The Books Interview: John Cornwell

You argue in your new book that John Henry Newman continues to speak to us from beyond the grave. Why should we be interested in this mid-19th-century Catholic convert?
The book is about why he is important to people who are not Catholic Christians, people who are of other faiths and people who have got no faith at all. It's an attempt to say what it is about Newman that's worth discussing.

The story of Newman's life is that he moved from an early scepticism to evangelicalism, and then to various forms of Church of England Christianity, before becoming a Catholic. The central message of his life and work is that nobody should accept, in docile fashion, what they're taught by their school, their church, their parents, by authority. And that is a message for everybody - be prepared to be courageous about chucking stuff out.

That doesn't sound like a specifically religious view, though.
What makes it peculiarly religious is that the driving force for all this is the voice of conscience. This is interesting, because conscience, in terms of ethics and moral philosophy, is very outmoded. I find it significant that, even though contemporary philosophy tends towards forms of determinism, in the wider culture people are deeply into naming, shaming and blaming each other. So we haven't lost that sense of conscience. That's the driving force for Newman, the guiding principle.

His book The Idea of a University is also relevant in light of the debate about the future of higher education.
Yes. What comes out of that book is the idea that the educated person who may go on to be an economist in government, say, or a top scientist, will, when he is out in the world doing big things, see the wider implications of what he is doing. It's a sense of relating to a greater whole. Newman thought you start that at university.

He also insisted on the uselessness of study. Each discipline, he thought, brings its own reward with it, rather than having a vocational purpose. However, he was also very keen on people going to university to study vocationally.

There are parallels with some of the things John Stuart Mill was saying about higher education around the same time.
Newman was very influenced as a youth by David Hume, and by the Romantic tradition of imagination; we know that he read a lot of Coleridge after 1835. And Mill brings out that aspect of Coleridge - the imagination and so on - in his essay on Bentham and Coleridge.

I find a lot of Coleridge in Newman. There is a tremendous tension in his work between empiricism of the Humean kind and this kind of organic, Colridgean openness.

Do you agree that one of the most important arguments in The Idea of a University concerns the nature of religious belief?
Yes. Newman maintained that there is an enormous difference between aesthetics and religion. This is a notion I noticed in Diarmaid MacCulloch's recent history of Christianity. At the beginning of that book, MacCulloch says: "If you ask me if I believe in Christianity, I'd have to say not in the sense that I believe in what I had for breakfast, but in the sense that I believe Hamlet is true."

One of the threats to Christianity in the 21st century is this idea that religion is best understood as a kind of aesthetic experience, and that you can get all your morality from that. Newman saw that coming in the mid-19th century and said you can't do it that way. For a start, nobody has ever died for their interpretation of Hamlet.

Nevertheless, you suggest that Newman's Apologia pro vita sua is best read as a work of imaginative literature.
I do, to the extent that what brings us to certitude in faith, according to Newman, is not a logical argument - it's this great span of what he would sometimes call "evidences", which involves imagination and all the rest of it. It also involves one's reading into history. Newman grasped that there are different kinds of certitude, depending on what you are being certain about.

I'm very impressed by the imagery in the Apologia, which is a kind of sustained poem. It's not just a piece of apologetics of the sort you find in Jesuit literature: "Why I came over", and so on. It's a tremendously rewarding book, but requires perseverance on the part of the reader.

“Newman's Unquiet Grave: the Reluctant Saint" is published by Continuum (£18.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.