At Empire Remixed N.T. Wright is generally known as “the bish.” In the UK, however, he wears a number of tags, including “Lord Bishop.” Being the Bishop of Durham also gives our friend a seat in the House of Lords. This week Tom presented a short speech in response to the “Queen’s Speech“, or what in our Parliament would be called the Throne Speech.
Throughout his response he refers to “the gracious speech” and this is parliamentary short hand for the Queen’s Speech. His comments focus on the crisis of the economy and we are pleased that “the bish” has given us permission to post this speech here at Empire Remixed.
Speech by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
My Lords, I was pleased to see in the gracious speech the promise that the Government would ‘work for a coordinated international response to the global downturn’.
We urgently need to rethink the structures of our global economy. The unintended consequences of the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement include the tilting of the global economy to benefit rich nations. In particular, several of the poorest countries still face massive spiralling debt. Since a country cannot declare itself bankrupt and start again, they are compelled to prioritise debt servicing ahead of healthcare, clean water and education. I was privileged to meet, at the Lambeth Conference, bishops from Tanzania who spoke of the dramatic effect of the debt remission granted to that country a few years ago. Other countries have also benefited enormously.
But a huge task remains. Over $400 billion still needs to be cancelled, most of which would be taken up by 100% relief for the very poorest countries. Debt in Bangladesh stands at $19 billion; repayments are higher than the annual health budget. Yet this is one of the countries most at risk from climate change, and about 40% live on less than $1 a day. Or take the Philippines. Most of its $28 billion debt was incurred under the Marcos dictatorship. The country has already paid five times the original amount, but even so the compound interest has ballooned the debt up to over $60 billion. Result? One in ten children suffers from malnutrition; one person in five has no access to clean water. These two stand for many more around the world.
All this is miles away from the noble vision articulated by Gordon Brown, speaking in St Paul’s Cathedral in March 1999: ‘Poor country debt is the great moral issue of our day, the greatest single cause of poverty and injustice across the earth. . . We must drop the debt and drop it now.’ That agenda was endorsed by the then Leader of the Opposition, the Rt Hon. William Hague.
Now, my Lords, whenever I, and others, have spoken about these things in the past, we have faced a chorus of excuses telling us that we don’t understand how the world works, that people who borrow money must learn that they have to pay it back, that the borrowers were wicked or irresponsible or incompetent, and that any debt relief will only be siphoned off to fund yet more extravagance on the part of the few. But recent events have blown this excuse clean out of the water. Governments, including our own, are bailing out banks, and at least one bank is being refloated in such a way as to continue unchecked with large bonuses and shareholder payouts. The American government is bailing out car manufacturers with loans taken from funds allocated for ecologically significant design improvements. The very rich are doing for the very rich what they have refused to do for the very poor. If the promises in the gracious speech are to be fulfilled, these global issues must be addressed as a matter of first priority.
My Lords, we should not try to return to ‘business as usual’. It is business as usual which has got us into the mess. What we need is a paradigm shift. We cannot simply return to the old mixed economy, balancing the rampant follies of the so-called free market with appropriate government ownership and intervention. We must address the underlying issues. Behind the sudden new squeals for help from the very rich we must listen to the long-term cries from the very poor. I and my colleagues intend to continue our work with bankers and economists to shape and develop a future global economic order in which all may genuinely benefit.
When I say ‘all’, my Lords, I think of the people I work with day by day in the north-east of England. The Government promised, in the strong opening paragraphs of the gracious speech, to address local issues facing families and businesses.
Ten days ago, my Lords, I hosted a meeting of business leaders from across the north-east. The message came through loud and clear: the banking model we have worked with recently is seriously flawed and needs to change. Bailing out the banks will do no good if the system is not radically reformed. The massive overregulation which tries to diminish risk-taking in some areas, and which is a standing joke among struggling small businesses, now appears as a displacement activity for the massive deregulation which has encouraged astonishing irresponsibility and inappropriate risk-taking in the financial sector.
That said, I am hearing two different messages around the north-east. On the one hand, the recent steady economic improvement has been good and diverse. According to Chad Blenkin, Some who were previously redundant have found new work. We have a traditionally low spending population, so we do not see drastic changes in spending patterns when money is tighter. The North East Chamber of Commerce’s manufacturing members, particularly in the Tees Valley, are markedly more positive than other parts of the business community.
However, unemployment has gone up to 8%, the highest (I believe) in the country, and there have been significant job losses even in thriving companies like Glaxo in Barnard Castle. Our many small and medium enterprises are particularly vulnerable to sudden economic swings. In larger businesses, as stated by Andrew Defrancesco, we have seen a slowdown in production, for example the extended Christmas closure period forthcoming at the Nissan plant in Sunderland. Parish clergy across the diocese report that many people are living on a knife-edge, barely able to make ends meet. Not for the first time, many in the north-east ask themselves whether they have fallen off the map – especially following the Northern Rock debacle, which hit hard at many north-eastern charities previously supported by the Rock.
Meanwhile, we in the churches remain committed to working on the aims highlighted in the gracious speech, through local partnerships at every level. Churches are distributing food and running credit unions, and churches can often give a lead in helping to identify those most at risk. In addition, though voluntary agencies are themselves at risk when money is tight, we can still help to provide voluntary work for the unemployed, particularly young people, so that they can develop skills and retain a sense of self-worth. We are actively involved in helping local communities to think creatively about our medium- and long-term aims and how to prepare for them. The churches can thus, I believe, take a small but significant lead in helping maintain and restore morale and thus assist in the objectives outlined in the gracious speech.
My Lords, I hope in years to come we will look back to this moment not as a disaster followed by a muddle, but as a time of fresh vision and bold action which made a real, lasting difference both globally and locally.