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Is God an Englishman?

Roger Scruton’s craving to belong.

Our Church: a Personal History of the Church of England
Roger Scruton
Atlantic Books, 208pp, £20

The conversion of agnostic High Tories to the Anglican church is always rather suspect. It seems too pat and predictable, too clearly a matter of politics rather than faith. It is as though Anglicanism were an essential accessory, like a set of tweeds or a fashionable handbag, without which the English reactionary is inadequately kitted out. There is as much surprise in, say, Peter Hitchens declaring himself a Christian as there is in Jeremy Paxman joining the Garrick. How on earth could they not?

It is, to be sure, a lot easier to gain entry to the Church of England than it is to the Garrick. The conditions of entry seem about as minimal as becoming a Brownie. Don’t believe in God? No problem. Doubts about the Resurrection? Join the club. Switching from agnosticism to High Anglicanism is a problem only because it can be hard these days to tell them apart. You are more likely to be ejected from liberal Anglican circles for opposing women bishops than for claiming that Christ ran a brothel in Nazareth. Most modern capitalist societies get by on as little belief as they decently can, and the same is true of some of their churches.

Even so, it is not clear why any self-respecting Tory should cherish the memory of a suspected political criminal who hung out with crooks and whores, spoke out for justice and comradeship, and was done to death by the state for his pains. (The Romans reserved crucifixion for political offences only.) The Christian gospel also has far too little to say about sexual morality, not to mention marijuana, for the likes of Peter Hitchens. Indeed, like the ancient world in general, it doesn’t have our modern conception of morality at all. Like all Jewish scripture, it holds that you shall know that the realm of justice is at hand when you see the poor being filled with good things and the rich sent empty away. It does not see spirituality as a matter of vestments, incense and other-worldliness, but as a question of feeding the hungry, welcoming immigrants and protecting the poor from the violence of the powerful. None of this is received wisdom in the shires.

So, it isn’t surprising that Roger Scruton’s history of Anglicanism has a good deal to say about pews, choir stalls, polished brass and embroidered kneelers, but very little about the New Testament. There is an account of Pugin but nothing about poverty. For Scruton, Christianity is a mixture of purity, patriotism, Romantic nostalgia and a patrician flight from the everyday. The point is not to change the world but to renounce it.

The Anglican church, according to Scruton, is “a part of England, and an immortal projection of England beyond space and time”. God himself is an Englishman, a Daily Telegraph-reading deity, “uncomfortable in the presence of enthusiasm, reluctant to make a fuss, but trapped into making public speeches”. It’s surprising he didn’t send his son to Eton, rather than dump him among a lot of Palestinian fishermen. Scruton believes that his country “is not just an ordinary place in time but one with a replica in eternity”. It would be interesting to know whether he thinks this is also true of Kazakhstan or the United Arab Emirates, or whether the Almighty has the same aversion to abroad as Philip Larkin. Religious faith offers us “a release from worldly impurities”, even though Jesus is presented in the Gospels as notably careless of the Jewish purity laws and ends up polluted (the Jews regarded crucifixion as a curse).

Scruton is homesick for the medieval England of Piers Plowman – of stout, God-fearing yeomen, simple manners and plain speaking. He seems not to know that it was also a place of filth, fanaticism and excruciating torture. His dewy-eyed history of England is more scrubbed and sanitised than a modern surgeon’s knuckles. We hear of the “adventures of the colonists and the merchant seamen”, which can be translated roughly as the plunder of India and the extermination of whole communities. The reader is invited to admire clergymen who devoted as much attention to their table as their clerical duties, and encouraged to elevate spiritual mediocrity over passionate conviction.

Like the postmodernists he detests, but unlike St John and St Paul, Scruton obtusely associates all conviction with dogmatism, which is why he feels at home in a church where you can believe more or less what you like. Truth, this former professional philosopher insists, should yield to compromise. Like the House of Lords, religion does not bear too close an interrogation, which, for Romantic reactionaries of Scruton’s kind, is a compliment rather than a criticism. What matters is not rational inquiry but what we feel intuitively in our bones. The Nazis believed much the same. Like most English Tories, Scruton is pained by displays of zeal, yet he exhibits a fair degree of it in the cause of rood screens, the monarchy and the public schools, which once produced “upright Christian gentlemen, who would administer the empire on behalf of the Queen”. And though he touts the spirit of Anglican moderation, he seems strangely reluctant to countenance such middle-of-the-road measures as, say, turning half the public schools into old people’s homes.

“I rejoice that the church to which I belong,” he remarks, “offers an antidote to every kind of utopian thinking.” Perhaps he missed those bits in the New Testament about the kingdom of God, which Christians believe will arrive at the end of history. For this high-minded study, religion is one thing and politics is another, a view from which Martin Luther King fortunately dissented. When Jesus urged those around him to give both God and Caesar their due, no Jew within earshot would have imagined that his words “the things that are God’s” meant raising your thoughts piously above a wicked world. They would have known their scripture well enough to understand that it meant protecting the weak, seeking justice for the oppressed and denouncing the fraudsters. Their God was one who had brought them out of slavery, not a spiritual ornamentation to the status quo.

Over the past few years, the works of this distinguished thinker have dwindled in intelligence. A few decades ago, he would never have perpetrated such limp banalities as “We should never underestimate the human need for membership. We are social beings, who are incomplete when we are unable to identify the community that is ours.” (One suspects that the author has his local hunt as much in mind as his parish church.)

Whatever his political views, this son of a socialist republican has produced, in his time, some extraordinarily perceptive work in philosophy, aesthetics and political theory. In the end, however, ideology tends to addle your brain. For many years, Scruton was far smarter than his own extravagant Romantic prejudices. Now he has succumbed to them wholesale. At least he has discovered some kind of community in the process, as he rides to hounds and plays the organ in his local church. It’s just that one suspects this maverick intellectual is as fervent as he is about belonging because he will never really be able to.

Terry Eagleton is distinguished professor of English Literature at Lancaster University. His latest book is “The Event of Literature” (Yale University Press, £18.99)

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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.