In 2009, David Cameron promised an “Age of Austerity” to combat the ill-effects of the worst financial crisis the world has ever seen. In practice, this meant biting cuts to government spending even in essential areas such as healthcare, education and welfare benefits – to reduce the budget deficit. These policies have been implemented not only in Britain, but in the majority of developed countries to varying degrees. What this has meant, in effect, is that the poorest members of society are compelled to pay off the debts incurred by the wealthiest – the bankers and political elites who caused this crisis through a combination of reckless greed, systemic corruption and gross negligence. But while our political elites are enthusiastically imposing austerity on everyone else, they are less keen to practise what they preach. At a time when many families in Britain must now choose between keeping their houses warm and being able to buy food, the British government has decided to limit the increase in welfare benefits to 1% per annum. Meanwhile, a recent survey conducted in Westminster by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has shown that MPs feel they are entitled to – on average – a 32% pay rise, taking their salaries up to £86,250 a year. This evokes memories of the expenses scandal in 2009, when it emerged that politicians had been manipulating the system and using taxpayers’ money to fraudulently obtain – in some cases – hundreds of thousands of pounds while simultaneously demonising those who falsely claimed housing and other benefits. A culture of entitlement pervades Westminster, with some members of parliament believing that the British people owe them a debt of gratitude for their public service. The Tory MP, Andrew Bridgen, told BBC Radio 4: ‘Most of my colleagues on the government benches took a large pay cut to be an MP, and I think there’s a real danger, if you need good people, you need the right people, there’s a lot of exclusion… A man or a woman who’s very capable, doing very well in their profession, whatever that may be, with a family, are they going to be willing to take that pay cut, look their children in the eye when it’s Christmas say you can’t have what you normally have because Mummy or Daddy wants to be an MP.’This shows how utterly out of touch many politicians are with ordinary people. Never mind the fact that some families could not even afford to heat their homes this Christmas (let alone ‘have what they normally have’ for Christmas), but the average salary in the UK is £26,500 while your average MP earns £65,738. How can MPs possibly justify that salary when the last decade has seen them embezzle public funds, lead us into an unpopular and illegal war, and preside over the worst financial crisis in human history? It is a sad statement of the materialistic worldview that prevails in our democracies that public service has been reduced to a career choice, whose only tangible value is the pay packet to which it is attached. The primary motive of a politician should not be to advance his or even his party’s interests; it should be to serve the people – in particular the weak, needy and vulnerable. But more than the motivations of individual politicians; materialistic attitudes have penetrated our very understanding of what government is for. Ever since the rise of neo-liberalism in the late 1970s, government has become increasingly focused on ensuring economic growth rather than the well-being of a nation’s citizens. That is why we can squeeze the (economically unproductive) poor while protecting the (economically productive) wealthy. But there are alternative politics of austerity – those of personal austerity (zuhd). In the Islamic tradition, a ruler should demonstrate not just an aptitude for politics, but a commitment to the personal values of morality and moderation. While today the mere mention of “morality” is anathema to politicians, who insist it is the esoteric preserve of “moral philosophers” and has no place in governance, the essence of Islamic politics is morality – the creation of a just and virtuous society for all. But this cannot happen unless the rulers embody these values themselves; a maxim of Imam Ali (a) says that people resemble their rulers more than they do their own fathers, and the Qur’an admonishes the Children of Israel: ‘Will you bid others to piety and forget yourselves…?’ (2:44).
While our political leaders feel entitled to claim
personal expenses from the public purse, Imam
Ali (a) treated the treasury as a sacred trust; he
would ensure that the candle he used for conducting
state affairs was never used for his own personal affairs.
True leadership stems not from legal formality, as it is so often conceived in modern societies where politics has long been divorced from virtue, but through setting an example for others to aspire to. And how is it possible to lead people if you do not live amongst them and – more importantly – live like them? For a practical role-model of this style of leadership, we need look no further than Imam Ali (a) . While our political leaders insist on living like the wealthiest members of our society, he lived, dressed and ate like the poor – est; Imam Ali (a) would distribute meat and bread to the poor, but when one of his companions visited his home he was amazed to find the ruler of the Muslims eating stale barley bread. While our political leaders feel entitled to claim personal expenses from the public purse, Imam Ali (a) treated the treasury as a sacred trust; he would ensure that the candle he used for conducting state affairs was never used for his own personal affairs. In spite of whatever personal wealth he might have owned, he lived amongst his people and he lived like the poorest of them. In this way, Imam Ali (a) did not only rule justly and effectively, but also set a personal example to those over whom he presided– not demanding from them anything he did not first demand from himself. Unfortunately, so long as truth and virtue are excluded from legitimate political discourse, and so long as we continue to prioritise material interests, we will never find such qualities in our political leaders. It is up to us to change that – we must not only expect more from our leaders, but also more from ourselves. No one else is going to fix the world on our behalf. Unless we actively campaign for change, beyond simply ticking a ballot once every few years, we won’t see any. As citizens of a democracy we are accountable for the decisions of our government (just as our government is accountable to us) and, as Muslims, we are duty- bound before God to strive for a better world through enjoining the good and forbidding the evil. Perhaps, in an age marked by increasing apathy and disenchantment with politics, we can restore the ideal of a virtuous government. And perhaps, at a time of much public disgust at the excesses of politicians and bankers, some austerity is exactly what we need.