UK: Theology, reality and economy. (2 of 2)

UK: Theology, reality and economy. (2 of 2) - A different form of failure, and one which rings a bell today, was that of my greatgrandfather Sir Joseph Pease. A benevolent Quaker employer, he "propped up too many loss-making subsidiaries" in his efforts

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A different form of failure, and one which rings a bell today, was that of my greatgrandfather Sir Joseph Pease. A benevolent Quaker employer, he "propped up too many loss-making subsidiaries" in his efforts not to throw men out of work. In the end his empire, of banking, coal mining, iron, railway and woollen interests, collapsed.

There were, it is true, momentary gains for "virtue". We are told that Alfred Owen of Rubery Owen subsidised lemonade sufficiently to "drive out alcohol" in his workforce. Quaker firms were outstandingly good employers. Scott Bader gave his firm to his workers, and inspired Fritz Schumacher to start writing about economics "as if people mattered". But fundamentally, capitalism was a lion which ate its Christians, leaving not even a "stick with a horse's head handle" to mark the spot.

In this uneven battle it is the Quakers who stand out as the heroes, not least because they were, on the whole, such good businessmen. In 1907 their representation in the "business elite" was 44 times their basic "religious density" - rising to 62 times in 1935. To a certain extent, though, the figures are influenced by their avoidance of other fields of work at the time, such as the Services or the Church.

There were in the period studied shifts of opinion which seem to foreshadow some trends that we are seeing today. In the 1930s, for instance, there was a marked shift in the temper of the Anglican Church. Under the leadership of William Temple, a church which had simultaneously been the "Tory Party at prayer" and a great respecter of the God-giveness of "the rich man in his castle" (or in his factory) began to change into one which, in our day, could better be described as "Social Democrats at prayer". Mrs Thatcher recently had problems in appointing bishops because of the leftish tendencies of the most able.

In our day there are also signs that the nature of the battle is changing. Many Christians now see the move towards ecological thinking as a much more hopeful terrain. In the past their struggle has been to temper the theism of the school of Adam Smith (which views God as the great watchmaker who merely winds up the world and sets it going, and views capitalism as an extremely efficient cog in the works) with a religion which regards the fall of a sparrow as more important than the workings of Mammon.

It may be that both sides will come to agree on the limitations that need to be imposed on capitalism by the nature of Creation. But this book, which charts some of the campaigns of the past, does not make one too sanguine.

(Lord Beaumont is an Anglican priest.)

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime