Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The Power of Politics to Transform Lives

“I think that people look to politics for something that can’t be delivered. It can offer social stability, but very little real fairness, and it can’t change people for the better”

That sentence comes from one of the latest articles by Gavin Ashenden in the JEP. He’s commenting on the US Presidential Election, of course, but Gavin believes that policicians can’t transform society, only Christianity has that power.

Christianity transforms people, and if enough people are transformed, a society changes, but that is the only way real change can come about. I am familiar with this view from discussions with Conservative Evangelicals in the past, and it should be said that it is not the only Christian view: the Catholic church, for example, has far more engagement with politics on social justice issues and matters for the common good.

Gavin's statement reflects a false binary opposition, of course. Ironically, it was an Evangelical group known as “The Clapham Sect” showed that belief and politics together was a transforming force.

The Clapham Sect or Clapham Saints were a group of Church of England social reformers based in Clapham, London at the beginning of the 19th century. John Newton (1725-1807) was the founder.

Their political goals were all about transforming society, seeking the liberation of slaves, the abolition of the slave trade and the reform of the penal system.

Probably the most well known was William Wilberforce, whose story was memorably dramatised in an excellent film, “Amazing Grace”. William Wilberforce (1759 – 1833) was an English politician, philanthropist, and a leader of the movement to eradicate the slave trade.

Meanwhile, another movement of reform was taking place under Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury KG Bt (28 April 1801 – 1 October 1885), in Parliament.

When Ashley was appointed to the Select Committee On Pauper Lunatics in the County of Middlesex and on Lunatic Asylums, the majority of lunatics in London were kept in madhouses owned by Dr Warburton. The Committee examined many witnesses concerning one of his madhouses in Bethnal Green, called the White House. Ashley visited this on the Committee's behalf.

The patients were chained up, slept naked on straw, and went to toilet in their beds. They were left chained from Saturday afternoon until Monday morning when they were cleared of the accumulated excrement. They were then washed down in freezing cold water and one towel was allotted to 160 people, with no soap.

In July 1845 Ashley sponsored two Lunacy Acts, ‘For the Regulation of lunatic Asylums’ and ‘For the better Care and Treatment of Lunatics in England and Wales’. They originated in the Report of the Commissioners in Lunacy which he had commended to Parliament the year before. These acts of Parliament began the movement to reform those terrible conditions, and put in place a system to licence and monitor asylums, and to transform them into places of care.

Shaftesbury's work in improving the care of the insane remains one of his most important, though less well known, of his achievements. He wrote: "Beyond the circle of my own Commissioners and the lunatics that I visit, not a soul, in great or small life, not even my associates in my works of philanthropy, has any notion of the years of toil and care that, under God, I have bestowed on this melancholy and awful question"

In March 1833 Ashley also introduced the Ten Hours Act 1833 into the Commons, which provided that children working in the cotton and woollen industries must be aged nine or above; no person under the age of eighteen was to work more than ten hours a day or eight hours on a Saturday; and no one under twenty-five was to work nights.

However the Whig government, by a majority of 145, improved on his proposition, and amended this to substitute "thirteen" in place of "eighteen" and the Act as it passed ensured that no child under thirteen worked more than nine hours, insisted they should go to school, and appointed inspectors to enforce the law.

In July 1836 one member of the Lancashire committees set up to support the changes wrote that: "If there was one man in England more devoted to the interests of the factory people than another, it was Lord Ashley. They might always rely on him as a ready, steadfast and willing friend"

And Ashley introduced the Mines and Collieries Act 1842 in Parliament to outlaw the employment of women and children underground in coal mines. He made a speech in support of the Act and the Prince Consort wrote to him afterwards, sending him the "best wishes for your total success".

Ashley was a strong supporter of prohibiting the employment of boys as chimney sweeps. Many climbing boys were illegitimate who had been sold by their parents. They suffered from scorched and lacerated skin, their eyes and throats filled with soot, with the danger of suffocation and their occupational disease—cancer of the scrotum. In 1840 a Bill was introduced into the Commons outlawing the employment of boys as chimney sweeps, and strongly supported by Ashley.

So politics can do little to transform society, according to Gavin Ashenden? I think these few examples show that politicians can do a great deal to transform society. It can move people to behave better to their fellows.

“It is a category mistake to look for politics and politicians to achieve this kind of difference,” he says, speaking of “selfish lives becoming unselfish, hopeless transformed into belief in a future than outlives the futility of death”.

On the contrary, it was a heady mix of Christianity, belief in social justice and a better society, and politics that made massive transformations – as detailed above. Individuals pushed for reform, they won the arguments despite setbacks along the way, and lives of many, many people living in Britain, and across the world were transformed as a result. Their hopelessness was transformed into hope.

The world became just that little bit less selfish, because the laws were changed to force the selfish to behave better, not to exploit the workers so much, and to provide protection for those most vulnerable.

We live in a society where slavery still takes place, as human trafficking shows. Children are exploited in factories and sweat shops across the world. But we are aware of the human cost, and speak out against it. We know that it is wrong. We have been changed for the better, thanks to the reforming vision of past politicians.

Politics can’t deliver everything, and sometimes past reforms seem to be losing ground. But it can deliver far more than Gavin Ashenden would give it credit for.

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