system, or through leadership of public debate, was one aspect of this discussion. The latter was certainly felt to be important and it was suggested that the tone of public debate is as important as the content. So, for example, a position of vulnerability is helpful in talking about the family. Support for marriage should not be an assertion of moral superiority against those who have ‘failed’, but can be done effectively in the context of sharing lessons from those who have faced and struggled with the same difficulties in family life. It was also noted that France, for example, has similar levels of births outside marriage to the UK (around 40 per cent) and that Sweden has lower marriage rates, but neither have the same levels of lone parenthood. The UK seems to have the worst of both worlds. Benefit systems and the wider culture are both thought to be relevant factors.

Conclusion

The purpose of the inquiry is not simply to identify policy options. It recognises that a deeper shift of thinking (and practice) is required. We want our thinking to be distinctively Christian (i.e. we don’t simply reflect contemporary debates) and well-informed. The enquiry process is, of course, only a staging post on a much longer journey. The conclusions will, I hope, give rise to fruitful dialogue and action. They will often be questions rather than answers or prescriptions. It represents an opportunity for the Jubilee Centre to learn, as well as to feed in lessons and experience from our many years of work. We will report further as the enquiry process draws to a conclusion.

The Jubilee Centre’s John Ashcroft is on the panel for a parliamentary committee of enquiry convened by a group of Christian MPs looking at a new vision for Britain.

 

 

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Category: News and Reviews

June, 2006

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