Tax Justice, Austerity and the Re-building of Saint Paul's Cathedral
From Dr Phillip Rice
Sir, — By an accident of history, the Stock Market and St Paul’s Cathedral are next to each other. Until the past few weeks, it was quite possible that the worshippers in St Paul’s were unaware of how close they were to their very near neighbour across the square. And quite possibly each side lived largely unaware of the other; but not now, as the square is full of protesters and their tents.
While the anti-capitalist protesters may have set out to burn with dissatisfaction over taxes, about the unfair way in which the poor are paying for the sins of the rich bankers, and to close down the Stock Market, the surprise is that they have instead closed down St Paul’s Cathedral for the first time since the Second World War. What started as a friendly gesture to the “Saturday-only demo” in the City of London around St Paul’s has now turned into a first-rate public-relations disaster as soon as the cathedral closed to daily worshippers.
But there are more historical parallels than the protesters and church authorities might realise. The big closure was occasioned by the enormous damage to the City of London and the economy of the Kingdom after the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the destruction of the old St Paul’s. It may be a surprise to learn how the austerity was tackled then. The tax issue of the late 17th century was tax on sea-borne coal into the London area. This tax was unjust and partial, in that only the south paid it. But then this tax was used as public expenditure to revive the City of London economy, and in particular it paid for the rebuilding of St Paul’s between 1670 and 1711.
There is more. John Evelyn, the diarist, complained: “the air of London is polluted by clouds of sea-coal,” and wanted a regulatory fix to the problems in the City. So there was environmental economics here, too. And it was only in June 2011 that St Paul’s celebrated the completion, with generous City support, of a 15-year programme to clean and renew the cathedral stone damaged by air pollution. This is all beginning to sound rather contemporary.
I trust that St Paul’s will continue to have an incarnational ministry at the centre of the City, and the church authorities will find a way to reopen if the tents continue.
PHILLIP RICE (Tax economist and Friend of St Paul’s Cathedral)
23 Christchurch Square
London E9 7HU