31 March 2021, The Tablet

The power of public service

Solidarity needs subsidiarity


The slogan “build back better”, with its tinge of hope for a new world, resonates with the Easter message. But what does it mean? It is the banner under which the British Prime Minister – echoed by the American President – hopes government and society will face the future as the Covid pandemic subsides and something more like normality returns. “Better” implies there is a “good” to aim for, and not just more wealth and greater efficiency. It implies a moral improvement, and a transcendent goal. US president Joe Biden has gone further than the UK prime minister Boris Johnson in articulating what that improvement and that goal might consist of. But Biden signals his attachment to certain general ideals, broadly speaking the social teachings of the Catholic Church. Johnson remains a pragmatist, whose guiding political philosophy, beyond holding on to power, has always been elusive.

In almost the opening move of his presidency, Biden has steered through Congress, a $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan”. Its most spectacular ambition is to halve child poverty, which implies a substantial redistribution of wealth in one of the world’s most unequal societies. That is the kind of ambition which should appeal to his British opposite number. To achieve it would be a compelling argument for voting for the Conservative Party in the next general election. There are no votes, on the other hand, in reducing the income of the poorest section of society by £1,000 a year, the current Tory plan. This comes on top of the £12 billion taken out of the welfare budget – Britain’s poverty relief plan – under his Tory predecessors. It has escaped no one’s notice that the people hardest hit by the pandemic and its associated lockdown is that same poorest section of society, people who were already struggling to keep themselves and their families afloat.

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