I’m increasingly seeing comments along the lines of “We shouldn’t be seeing or y … in this day and age.” Or “It is disgusting that in one of the richest G7 countries that we should be seeing x.” These statements at the moment relate specifically to the pressures that people are starting to face in terms of fuel bills and choices about whether to turn the heating on, feed the family or go into debt.
Reality is starting to bite. For most of this year I’ve been writing frequently about the coming crisis and of all of my articles these have tended to get the least attention. Generally speaking I’ve not picked up a willingness amongst Christians to talk about the cost of living crisis and rising energy costs. I think partly this is due to the fact that most of us expected the Government to step in and help. So, a lot of people held off on things like fixing their bills and social media continued to be full of pictures of foreign holidays and updates on planned winter get aways. After all, it was impossible to think that in this day and age in a wealthy country like ours we would end up facing suffering through the winter wasn’t it? Putin would either win quickly in Ukraine or come to his senses (I think many expected the former), big support packages at the same kind of level as the furlough scheme would be put in place paid for by windfall taxes and we’d get by.
Then, there was a point when people realised it was going to be tough through the winter for some. I think, they pictured it as primarily being the already poor and vulnerable and the elderly. So, we were going to provide warm spaces in our churches, schools and libraries.
Reality is dawning as we face the initial cold bite of Autumn. Note, this isn’t a winter freeze yet. The temperature in our house has been around 18 degrees over the past few days – it’s about 16 degrees at the moment but I expect it to warm a little. However, we are at the stage, where normally we would be starting to have the debate about whether or not to pop the central heating on for an hour in the morning or maybe stick the gas fire on for a bit to take the chill off in the evening. Schools will be facing complaints from kids and teachers about the cold temperature. Many of those 1960s buildings have long notoriously been heat traps in the summer and freezers in the winter. Site maintenance teams will be giving the default response that “We never put the heating on until sometime in October.”
The extra pressure is two-fold. On the one hand, more people working from home will be more aware of temperatures during the day but also we are even more aware of the cost ands the bills coming. Even if you have spread your bill payments through the year with a flat charge, you’ll be trying to build up as much credit as possible for when you really need it.
Now we are realising that things are really going to be tough, that the Government’s help will only go so far -and that would be true of whoever was in power -and that those public buildings were never going to be in a position to offer so called warm banks.
Now, to be clear, I’ve not been impressed by this Government in general or its specific response to the crisis – though some of the reasons may differ from conventional criticism. For example, I’m not convinced that prize caps help -they simply suppress the problem and delay it hitting. Indeed, as I watch petrol prices begin to drop back down again, I wonder if the caps on gas and electricity have hindered rather than help because it means that the energy companies respond more to the regulator than to actual supply and demand out there. I think that they failed to deal properly with the fall out of the financial crash – they didn’t fix the roof when the sun came out again and I see all kinds of examples of failure to look after the needy and vulnerable regardless of specific crisis situations.
However, I think it is also important to think carefully about those “I can’t believe” type statements. It is worth considering what “the day and age we are living in” is. Why? Well because, as I’ve been saying for some time, I think the tough times could be with us for a while. That’s one reason why I’ve not been particularly impressed by our politicians. They keep trying to reassure us that either a bit more spending or a little less taxing means that we’ll be out of this before you can say “Bob’s your uncle”.
Here’s the reality. 14 years ago, we suffered a huge hit with the financial crisis. It was the kind of event that could easily have tipped the world in to a 1930s style depression. It hit the private sector and it hit Government finances too. That meant that two things happened. First of all, there was Quantitative Easing -an attempt to shield us from the worst effects of a credit crunch. Money was pumped into the economy. Secondly, Governments attempted to make cuts to their budgets, we entered the age of austerity. Political reality meant that you didn’t actually see apocalyptically deep cuts, however what you did see was enough to introduce greater fragility into core public services like health care and education. Wages were frozen too.
Then a pandemic hit and that did a number of things as well as costing lives and putting pressure on health care. The economy was put under huge pressure. Supply chains were disrupted and that affected prices, feeding into inflation. Britain was hit harder because of how we implemented Brexit. Meanwhile, the Government, still massively in debt and running at a deficit had to increase spending massively to protect people and the economy, primarily through the Furlough Scheme.
Finally, and at a point when the west was vulnerable, Vladimir Putin chose to escalate things. I think some people assumed that his concern was purely incremental land grab but actually this is a guy who wants to restore Russia’s power and dominance globally and pay back the West for perceived grievances, not least the economic turmoil Russia went through as the Soviet Union broke up. What this means is that “the day and age we are in” is literally a new Cold War. This time as well as the nuclear threat, we have an opponent who has a stranglehold on fuel resources.
On a side note, this gives us a sense of why gas prices have remained high even at a point when they were starting to drop again. First, because energy companies were not able to respond as much as they would have wanted to when prices first went up due to how the caps worked -and that most affected the smaller companies. There will be a desire to recuperate outlay. Secondly, because there remains a lot of uncertainty in the market. Prices have fallen because new supplies form Norway are coming on line. However, there are signs that the now defunct Nord 2 pipeline from Russia may have been sabotaged with gas leaks into the North Sea. A lot of people suspect Putin’s hand in this economic and environmental terrorism and see it as a warning sign that he could hit active pipelines from other countries too. Lose the Norwegian supply and we are back to square one.
For the record, I think that’s a greater danger than Putin launching a nuclear strike on London or Paris. I suspect that whilst frustrated by the war in Ukraine, he is also enjoying the sense of power and control as he is able to do all kinds of atrocious and unthinkable things and the West are pretty much powerless to stop him. A direct nuclear strike would be the equivalent of someone who has stood at a distance taunting and throwing things actually coming in to throw a punch when he knows that will put him within range of his opponent’s ability to punch back. And he knows the opponent has a more ferocious punch.
Now, all of this sounds like doom and gloom. Of course, I’m not saying it will definitely work out like this. I’m not claiming to be prophesying here and I write not as an expert but as one bloke sat at home following the news. However, I think we have to be ready for the possibility that things are not going to get better.
There are two implications for us as Christians. First, we need to think practically about how we show love and compassion to care for others as well as wisdom about how we steward our own and our church resources through difficult days.
Secondly, I believe that through the pandemic and through this new cold war, God has been challenging us. Are we ready to let go of the things we have depended on? Will we cling more tightly to Christ? Will we show what it really means to live with and have a reason for our certain hope, not just in good times but in bad as well?
 Note, this is not about being pro or anti- EU membership. I am of the view that the EU as it is structured does more harm than good -and not just to the UK. Rather, it’s about decisions that were made about the nature of future relationships (responsibility lies on both Britain and the EU for this) and how immigration was handled following departure (responsibility lies solely with the Government for this).