Is there is something of the end times about our government, asks George Pitcher? And if so, what does this say about God’s created order?
For governing parties, there comes a time when the end is nigh, about which there’s a kind of inevitability. It happened with John Major’s jurisdiction in the 90s. For all his attempts to rally Tory nostalgia for a golden era and re-implement “family values” under his Back to Basics banner, the rising tide of sleaze signalled defeat was at hand. Even for the most competent prime minister, allegations that his Treasury chief secretary wore a Chelsea football strip to make love to his mistress is a sure sign that political death is imminent.
It was the same for Gordon Brown and Labour at the end of the Noughties. Even a very competent response to the global financial meltdown was no match for public perceptions of the malodorous miasma emanating from the MPs’ expenses scandal, despite it not being Brown’s fault.
For today’s government, Rishi Sunak’s self-evident display as a competent leader and decent person can’t mask the smell of decay. There are big issues: asylum-seeker numbers rocketing inexorably, potentially collapsing school buildings, sewage being pumped into rivers and Birmingham City Council’s financial crisis.
The collapse of a government is not the same as a collapse of the world order
But there are also the smaller symptoms of political demise too: A suspected terrorist prison break, the hopeless Bibby Stockholm refugee barge, Nadine Dorries and, yes, that fourth horseman of the political apocalypse, sexual sleaze triggering by-elections that the Tories could well do without. All against a background of Boris Johnson’s fiddle-playing while Covid burned and Liz Truss’s economic kamikaze strike.
The end times
OK, so none of this matches the biblical prophecies of the end of the world, which can broadly be summarised as war, famine, disease and earthquakes - although there are some boxes that can be ticked here, with the invasion of Ukraine and Covid. In addition, Jesus foretold of food shortages (Matthew 24:7), while Revelation 11:18 speaks of humankind ruining the earth ahead of the final judgment, which would seem entirely consistent with the causes of our predicted climate catastrophe.
We should keep a sense of proportion here. The collapse of a government is not the same as a collapse of the world order. But it’s valid to examine the symptoms of political demise, to see whether they’re inevitable and what we can learn from them. It is really a question of deciding whether this is a natural process and, if it is, whether humans go with it.
Death, for those of faith, is part of life. Lives are created; they grow, then decline and die. We see this throughout nature. As we grow older, our physical being inevitably starts to show signs that it is mortal, that our time is limited - and there is nothing we can do to significantly arrest that process.
The issue under examination here is whether this is reflected in the political sphere. If it is, then a political party is, in some way, an organism with a life of its own, irrespective of the lives of the humans, young and old, who comprise it. Perhaps an organ of the state, which is what a government is, ages like a physical organ. Parts of it begin to pack up and not work so well.
Death and decay
Corruption is a word that we are more than used to hearing in our politics (more is the pity). It is usually about the selfish misuse of power and privilege. But the more archaic usage of “corruption” was all about decay and putrefaction.
The biblical prophecies of the end of the world can broadly be summarised as war, famine, disease and earthquakes
When Chaucer’s Pardoner speaks of “dung and corruption”, he was talking literally and naturally about what humans do, but not their illicit deeds. When Shakespeare has Hamlet tell his mother that her bed-sheets are “stewed in corruption”, he doesn’t just mean that she’s late with laundry day but that his father died between them.
So perhaps all physical institutions are subject to their own corruption and are, thus, finite. The political implication of this is striking: It would mean that however brilliant a prime minister is, their government will live, prosper, decline and die just like any other living thing.
I don’t want to labour this point (no pun intended) but it does make us think that gifts of God in creation – humanity, the natural order, beauty, sustenance, marriage and so on – may not be limited to what we presume. And they may include our politics and governments too.