Whatever the precise composition of the British Parliament, the government that is formed will be obliged to take decisions about taxation and spending, which are so unpalatable to the electorate, that not one of the three main parties has dared to spell out their extent.
Whatever the philosophical differences between them – and these have clarified somewhat over the last few weeks – each party faces the same fundamental problem, which is how to afford what it wants to do and repair the public finances at the same time.
We are not in nearly as bad a case as Greece or the other nations known rather unkindly as the ‘siesta’ countries. But the recent scenes on Greece’s streets do act as a warning to any government that takes away from its people what they have come to regard as their rights.
There is in our own country a strong culture of entitlement – at the expense, many would argue, of a sense of responsibility. With this election over, the new conditions in which we live will force us all to rethink just what we are entitled to as a right and what has been a privilege that may be withdrawn. In this rethinking, the churches will have a part to play, and they will need great wisdom.
People will be faced with higher taxes, lower wages or no wages at all.
Benefits will be reassessed. Pension provision will be less or more expensive. Jobs in public services will go. Many of us, in short, will be worse off than we were before.
It would be wrong for churches to say that this should not happen, and that we should continue to live as though we had all the resources we had before. But there are at least three things we can say.
1. Whatever is done should be fair. The rich should not be protected at the expense of the poor. This is one nation, not two. Everyone has a part to play in its recovery, but only if there is a truly just program will the mass of our citizens be reconciled to what we face.
2. It should be responsible. Talk of four or five years of pain is all very well, but consigning, for instance, young people leaving school or university to perpetual joblessness because they happen to graduate in that period is unacceptable. Government has a responsibility to the most vulnerable members of society; the churches have a responsibility to remind them of that.
3. It should be global in its scope. The great temptation faced at times of economic crisis is to pull up the drawbridge and produce crowd-pleasing policies that pander to our worst instincts.
The enemy within is a great blessing to a weak or beleaguered government. It allows things to be said or done that would never pass at a time of greater confidence. So churches should be on the lookout for scapegoating: asylum seekers, the international aid budget, the fight against climate change – all these are vulnerable.
There are times when the duty of Christians is to support government, and there are times when it is our duty to oppose it. We are generally more comfortable doing the latter, as the Old Testament provides so many prophetic templates for us to pull off the shelf.
But if we can say all this to those who have the rule over us and be confident that we are heard, we may well find ourselves in the unfamiliar position of urging support for unpopular measures for the sake of the greater good.