Back in the 1930s, there was a political poster depicting four men at different heights on a ladder. The man at the top was sumptuously dressed; the man at the bottom was barely visible. The man at the top was telling those below him that for the sake of the nation, everyone would have to make sacrifices. ‘Equality of sacrifice – that’s the big idea friends’, says the rich man, ‘Let’s all step down one rung’. The ladder was standing in water and one step down would put the man at the bottom, who was already submerged up to his neck, below the surface.
The poster was an historical artefact, back in the 1970s the British Labour Party printed and sold facsimile copies as a reminder of from where the country had come in forty years. No-one would ever have believed that the values expressed by the man at the top would ever again be allowed to shape the politics of a democratic nation; never again would working people suffer for the failures in which they had no part. Democracy would ensure that society was organized on an equitable basis, people’s votes would guarantee that their heads would never again be pushed under the water.
There was only one flaw in the system – society was of a shape different from that assumed by those who believed democracy was the panacea for all social ills. The virtuous nature of democracy rested on the belief that society was shaped like a pyramid, with the mass of the people at the bottom having the electoral strength to ensure they got a fair deal. Perhaps this was the case in the 1930s, but social and economic progress pushed the mass of people upwards, so society became diamond-shaped instead of pyramid-shaped; at the top point were the millionaire elite, and at the bottom were people trapped in poverty.
So if you are in the middle of that diamond-shaped society, you want to hold on to what you have; if the people who hold the power and who have the money threaten trouble if they don’t get their own way, then you accept that is the way it is to be. It’s like the man at the top of the ladder saying everyone must step down one rung; those in the middle do so, without being able to give much thought for those below.
The Irish Government’s austerity programme is a replication of the policies of the 1930s, policies that failed then and that are failing now. Equality of sacrifice is replicated in everyone paying the same level of household charge; all septic tank users being faced with the same bill; all recipients of pensions being faced with the same cuts. If you are standing on the upper rungs, you hardly notice; if you are on the lower rungs, you drown.
Yesterday’s referendum wrote austerity into the Irish constitution, and illustrated the diamond-shape of Irish society. The campaigners against charges and cuts could never win the vote, those on the lower rungs were too small a group.
Of course, there were serious moral questions raised by the referendum, questions about our treatment of the vulnerable, but the Church of Ireland bishops, so vocal on matters of sexuality just three weeks ago, said nothing.