Sayeeda Warsi, secularism and the Pope

In complaining about "militant secularisation", Warsi is talking the Catholic leader's language.

In the absence of a formal portfolio, Sayeeda Warsi seems to have allotted herself a place in government as the minister for promoting faith. Today she's in Rome at the head of a grand ministerial delegation, ostensibly to celebrate 30 years of full diplomatic relations between Britain and the Holy See and to return the compliment of 2010's state visit by the Pope. She's taken the opportunity to reiterate her theme, not only delivering a major speech to Vatican officials later today but taking to the Daily Telegraphto call for religion to take a more prominent place in national life.

Warsi writes of her fear that "a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies". When she complains that "signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings", or criticises states that "won't fund faith schools" she's obviously not talking about Britain -- a country in which the state remains at least formally Anglican. And her "astonishment" that "those who wrote the European Constitution made no mention of God or Christianity" appears to betray a misunderstanding of what that ill-fated document actually was.

Still, Warsi's main preoccupation is with the role of faith in British politics and its alleged marginalisation at the hands of those semi-mythical bogeymen the militant secularists, whom she accuses of demonstrating "similar traits to totalitarian regimes." (The British Humanist Association's Andrew Copson described this as "surreal"). She promises the Pope her "absolute commitment to continue fighting for faith in today's society." Constitutional purists may wonder whether it's appropriate for a minister of the Crown, especially one who isn't a Catholic, to be making such commitments to the Pope. But she evidently sees in him a kindred spirit, recalling a meeting with him during his 2010 visit to Britain in which he apparently encouraged her to carry on beating the drum for faith in the public sphere. She even refers to him as "the Holy Father."

In complaining about "militant secularisation" Warsi is, of course, talking the Pope's language. Objection to the supposed marginalisation of Christianity in the West has been one of the idées fixes of Benedict XVI's papacy, along with liturgical neoconservatism. Last month he fortified American bishops ahead of their forthcoming battle with the Obama administration's health reforms, denouncing "powerful new cultural currents" that were "increasingly hostile to Christianity as such".

And if that's how he views the United States, comfortably the most religious developed nation in the Western world, it's not surprising that he has an even more jaundiced view of Europe. Late last year he lamented what he called the "crisis of faith" in the continent, which he contrasted with the "joyful passion" he had experienced during a visit to Africa. He even linked the financial crisis with an "ethical crisis," ultimately traceable to the loss of Europe's self-conscious Christian identity. So he will no doubt be pleased to find a Muslim politician arguing for "Europe to become more confident and more comfortable in its Christianity".

Baroness Warsi's comments, though, are far more than just a case of buttering up her hosts. She has long been engaged, if it is not inappropriate to use the word of a Muslim, on something of a crusade on the issue. The debate about the appropriate role of religion in public life is, of course, highly topical in the wake of the Bideford prayers judgement, a decision based on the strict interpretation of the 1972 Local Government Act which was nevertheless widely seen as yet more evidence of the "marginalisation" of faith. Warsi's personal feelings aside, the Coalition sees faith-based organisations as key to the success of its Big Society (i.e. small government) agenda. David Cameron has made similar noises himself, most notably in his speech in December celebrating the anniversary of the King James Bible.

But no amount of ministerial or even prime-ministerial exhortation can hide the fact that Britain, and most of Europe, has long ceased to be religiously devout. Even many who self-identify as Christian go to church rarely and read the Bible less, as new research carried out on behalf of the Richard Dawkins Foundation has confirmed. This lack of religious commitment may not be new, and in any case can scarcely be blamed on "aggressive secularists" pushing religion out of public life. What it does suggest is that the cultural heritage of Christianity is not the same thing as private religion. The point that both secularists and religious apologists miss is that there's no reason why it should be.

Warsi can describe the secularist project as "denying people the right to a religious identity" only because in recent years religion has increasingly been seen as a source of personal identity, or as a source of group identity within a multi-faith society. But in Europe, and certainly in Britain, state religion (or the lack of it) had more to do with citizenship and belonging than with individual belief.

The Anglican establishment long embodied the spirit of Lord Melbourne's dictum that "things are coming to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade private life". Queen Victoria's first prime minister would have found it very strange that a non-believing councillor should be offended by prayers being offered during council business, but even stranger that a government minister should feel the need to promote private religiosity as an instrument of public policy.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Getty
Show Hide image

Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation