The Worth of Words

Talk is cheap. We’ve all heard that saying, and probably used it ourselves many times. And in one sense, it’s true. It’s much easier to say something than to do something. But that doesn’t mean we should think any less about the things we say or write than we do about our actions, because words are extremely powerful.

Words can evoke our strongest emotions. A bully’s jibe about your appearance; the first ‘I love you’ from the person you know you’ll end up marrying; harsh criticism of the way you’ve performed a task at work: all of these things can make us feel hurt, happy or angry. But to trigger these emotions – to have real power – those very different words must have one thing in common. We need to trust the person saying them. We choose what value to give to the words of the bully, the person we love, or our manager – if we should pay them any attention – based on our assessment of whether or not the person in question is saying what they mean.

That’s why it’s so disappointing to see politicians and campaigners forever making wildly exaggerated claims and prophecies, because when they don’t come true, we stop trusting them. Take Andy Burnham, for example, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary. In October 2011, during the passage of the Health and Social Care Act, he said that parliament had 72 hours to ‘save the NHS’. Then in March 2012, a week before the Act received Royal Assent, he claimed there were just 24 hours to do exactly the same thing. And in September last year, at the Labour Party Conference, he said the ‘coming election is a battle for the soul of the NHS’.

Now, whether the behind-the-scenes providers in the NHS are private or not, if people are still able to see their GP, have an emergency operation or give birth to a child in hospital without being asked how they’re going to pay (which of course they can) the idea that the NHS is dead just won’t ring true to ordinary voters.

But Andy isn’t the only one guilty of this kind of hyperbole. Take this parody of the latest Conservative campaign poster, recently retweeted by a Labour councillor:

auschwitz

Thankfully, Rosemary Healy was later suspended by her party, but there were many other similarly exaggerated sentiments shared on the #RoadToRuin on Twitter which do nothing for their cause, because only the naive and the hot-headed will be taken in by them. The rest of us can clearly see that a comparison between the Conservatives and the Nazis is as bonkers as it is stupid, so to claim that there is a similarity destroys any credibility the campaigners may have had.

Of course it’s easy to see why we’ve got ourselves into a situation where politicians and pundits have to out-exaggerate each other in ‘a style at once military and pedantic‘. People often say ‘it doesn’t matter who you vote for, they’re all the same’, and though there are undoubtedly differences emerging between the Conservatives and Labour, ‘pragmatism’ and ‘evidence-based policy’ don’t leave much room for clear blue water a lot of the time.

In our ‘post-ideological’ age, political battles aren’t fought between big ideas and grand visions. It’s taken for granted that we all pretty much agree on the direction the country is heading in (despite the rapid growth of idealistic minority parties on both ends of the political spectrum).

But those battles still need to be pitched to win votes, so it’s not surprising that so many people resort to turning Chicken-licken, shouting about the sky falling down in an attempt to get us excited about our often samey Westminster politics.

The truth is, as long as politicians are afraid of being labelled ‘dogmatic’ and refuse to speak in openly ideological terms, these exaggerations and distortions of the truth will be the only thing that is seen to separate the major parties by your average Joe, which does nothing but give the impression that they are both stuffed with liars.

When parliament is full of MPs talking in dreary circles, using bland jargon words with no heartfelt moral persuasion, these fits of feigned righteous indignation over trifling matters will be the only thing that stands out. So claims that can’t and won’t be believed will continue to be made, rendering what was once cheap talk absolutely worthless. I hope that we will see a change before that point is reached.

Does Christianity really do more harm than good?

A friend sent me a link to this article recently, then asked me if I was going to stop going to church after I’d read it. Instead I told him he’d inspired a new blog post.

Although the headline ‘6 reasons religion may do more harm than good’ is a fiction, because, as I’ve said before, humans cannot escape a religious perspective, I do think the content deserves a little more attention. So here are the six reasons that apparently show religion does more harm than good, and my explanations for why they don’t apply to Christianity.

Religions promote tribalism

Humans are tribal creatures.  We will always choose to associate with those like us.  Whether that likeness comes from our social class, our ethnicity, our political views or even simply our music taste, we all want our friends to share a similar outlook on life.

So though Christianity is tribal – we have our own invisible initiation tattoo (baptism), our own (liturgical) music and language, our special tribal meal to which only tribal members are allowed and we worship our true Ancestor: God – to suggest that religion is the only cause of division is absurd.

You only have to look at the atheist examples of Soviet Russia, where there was an attempt to destroy an entire class, or Nazi Germany, where Hitler very nearly succeeded in exterminating the Jews, to see that people will find cause for separation on an almost limitless number of grounds.

In fact, Philip and Axelrod’s three-volume Encyclopedia of Wars, which chronicles some 1,763 wars that have been waged over the course of human history, found that just 123 were religious in nature, which is just 6.98% of the total.

Oh yeah, and recent research shows that churches are more successful than anything else at bringing people from different backgrounds together. Who’da thunk it?

Religion anchors believers to the Iron Age

Well, just, no. There are a lot of misunderstandings about slavery and war here, at least as far as the Bible is concerned, but the fact that it was written in ancient times doesn’t make it any less relevant.

Let’s look at a different example for the moment: the United States Constitution. America has changed to the point where it is almost unrecognisable from how it looked and functioned in 1787. But Supreme Court justices have kept the Constitution up-to-date simply by continuing to interpret its meaning. Without changing the wording, judges have been able to make decisions on all kinds of things that never even existed in the 18thcentury, like governmental regulation of TV and radio, for instance. Pretty incredible!

And those same principles should govern our reading of the Bible. It’s up to us as believers to decipher how to apply Deuteronomy’s command that fruit trees should not be cut down during the siege of a city to modern warfare, or how we can bring Exodus’ punishments for stealing oxen and sheep into the 21st century.

Religion makes a virtue out of faith

Of course it makes a virtue out of faith. But religion is not alone in that, though atheists might like to pretend otherwise. Faith has to be a virtue, because if it were a vice, anyone who drew a conclusion about anything would be condemned, as we all (yes, even scientists) have to rely at some point on assumptions we cannot prove – that is, faith. Which makes us all, inescapably, religious creatures.

As for ‘practi[sing] self-deception [and] shut[ting] out contradictory evidence’, well again, there’s plenty of proof that the scientific community have done and continue to do just that.

Religion diverts generous impulses and good intentions

Christianity doesn’t ‘redirect generous impulses and good intentions’. It is generosity and goodness. Jesus commands us to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and look after the sick. Which is probably why religious people give more of their time and money to charity than non-believers. And it’s also worth noting that Christian organisations rank highest in terms of using donor money toward charitable projects and services, according to a 2011 Forbes study.

Religion teaches helplessness

Christians aren’t taught to resign themselves to bad situations. We don’t believe that God works independently of us, we know that he works through us. We are his agents, here to bring his kingdom down to earth and do his will. We can’t do that if we don’t assume responsibility, both personal and social.

Religions seek power

Of course the church seeks to influence, though not through physical force – we are armed only with the helmet of salvation and sword of the spirit – but unlike human creations such as the state or for-profit (even not-for-profit) corporations, it doesn’t seek power for its own sake. The church wants to glorify Jesus, God made humble man, who set a holy example of self-sacrifice. As long as the church stays true to the gospel, it could never and would never wield power that ‘harms society at large.’

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

10 reasons why you shouldn’t make Russell Brand your political guru

1. Because he doesn’t understand, and has no desire to learn, what politicians actually do.

“Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites.”

Those ‘frauds and liars’ are usually the last port of call for vulnerable people who need help to deal with their housing association, find out what’s happening with their wife’s visa application, ask HMRC for leniency when they have underpaid tax, navigate the benefits system or deal with anti-social behaviour that is making their life a misery. MPs do all of these things and more for their constituents on a daily basis, often for less money than they could earn in the private sector, in return for being branded ‘pigs at the trough’, lazy and self-serving. You can’t despise the elected without having contempt for the electorate.

2. Because he doesn’t understand that democracy is the least worst system of government.

“I feel it is a far more potent political act to completely renounce the current paradigm than to participate in even the most trivial and tokenistic manner, by obediently X-ing a little box.”

Democracy isn’t about ‘obedience’. You don’t put a cross on a ballot paper because someone tells you to. You do it because you know that your cross signifies real power. Enough box-crossers can make or break a government. You can influence individual MPs. Democracy can and does bring about real change, but it’s usually slow and not half as rock n’ roll as sticking it to the man through outright resistance.

3. Because he thinks the 2011 riots were justified by advertising.

“These young people have been accidentally marketed to their whole lives without the economic means to participate in the carnival.”

‘These young people’ wanted everything and didn’t have the patience or maturity to manage with less and work for more. We all see adverts for BMWs and iPad Airs on TV, but most of us have the self-control and – just as importantly – enough respect for other people’s hard-earned property or business that we would never think ourselves entitled to go on a looting spree, even if all our pals were doing it. Wanting something is not justification for taking it from someone else by force.

4. Because he’s attracted to chaos.

“I felt connected [at a Liverpool dockers’ march], on a personal level I was excited by the chaos, a necessary component of transition, I like a bit of chaos however it’s delivered. The disruption of normalcy is a vital step in any revolution. Even aesthetically, aside from the ideology, I beam at the spectacle of disruption, even when quite trivial.”

Chaos doesn’t make a peaceful, prosperous society. It hastens the onset of violence, accentuates divisions and provides cover for shady dealings. There are always a few benefitting at the expense of the many in a chaotic situation. It will never, ever, bring about unity and oneness.

5. Because he doesn’t understand his own freedom.

“I don’t mind giving up some of my baubles and balderdash for a genuinely fair system, so can we create one?”

Well, first of all, ‘fairness’ is subjective. Some might suggest it’s fair for everyone to receive the same wage. Others might think it’s fairer for people to be rewarded more highly for certain specialist skills.

But in any case, in a capitalist society that respects our liberties, we are free to exercise our philanthropic impulses. The left does not have a monopoly on virtue. You don’t need a new system to give up some of your baubles and balderdash Russ, you can do that right now. And the government will even encourage you to do it! Heard of gift aid?

6. Because he has no idea what Christianity is but consistently denigrates it.

“… the lumbering monotheistic faiths have given us millennia of grief for a handful of prayers and some sparkly rituals… What does it matter if 2,000 years ago Christ died on the cross and was resurrected if we are not constantly resurrected to the truth, anew, moment to moment?”

You know those ‘sparkly rituals’ Russ? The Lord’s Supper, perhaps? That’s how Christians are, weekly, resurrected to the truth anew.

And you might want to consider what the world would look like had it endured two more millennia of nature-worship, tribalism, ignorance, disease and slavery instead of the enlightenment, education, ministry to the sick and freedom from tyranny brought about through the self-sacrificial service of Christians through the ages. Who founded the first schools and hospitals on our island? And who worked tirelessly to abolish the kidnapping and enslavement of others?

7. Because he doesn’t understand markets.

“The price of privilege is poverty.”

No. Wealth in one place doesn’t automatically equal exploitation in another. The idea of private property and a truly free market undergirded by the moral imperative ‘you shall not steal’ have done more to raise living standards and increase the potential for peace within and among nations than almost anything else.

And more than that, markets provide a mutually beneficial exchange. They literally force people who have nothing but selfish desires to do good by harnessing that self-interest for the benefit of others. A company can only stay in business if it’s producing things that someone else needs.

8. Because he looks at primitive religions through romanticised 21st-century eyes.

“If like the Celtic people we revered the rivers we would prioritise this sacred knowledge and curtail the attempts of any that sought to pollute the rivers.”

Yeah. We’d probably sacrifice animals and humans to keep the water gods happy, too. Celts didn’t just revere their gods, they also genuinely feared them.

9. Because he thinks that our reluctance to revolt is something to mock.

“We British seem to be a bit embarrassed about revolution, like the passion is uncouth or that some tea might get spilled on our cuffs in the uprising.”

Revolution very often – in fact most of the time – brings with it bloodshed. And it creates a power vacuum that’s usually filled by leaders worse than those deposed. Why, then, should we be ashamed of preferring evolution to revolution?

10. Because he doesn’t understand what revolution entails, despite promoting it relentlessly.

“Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters, with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling mischief of the trickster. We should include everyone, judging no one, without harming anyone.”

Including everyone, judging no one and harming no one sounds like a nice idea, but by its very nature, revolution pits one group of people against another. You can’t overthrow a government – or an entire political system – without opposing that government or system (including its supporters). And you can’t be willing to die for a cause without knowing that someone else is prepared to kill you in their pursuit of another.

Guns don’t kill people, rappers do

If there’s one topic that’s guaranteed to evoke a strong response from almost everyone, it’s gun control. Emotions run high on both sides of the debate and it’s easy to understand why. As a supporter of gun ownership, I usually find that the burden of proof falls on me in any discussion. But the more I read about this subject, the more I realise it should be the other way round. The argument most commonly made in my experience is that banning guns means fewer guns in circulation (it’s not true, by the way, there are more licensed firearms today than before the Dunblane tragedy which led to the banning of handguns), and that’s a good thing because ‘more guns = more death’. But evidence from across the world shows that simply not to be true. Despite the fact that many developed nations such as Norway, Finland, Germany, France and Denmark have high rates of gun ownership, but murder rates as low or lower than other countries where gun ownership is rarer, most British people I talk to about guns want to frame the debate in big bad US vs. good old UK terms (a bit like health pre-Obamacare). So let’s ignore the fact that Luxembourg, where handguns are totally banned and ownership of other types of gun is minimal, has a murder rate nine times higher than Germany. Or that Slovenia, with 66% more gun ownership than Slovakia, has roughly one-third less murder per capita. And let’s forget about the Hungarians, with more than six times the gun ownership rate of neighbouring Romania but a lower murder rate. Better keep quiet about the Czech Republic for the minute too. Its gun ownership rate is more than three times that of Poland, but fewer murders are committed there. We should probably not preoccupy ourselves with the strong possibility that Hitler observed Swiss neutrality because of their civilian militia either. Instead, I’ll focus, as my opponents always seem to want me to, on the USA. It’s true that America has had, and continues to have, high comparative murder rates. But despite constant and substantially increasing gun ownership, the US saw dramatic reductions in criminal violence – including homicide – during the 1990s (a time when violent crime was on the rise in the UK). But if more guns = more death, how can that possibly be the case? Perhaps it could be because, contrary to what is often claimed, people who commit murders are almost always already known to the police. Studies show that violent criminals, especially killers, usually have a long history of criminal behaviour. Violence would not be increased, therefore, if law-abiding, responsible people had guns, because they are not the ones who rape, rob or murder. This is borne out by the experience in the UK, where ballistic tests indicate that most gun crime in Britain can be traced back to fewer than 1,000 illegal weapons (usually banned handguns) still in circulation. Studies conducted by gun control advocates in the US have also failed to identify any gun control that reduced violent crime, suicide or gun accidents, and supporters of control have been left astounded by well-respected research that shows law-abiding citizens in America use guns to defend themselves against criminals as many as 2.5 million times every year. This means that firearms are used more than eighty times more often to protect the lives of honest citizens than to take them. In short, the evidence shows that social, economic and cultural factors contribute to murder rates – not the prevalence of guns. The experience of African-Americans shows this quite clearly. Per capita, rural African-Americans are much more likely to own firearms than their urban counterparts, but the firearm murder rate of young rural black males is a small fraction of the firearm murder rate of young black urban males. The consistent global pattern (causative or not) is that more guns actually = less murder and other violent crime.

Photo courtesy of Gualberto107 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Poppy Appeal naysayers are wrong

November has traditionally been the month in which most British people don a poppy to signify their remembrance of our war dead and serving forces. But in the past two years, I’ve noticed a growing anti-Poppy Appeal sentiment. This piece, by Juan Mac, neatly encapsulates the views of those who object to wearing a poppy.

The notion that at this time of year, we’re forced to observe a ‘selective remembrance’ seems to be gaining traction. The author even goes so far as to claim that we’re ‘only allowed to wear or think or speak about certain things.’ Aside from the fact that the very existence of his article proves that to be untrue, there are dozens of others in the mainstream press. This one by Lindsey German and this by Jonathan Jones are just two I’ve seen in recent days.

Probably the most disagreeable statement in Mac’s piece, however, is this:

‘I don’t see why it’s considered respectful to line up with the people who send our citizens to die for them and say nothing.’

First of all, the respect isn’t in lining up with political leaders who will come and go, it is in lining up as a memorial of those who have made a sacrifice for us.

And secondly, it’s funny how, when the actions that form part of a ritual are baldly described, they can seem ridiculous to the point of being absurd. But we are intrinsically ritualistic beings. Rituals are a universal feature of human social existence.

From the Aghori Babas of Varanasi in India, who notoriously eat corpses to confront their fear of death, to the Taoists in Malaysia who practise fire walking in an attempt to overcome impurities and repel evil influences, ritualised activities are a fundamental part of human life that help to create and sustain identities.

And our rituals are not just religious or spiritual in nature. Almost every action that we undertake, right down to the way that we greet someone we know, is a ritual.

As far as standing and ‘saying nothing’ goes, I cannot think of a more appropriate or respectful way to commemorate those who have died and are serving in conflict. Silence is a gift that challenges us, and it is rarely encountered in our day-to-day lives. It forces us to think about things we wouldn’t ordinarily, and while I agree that looking after our soldiers and ex-soldiers should not be a ‘one-day-a-year parade’, I think it is right that we recognise the Armistice formally, and for two minutes on Remembrance Sunday every year, actively choose to think about those who have given their lives for our freedom.

What is even more fitting about the ritual of our two minute silence is that it begs to be understood. A crowd of people standing still and being quiet in public is so unusual that any child who encountered it would be sure to ask why we do it and what it means. In this way, our silence actively encourages future remembrance.

But as well as remembering our fallen heroes, we should also look to support our living veterans financially where possible. So I am happy to ‘throw a few coins in a bucket’ if that means helping bereaved families and wounded servicemen and helping ex-soldiers to find work, housing or fund their age-related care.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with those who serve and recognising that future conflicts will arise is not a Homer-esque glorification of war, it is a grim acceptance of the fact that war is one of the few constants in this world and there is no greater sacrifice than laying down your life for your country.

I won’t spend time disputing what has been charmingly described by Mac as Haig’s ‘tactical f***duggery’ and his Marxist interpretation of the outbreak of WWI (suffice it to say I think that posterity has been unkind to our former Field Marshal), but I will say that the beauty of the poppy lies in the fact that it can mean different things to different people. As Mac himself acknowledges, for some it is a symbol of nationalism, and for others it is a reminder of the futility of war. In reality it may be a combination of the two, or something else altogether. Whatever the reason, we should all be proud to wear a poppy every year. You can donate to the Poppy Appeal by visiting the British Legion’s website.

‘Shoulda woulda coulda’ – How I wish I’d replied to a question about the EU

Have you ever lain awake at night after an argument, thinking about all the things you should have said but didn’t? Well, a similar thing happened to me when I was sunbathing on the beach in Tel Aviv. I know, tough life. Let me explain…

At the end of an incredibly hectic 5-day crash course on all matters Israel and Palestine (and more than one or two araks) I had a discussion with a fellow Conservative about what it was I disliked so vehemently about the EU, which culminated in him asking me ‘which European policies do you disagree with’? In response, I mumbled something virtually incoherent about the European Arrest Warrant and democratic principle. And so it was that, having collected my thoughts after a good sleep, I started to regret the things I hadn’t said and I’ve been meaning to write a blog about it ever since!

So Will, if you’re reading, I’d like to rephrase please. I should have replied by telling you that for me, my position doesn’t rest on individual policies. It’s about the EU’s raison d’être. The vision of its founding father, Monnet, means that the treaties the EU is based upon – its very foundations – are statist in aim and transfer power from accountable national governments to distant, and in the case of the Commission, undemocratic, supranational structures.

Take the treaty of Rome, which, alongside creating an anti-market Common Agricultural Policy with a fiendishly complicated set of subsidies and environmental rules (that even today, accounts for 42% of the total EU budget), established the European Social Fund or ESF.

The ESF is the oldest of the EU Structural Funds, which are ‘dedicated to improving social cohesion and economic well-being across the regions of the Union’. It is a redistributive financial instrument, so its spending is concentrated on the less-developed regions of the EU. Now, if you agree that taxpayers’ money should be used to redistribute wealth (a fundamentally socialist principle) that all sounds well and good, but the problem in this case is that there is no European demos – that is, a common political unit – to give the redistribution legitimacy.

Fast forward to 1992, when this problem was further compounded by the creation of the Euro in the Maastricht treaty. As the recent financial crisis proved, the Euro cannot function as a national currency does for precisely this reason. While wealthy southern Germany may traditionally have been prepared to subsidise spending in the poorer north and east, German taxpayers are not willing to bail out Greece, Portugal or Spain, because there is no shared sense of identity. In fact, Bavaria and Hesse, the two richest states in Germany, last year opened a lawsuit to challenge this system of transfers, which is indicative of a growing hyper-local trend that is at odds with the grand European project.

But the Maastricht Treaty did more than create a currency designed to fix the EU on a course of ‘ever closer union’ (don’t forget that the architect of the European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor to the European Economic Community, believed that the best way to achieve political integration was through economic integration). It also gave the EU’s institutions sweeping new powers in the areas of foreign policy, defence, law enforcement, criminal justice, asylum and immigration, which the Amsterdam Treaty built upon and expanded with the Social Chapter. Later, despite being rejected by the Irish, the Dutch and the French in several referenda, the Nice and especially Lisbon treaties would broaden and strengthen EU competencies in these areas.

As you would expect, you can see the ‘big government’, interventionist philosophy that courses through the EU’s veins work its way out into European policy. Whether it’s banning high-power vacuum cleaners or 100 watt incandescent lightbulbs, forcing television manufacturers to change their ‘ecodesign’ requirements for standby functions or makers of water heaters to change energy consumption labelling, refusing to allow restaurants to use refillable olive oil jugs or prohibiting manufacturers of bottled drinking water to label their product with anything that suggests consumption fights dehydration, EU policy makers prove time and time again that they have no qualms about interfering in the minutiae of our lives.

And whilst it is true that the EU embraces free markets in some respects (though even the existence of a customs union could be said to be anti-free market), this work is undone by other EU actions. Open Europe, for example, estimates that the top 100 EU regulations cost the UK £27.4 billion a year – that’s more than the Treasury received in council tax in 2013.

None of that is to say I don’t agree with co-operation or trade between European countries. I do. I just don’t think you need the EU’s supranational structures and political machinations to achieve the best results. And that’s why, if we win a majority next year, I’ll be voting to leave in 2017.

Inside the mind of a Tory

It’s usually the case that when I end up chatting to friends about politics, I spend 90% of my time correcting misconceptions about my views.  It’s always the same lazy caricature; I’ve lost count of the number of times that it’s either been said or implied that I’m heartless or indifferent to the plight of the poor. So I’d like to take this opportunity to set the record straight.

Ever since the industrial revolution and the birth of mass production, humans have had a tendency to think about problems on a grand scale.  It’s understandable really, especially for Brits. After all, we had an empire that covered three quarters of the world. Couple that with the intoxicating influence of Marxist ideas and you can see why Beveridge was tempted to deal with the five ‘giant evils’ – squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease – with centralised national bureaucracy.

Admirable though those aims may be, the belief that only the state has the ability to make a big impact has had lasting repercussions that will be difficult to overcome. People often make the mistake of equating government with society. But the two are very different, and in fact, I’d argue that reliance upon the state is slowly but surely undermining society and our traditional forms of solidarity: family, neighbourliness, charity and even faiths. So I want to see the government take a step back and the foundations of society to be re-laid. But it’s important to understand that this desire of mine (and many others) is not borne out of indifference.  Let me explain.

We now have a welfare system that not only supports family breakdown, it actively encourages it. Single mums in receipt of benefits treasure the ‘independence’ they have, when what they mean is that they have exchanged dependence upon the biological father/s of their children or other family members for dependence on the state.

Is this really always the right solution? Swapping a personal, potentially loving relationship for a faceless master? Because make no mistake, government is a whimsical and capricious overlord.

How about neighbourliness?  I’m currently reading Alan Johnson’s book ‘This Boy’ (which, incidentally, I would highly recommend). I’m obviously not old enough to remember what things were like in the 1950s, but what struck me when reading about his childhood in the slums of west London was firstly, how difficult life was back then, and secondly, how his local community rallied together and people protected one another.  Of course, things were far from perfect – I am under no illusions about that – but I wonder how many of today’s shopkeepers would allow single mums to keep a tab open indefinitely when they couldn’t afford groceries, or how many of our neighbours would refuse to answer the door to a debt collector who was visiting to relieve us of our sofa or TV. Most people don’t even know who their neighbours are anymore, and you can bet your bottom dollar the person working in your local shop doesn’t understand your financial worries.

Why is that? It’s because we don’t believe that where poverty exists, we should have to deal with it personally. We expect people in need to receive support from the government – that’s what we pay our taxes for, after all, and if there isn’t enough to go round, well… just increase the rate.

What about charities? Very, very, many of them no longer need to rely on the goodwill of donors who want to give their own money to causes they deem fit. Instead, we have a situation where 27,000 charities are now dependent on the government for more than 75 per cent of their income and the ‘voluntary sector’ receives more money from the government than it receives in donations. I’ve blogged briefly about the negative consequences this can have before.

These days, even faith groups have given up.  In times gone by, the church used to see one of its duties as looking after the widowed and the poor. Original forms of ‘welfare’ came from monasteries or Christian almshouses. But now, churches and other Christian organisations lobby hard for government action to alleviate poverty. Higher benefit payments, funding for foodbanks, a clamp down on corporate tax avoidance, banning of zero hours contracts – all of these issues and more are high on the agenda for Christian organisations. They feel they have been absolved by the state of a responsibility they traditionally saw as their own.

And now we are told that many, if not most, of the serious problems we face today are better dealt with on an international scale. We need the World Bank, the IMF, the UN, endless G summits.

But the problem with this way of thinking is it gives the impression that we, as individuals, are incapable of making a difference. We see the scale of these vast bureaucracies, and though we feel distant from them, we think they are the only vehicle through which problems on our doorstep can be dealt with.

I believe that’s wrong, and it doesn’t make me heartless to say so. I want to abandon state dependence for individual freedoms that build strong societies. If you want to have a big impact, you need to show small acts of kindness. It is personal self-giving, not compulsory taxation and re-distribution of wealth that has the best and most profound effect. Do what you can to help people in your immediate surroundings. It will be more significant and longer lasting than a BACS payment from the DWP. That’s what right-wingers are about.