Could austerity become fashionable again? Yesterday’s speech by David Cameron made me think of wartime Britain. The austerity measures imposed by war resulted in a population which was actually healthier than ever before and, I think, more generous than before: witness the Welfare State and the opportunities offered by free education from primary to tertiary level. It is the generation to which I belong, the Baby Boomers, which has squandered that inheritance. We are now fatter, greedier and more reckless in our exploitation of the earth’s resources. Our selfishness means that young people today have a much less optimistic future than we once had.
However, I don’t think the budgetary cuts for which we are being prepared are necessarily all bad news. “Going without” is not in itself virtuous, can indeed be harmful, but if we are honest, we know that while we may not have everything we would like, most of us have all we need and more. The age of austerity upon which we are entering will certainly shake us out of our complacency. When we can no longer assume a right to this or that (holidays overseas, a designer label, or what you will), we shall be forced to reconsider where our priorities lie. Britain has a fine record for charitable giving, but when we can no longer give from our abundance but must share from more modest resources, we shall learn the true meaning of generosity. Is it too much to hope that we might become nicer people, more willing to help others, more kindly?
There will be some for whom the cuts will do more than trim the fat from their existence. There will be people who will suffer, whose incomes will not stretch to provide for all their needs and those of their families. I think we can be confident that the Churches will be in the forefront of trying to help. For some, that will mean a major shift in focus from the world “out there” to nearer home. With luck, or perhaps I should say grace, we might spend less time and energy on our internal squabbles and dissensions and more on learning how to be genuinely compassionate. If so, austerity will not only improve our physical health, it should do wonders for our spiritual health, too.
(Photo shows Duncan helping to compose a Colophon entry).