“Stick man lives in the family tree With his Stick Lady Love and their stick children three.”
So begins Stick Man—my son’s favourite bedtime story. Parents of a certain age will know it well. Julia Donaldson (of The Gruffalo fame) spins a lovely yarn in which Stick Man is swept away from the family tree by a series of unfortunate events, each time because someone—a dog, an over-eager child, a swan—thinks he’s something he isn’t: a sword, a bow, a boomerang. Each time, he responds:
“I’m not a stick! Why can’t you see? I’m Stick Man, I’m Stick Man, I’M STICK MAN, that’s me, And I long to be back in the family tree.”
Perhaps fathers with English and Theology degrees begin to think too much about children’s storybooks when they’ve read them as many times as I’ve read Stick Man…but the fundamental problem in the story is one of anthropology. No one knows what Stick Man is—he’s Stick Man, not a stick—and so they neither treat him rightly nor understand where he belongs.
Stick Man has been on my mind more than normal since bedtime this past Wednesday. This was the day of the British government’s latest budget—the first since Rishi Sunak became our latest Conservative Prime Minister and appointed Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor.
There were a few notable headlines: continued help with energy bills, raised tax thresholds on pensions, avoidance of a recession. The most talked about announcement, however, has possibly been the extension of free childcare provision.
Currently, all children in England are eligible for free childcare from the term after they turn three—15 hours universally, and 30 hours if both parents work and hit a certain earnings threshold. However, UK childcare is among the most expensive in the world, and so paying for children to attend nursery before they turn 3 is incredibly expensive for many parents.
But never fear: Jeremy Hunt has come to the rescue, with plans to extend free childcare (in various fashions) to all children aged 9 months and upwards by the end of 2024. We’ll see: I know more than a few people in Early Years management, and they are less than convinced that it will all work out as planned.
What most caught my eye was Jeremy Hunt’s very public rationale for why he’s instituted this change: because too many mothers are “economically inactive” and need to get back to work. With the British economy still shrinking, our Conservative government is on a mission to get people back into work to help grow the economy.
“Economically Inactive”: The Rise of a Phrase
“Economically inactive” has, little by little, become one of those phrases of the political moment—not a purposeful slogan like “Get Brexit Done”, but the kind of thing drummed up in a political backroom by speechwriters which just kind of sticks and becomes What We Say Now. It’s not a newterm, but it’s received a new lease of life, with new connotations. In the current discourse, it’s usually referring to young mothers and early retirees—people who could be working, but aren’t. Indeed, we’re told, it seems they really should be working, “doing their bit” for the economy. “Economy” here is, however, rather narrowly conceived—it simply means “growth”, assessed by that venerable metric “GDP”. GDP is, in essence, the amount of money currently making the world go round.
The economically inactive, we are told, are a hazard to the economy—although no one can quite bring themselves to say they’re doing anything wrong. They’re perhaps just a bit thoughtless as to how their leisure impacts others around them, like an old man in a speedo or an aloof housecat refusing to come inside when you want to lock up for the night.
This budget felt like a “coming of age” moment for the idea of the “economically inactive”. Bit by bit, the term has been normalised over the last few years, and they’ve now been thrust into the fiscal spotlight.
Yet, like the perennial frog in the boiling water, the piecemeal normalisation of vilifying the “economically inactive” has numbed us to the wicked thinking that underlies the idea.
Vilifying Stay-at-Home Mothers
We should note how the government’s drive to get more mothers back into work has been presented. It’s not even been dressed up as something for the financial benefit of families. For example, it could have been presented as something which would enable families to save money toward a mortgage deposit. Instead, it was presented in parliament as the removal of “
barriers to work”— its principal benefit being not to
families but to
the economy. Of course, people will be swift to say that a strong economy ultimately benefits families, but there was not even a half-hearted “a rising tide lifts all boats” from the Chancellor as he laid things out this week. It was the economy, stupid.
An obvious problem with this is that it demeans those mothers who choose to stay home to raise their children. Whilst the number of mothers working is constantly on the rise, it remains the case that many mothers would rather be at home with their kids, at least part of the time. This, however, has become almost an unacceptable point to make in public, especially among politicians. I was floored then (but incredibly heartened) to hear Tory MP Miriam Cates actually speak up about this on GB News. Cates said:
I really question this assumption that a mother’s primary value is in the workplace contributing to GDP—because the job of a parent, particularly in those first two years of life, is a huge investment in their future success…The [importance of a child’s] attachment with mum in those first 2 years is so important, and has been scientifically proven [to be beneficial].
Cates illuminates here the false dichotomy between child-rearing and economic activity. At a bare minimum, those who stay at home to raise children are raising future participants in the economy. It would thus surely be in Jeremy Hunt’s interest to ensure the raising of stable citizens who can use their money in a well-directed manner to benefit the economy of the future. Cates, unsurprisingly, is a Christian, and a Chair of the New Social Covenant Unit, a new organization promoting the “old-new set of ideas…that the primary purpose of public policy should be to strengthen families, communities, and the nation: the associations that make individuals happy, safe and free.” I’ll say now: keep an eye on the NSCU.
Christians should get their hackles up when they hear rhetoric like Hunt’s—not because being a stay-at-home mum (a very 20th century idea) is a Christian imperative (it isn’t), but because Christians should prize parenting highly because Scripture does so, and it is evidently a key part of God’s design for humanity. Mothers who choose to be what we today call “stay-at-home” mums should therefore not be portrayed as if they are letting the side down by being “economically inactive”.
What Is The World That Money Makes Go Round?
There is, however, a related but far deeper problem which Christians should see in all this.
To get at this problem, we need to pick at some of the Big Ideas which justified this week’s budget: things like Growth and The Economy. We rarely stop to ask questions about these things—they’re just things that People On The Radio talk about.
But what if we did ask a few basic questions?
Take growth. Growth into what? The answer, if you get one, is usually just… more growth. But nothing grows endlessly. When I think of something that thinks it’s meant to grow endlessly, all that comes to mind is a tumor.
Or maybe we could ask a question about all that money that makes the world go round: what exactly is the “world” that it’s causing to go round? Well, if everyone’s principal value to society is being “economically active” (that is, a money maker), then it would appear that the world which money makes go round is… a world of money makers. And they are, presumably, also the ones making the world go round. Dizzying.
Now, money does make the world go round. And that’s fine. We can’t get away from that. But there must be a world for it to make go round.
My colleagues Colin Redemer and Joe Minich make an excellent little point in a footnote in their chapter on “Work and Labor” in Protestant Social Teaching, a book we recently published at The Davenant Institute.
They note how we’ve come to divorce economics from politics:
“Political economy” was the original term for discussing economics. This was replaced with the current usage of “economy” and “economics” in the early twentieth century, much to our chagrin. The implication is that economics can be a governing discipline in its own right as opposed to always being understood as having a political character regardless of the mathematical models used or their outcomes.
Politics, like economics, is, for many of us, simply another thing for People On The Radio. We distantly imagine economics as “all the money making the world go round”—and politics is the same, but just with words, words, words.
But, just like economics, we can’t get away from politics. Everything is politics. By this, I don’t mean that everything is party political—that is, about verbal point scoring between Labour and the Tories and all the others.
“Political” simply means “having to do with the polis”—literally, “the city”. More broadly though, polis means the whole community of which we are a part, either your region (the arena of “local politics”) or your country (the arena of “national politics”). So families, households, jobs, schools, nurseries, hospitals—that’s all politics. And all those things, one way or another, need money—i.e. the economy—so that they can add up to a healthy society. When the money goes around, it should be to help all of those things flourish.
Returning to Colin and Joe’s point then: politics and economics must always come together. We are always in a political economy. Money makes the world, the polis, go round.
And here’s the real problem with the childcare reforms in this week’s budget: there is no polis.
The most basic unit of a political community is the family. Families make up the polis. Families are not separate from the polis—indeed, all families are naturally geared toward looking outside of themselves in order to form bonds with others, and so build a wider community together. But the family remains the principal building block of any society.
This should be evident to Christians from reflection on Genesis 2. The LORD considers Adam and says “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (2:18). Principally, this problem of Adam’s alone-ness is solved by Eve. But is Eve really the full resolution to this problem? I don’t think so. By giving Eve to Adam, God makes possible all subsequent human communities—communities which, we can assume, would have filled the earth (Gen. 1:28) in a mighty polis had the Fall never happened. And yet that polis would not be possible without the procreative family unit of Adam and Eve at its base.
So: what is the world that money makes go round? At its most basic, it is a world of families.
In this week’s budget, there was no sign that the Conservatives—often thought by Christians to be, out of all our political parties, the most “family friendly”—understand this. And a government which has no understanding of the family has no understanding of politics.
Now, I don’t think that this week’s budget marks the arrival of a void in the Tories’ understanding of the family. That void has been there for some time. But what we saw this week, as Hunt openly belittled “economically inactive” mothers, was something of a Rubicon moment in their willingness to publicly demonstrate that void.
Our modern capitalist society is widely (and rightly) derided for reducing people to pawns in a consumerist game. We’re all just here to spend money on stuff we don’t need, to grow the economy so that we can buy even more stuff we don’t need. But the people invested in that consumerist game—governments, banks, mega-corporations—do not tend to actually admit that that’s what’s happening. We instead dress the consumerism up in a veneer of personal fulfilment, to convince everyone that this is good for us. To admit to what’s going on would, perhaps, wise the pawns up to the whole game (although we pawns would likely just admit that we rather like the game anyway).
But this week, Jeremy Hunt said the quiet part out loud: you are nothing more than your economic activity—and to pretend otherwise is to perform a national disservice.
This is all economics, and no politics.
Or rather, it is politics (since, as we’ve noted, politics and economics can’t be separated), but an incoherent politics which has no idea what it is for, and which will always subject itself to the spreadsheets and metrics of the Treasury.
And politicians that don’t know what the polis is will do funny things to the people and families who live in it—rather like the things done to poor old Stick Man. He wasn’t a stick, but they couldn’t see. He just longed to be back in the family tree.