A few weeks ago I went to Old Trafford to watch the Scum (sorry, Manchester Utd) annihilate Middlesborough. The football played by Ronaldo, Tevez, Nani and Shrek etc was (and this is difficult for a Liverpool fan to admit) awesome, but the atmosphere around the so-called "Theatre of Dreams" was curiously flat. The banter for which British football crowds are rightly famous was muted, and there were only 3 chants of real note.
The first related to Solskjaer, a player who has retired (maybe the Man. Utd fans are so slow-witted they haven't noticed that yet!). The second was an affectionate tribute Nemanja Vidic, their Serbian defender suggesting that being from Serbia he's likely to "f*****g murder ya!" The final one was directed at the small knot of Middlesborough fans in the corner of the ground below where I was sitting. In it the Man. Utd fans suggested that their opponents were from "the worst place in Britain."
Now I wouldn't have expected football fans to be avid fans of Channel 4's Location, Location, Location, but that is where this description of Middlesborough originated. In the only league table they are ever likely to top, Middlesborough toppled Northern Ireland's Strabane... Which now (curiously) has a 5 star rating!
However, now is the chance for Middlesborough to get their own back. This week the Tory think tank (which as an unreconstructed leftie I tend to see as a non-sequitur) the Centre for Social Justice (another incongruity methinks) announced that Manchester was the most socially divided city in Britain... This is despite the fact that earlier in the year Greater Manchester was hailed as the U.K.'s fastest growing city economy... But actually, perhaps the two facts are not unconnected...
There is no doubt that capitalism has been the engine of economic growth and the provider of unparalleled comfort for many in the western world over the past half century, but I can think of no fast growing western economy which is not also deeply divided between the haves and the have nots. The trickle down theory of social wellbeing that is trotted out by Thatcherite and other right wing economic idealogues never produces any more than a trickle of economic well-being for those at the bottom of the pile.
I am not saying that socialism is the answer to all the poor's needs... far from it... history has demonstrated that the economies of scale that a socialist approach should produce are far outweighed by the competitive edge generated by market forces... The Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest is a evident in economic evolution as well as biological... with the weak getting trodden underfoot.
But this phenomenon is not new... it is warned against and legislated against in scripture, where Israel were instructed to look after the widow, the orphan and the alien… the weakest people in society. But the law was broken and the warnings were ignored, with disastrous results. God judged Israel and sent them into exile because of their injustice as well as their idolatry.
Our idolatry is just as serious as that of ancient Israel… but our injustices make theirs pale into insignificance… Just as the social inequalities within Manchester, pale into insignificance on a global scale. The economic policies of the western world are literally killing millions of people. And perhaps doing irrevocable damage to the earth itself.
I await the prescription for the ills in Manchester diagnosed by the Centre for Social Justice. Whether they will help or exacerbate the problem remains to be seen.
The Bible's prescription was clear. “What does the Lord require of us?” the Prophet Micah asked. Answer: To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
That was true in ancient Israel, in modern Manchester, and wherever we may walk.
In the meantime perhaps the Middlesborough fans can chant at their Manchester opponents "You're from the most socially-divided city in Britain"... Or perhaps not...