Joel Friedman and his family observe Tashlich beside the seafront at dusk on September 24, 2020 in Canvey Island, England. Picture Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

A new covenantal politics

As the Jewish new year begins, Britain should learn from its lessons of forgiveness, renewal and trust

Artillery Row

This week’s news that the UK’s borrowing is now at twice the expected level comes just in time for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. 

This past year was one set out by the Jewish faith for debt relief: this means that debts that the vulnerable are not able to pay should be forgiven. 

A biblical approach, one designed to protect the poor and build relationships. It is, if you like, “debtor friendly”. In comparison, our legislation is creditor friendly: the panic we are seeing now damages relationships across society. 

For while the Bible recognises that we live in a commercial society, it also recognises that if this goes unchecked, then madness ensues. The kind of madness that this winter will leave many of us, quite literally, out in the cold. 

Covenants build more caring relationships. 

Perhaps we should interpret this year’s call for debt relief as an entire wealth distribution reset. This month, after all, offers us an unparalleled opportunity forreset”: a new Prime Minister, a new monarch, and a captivating celebration of a life of regal duty and obligation, have granted us a rare moment to revise our perspectives, behaviours and our systems of governance. 

Both socialism and capitalism have been found wanting. We are living through a vortex of societal, political and environmental dangers brought about by a contractual model that has failed our communities and the wider environment. Contracts, both private and social, damage relationships. 

It is time, instead, for something both ancient and new: a covenantal approach. One in which individuals, organisations and institutions enter into a binding agreement to share the benefits and burdens of life. It is intergenerational, with no single interest dominating. Instead we need to find the common good. Unlike contracts, covenants build more caring relationships. 

Preferring neither state nor business, nor the individual over the community, covenant is a move from a culture of rights and ownership, towards one of obligation and trusteeship. It is this sort of consensus that will restore trust in our civic institutions, facilitating collaboration and strengthening morality. And this, Ms Truss, is how we will flourish, support each other and grow. 

Let me explain how it works. Under a covenant I am obliged to meet other people’s needs and these take precedence over my wants. These needs include a home and a meaningful job. A meaningful job also enables me to “give” to others, another fundamental human need. 

Covenant is based on the understanding that we are all trustees in this agreement, holding assets communally in trust for others. As trustees we have legal title, but not beneficial ownership — the beneficiary is society. The trusts that hold these assets are civic, legislated for nationally, but for the benefit of local communities. They operate with an asset lock to prevent extraction by shareholders, and ensure strong accountability through civic assemblies. 

Civic trusts compete with one another but for the common good; they combine the efficiency of the market with the security of public institutions. They are accountable to all those affected by their decisions, forming a network within which the integrity of the person, the local community and the stewardship of nature are all bound by mutual obligations. 

The contractual model, including unlimited lending, ultimately leads to inflation, which in turn leads to poverty. Covenant, in contrast, facilitates the elimination of inflation by conscious cooperation. 

An opportunity for all of us to reset

This is a radically Conservative vision of the renewal of social bonds. And Britain is a Covenantal country; the Monarchy, the Common Law, Parliament and the Church bind the country together in ancient practices that define our modern identity. The government has an opportunity now to embrace this, creating a new type of conservatism that invests individual, state and society in a more equitable relationship. 

As we saw over the past week, our country can still come together when the national identity is tested, triggering a mood of reflection, but also questions of reform. 

Implementing this more equitable model involves the understanding that we are all trustees in each other’s livelihoods. Look at the applause that greeted Yvon Chouinard’s decision to sign over 100% of the shares of his company Patagonia to a trust focused on nature’s protection. It is examples like this that will help us tackle the demands of levelling up, our housing and energy crises, the cost of living, and the sensitivities of foreign policy. 

Covenant provides a path to the future, with detail hammered out by government, business and municipal communities that operate on a fully collaborative basis. 

The idea of wealth redistribution may be economic, but it is profoundly moral too. The Bible makes this clear in Deuteronomy, chapter 15. “However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you.” 

Government, here is your agenda for reform. And an opportunity for all of us to reset.

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