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Norwich audience hears plea to politicians after Covid

Politicians need to rediscover the importance of family, of faith and of place in politics after the Covid pandemic has sparked a change in community and what is possible, argued former Labour minister Ruth Kelly at the latest Newman Lecture in Norwich last night. Keith Morris reports.

Speaking at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in front of an in-person and live-streamed audience on October 9, the Rt Hon Ruth Kelly addressed the question of “What should we expect from politics after Covid?”

The former Labour Cabinet minister, and now visiting professor at St Mary’s University in London, Ruth said: “Sometimes it looks like we are gradually emerging from the pandemic leaving the worst behind us. But there are probably times, even in the past few months, when most of us feel very hugely disorientated, lying awake at night, wondering where we will be in six months or a year, ten years from now. There are huge challenges ahead.

“So what should we expect from politics after Covid?,” asked Ruth, a member of the Vatican’s Council for the Economy. “Some of the answers are being painted as we speak, with many looking to governments to protect them ever more strongly in an increasingly uncertain world. But are these the right answers or can we as Catholics, provide better ones. It is certainly true that returning to a pre-Covid normality is not an option.

“Governments of left, right and centre have intervened in their economies in ways which would have been unthinkable two years ago. Chancellor Rishi Sunak was rightly praised for his intervention paying wages for workers and keeping businesses afloat. Financial caution was thrown to the wind and deficits and debts soared.

“So not surprisingly, many are using the crisis to call for a much larger role for the state from now on. Arguing that people need much greater shielding from the ups and downs of life, both financially and in terms of stronger more resilient public services,” said Ruth.

“You know something has changed when it is not only Labour but the Conservatives who are arguing for more state intervention.”

“The pandemic showed up the fragility of our family lives, our communities, our local societies, church and faith organisations. In short the crisis exposed a weakened and vulnerable civil society.

“Yet instead of arguing for the rebuilding of community, many on both left and right seem content to let civil society atrophy so that all that is left is markets and state. There is a deep problem with this approach,” argued Ruth.

“In my view we need to rebuild from the bottom up, not from the top down, redefining what is meant by human flourishing, redefining what is meant by freedom.

This vision of a relational state is one built on the strengths we have shown during the crisis – one that learns that alone we are stranded but together we can overcome adversity. This vision of reinvigorated families and communities is consistent with Catholic Social Teaching which teaches that we should always take action at the lowest level possible.

“It is this complementarity of state and civil society that we are at risk of losing if it is not clearly championed today. It is essential, I would argue, that we should continue to strive to bridge the divide between reason and religion and incorporate family, faith and charitable groups in the social reform agenda,” said Ruth.

“The hope we can take from the world’s response to Covid is that the sparks of a new approach have been kindled. We saw some unexpected results, including widespread outpourings of charity and togetherness and empathy for complete strangers.

“I would argue that politicians need to rediscover the importance of family, of faith and of place in politics. We all need to realise that change comes from the ground up and not from the top down.

“It needs to test every single policy to see whether it supports and nourishes families, charities, faith groups and local communities, allowing them to take an active role that we have seen that they can during the pandemic.

“The good news is that Coronavirus is changing what is possible. Amid emotional danger and uncertainty it has provided the potential for more connectedness, as well as less, and radically changing the meaning of community itself.  The challenge now is for that renaissance to be sustained by  politics, by the churches and by each one of us,” concluded Ruth.

You can watch the whole of Ruth’s lecture here:

The Newman Lectures are a collaboration between the Diocese of East Anglia and St Mary’s University.

Pictured top is the Rt Hon Ruth Kelly with Bishop Alan Hopes at St John’s Cathedral in Norwich before the Newman Lecture. Picture by Keith Morris.