by Sam Challis
Around 25 young Friends gathered at Westminster meeting house in mid-August to discuss ‘political’ issues in a Quaker context. The weekend event, with support from YFGM and financial assistance from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, brought together young Friends who were in political parties, engaged professionally or otherwise in government or campaigning organisations or who had particular political interests. Of particular focus was to consider how political engagement works for us as Quakers and what future actions we can take corporately.
It was quickly apparent, as perhaps could be expected, that there was almost universal dissatisfaction with the existing political system and its implications such as a lack of sustainability, a lack of representation of all people’s views and interests and the ongoing prevalence of violent conflict. Many Friends expressed a feeling that the nature of the system itself – particularly the difficulty of getting the voice of ‘ordinary’ people heard – was in part responsible for many of the issues that are campaigned on. The sheer difficulty most people face, even should they wish to, in ‘speaking truth to power’, when little change on major issues appears to occur via elections, was a particular concern. To that effect, one Young Friend gave a particularly interesting presentation on that trade, which provoked a lively discussion on how the trade in weaponry can be limited when it remains in the financial interests of so many working people, and by extension their unions and political representatives to maintain it. Friends debated the moral responsibilities of people who make weapons – essentially understanding their need to make a living, while also considering their culpability for the violence and waste such manufacture enables. Some Friends expressed support and understanding for those engaging in radical action against the arms trade, suggesting that the weight of it in the UK economy and the power of vested interests presented almost insurmountable difficulties to more traditional lobbying approaches. Equally, Friends were supportive of the work of organisations such as CAAT and Quaker Peace & Social Witness in working within the system to limit the harm caused by weapons, for example by campaigning to extend embargoes or limit the sale of particular forms of equipment.
Friends also considered what kind of society is being aimed for by political action. The essence of this was summed up by a discussion led by Sam Walton on the nature of the Kingdom of God. While it is possible to assume that the vast majority of people having any involvement in politics are seeking to bring about their version of an ideal society, the nature of that society is extremely debatable. As Quakers, we can consider such as society to be the ‘Kingdom of God’ (regardless of particular theological views, or lack of them) but of course can have very different ideas of what such a society would look like. That said, the view that a lot needs to be done in order to establish anyone’s ideal did mean that we should consider the possibility of major change. Some questions, on which we did not on this (or possibly any) occasion seek agreement but inspired stimulating ideas were:
Would we need a police force?
Would we need money?
Would nations/states still need to be able to defend themselves?
Would we have pure equality or equality of opportunity?
How far does freedom of choice and free will extend?
All of these questions and others enabled Friends to consider what they were aiming to achieve by political action, and what the implications of both change and continuity could be.
As interesting and vital as consider the ideal future is, Friends also considered immediate actions that could be taken to take politics and Quakerism forward. Perhaps the most clearly agreed thought was to assist in providing information to other Friends and the wider community. For example, individuals can take the responsibility of sharing information at their local meeting of any upcoming events that are likely to be of interest to other Friends. Often events or campaigns that are very much in the spirit of Quaker values take place with limited publicity. From the small start of informing others that they are taking place we can help in building more effective involvement in the political process.
In all, the weekend was a valuable opportunity to discuss political involvement, what it means to us as Quakers, and how and where we feel we can be effective in future. Lastly, it did further make us consider how far we have a duty to be politically engaged – is such engagement the responsibility of us all, particularly as Quakers, and how far can those of us with a strong interest be useful in helping others to make their voice heard.