Yearly Meeting 2023: QTIG preparatory session
Introduction (Gerald Hewitson)
Good evening Friends. Before we join in worship together, I’d like to set out an introduction for the evening ahead, so once worship has finished we can launch straight into the presentations that we have planned
My name is Gerald Hewitson, from North Wales Area Meeting, and I am Clerk of the Quaker Recognised Body that is the Quaker Truth and Integrity Group QTIG) I’m accompanied by my Friends Jan Arriens, from Southern Marches AM, and Martina Weitsch from York AM. We are here to introduce you to the Why, What and How of QTIG’s work. I will speak about the thinking behind our work - the why – Jan will talk about the what of what we do, and then Martina will explain how you can get involved, and pursue this issue locally, in your own meetings.
The way we intend to do this is that Jan and I will talk for roughly 12-15 minutes each. Then there will be an opportunity to break out into small groups to explore and think about what you heard. Hopefully, Martina will then speak. I say hopefully because she is struggling with the most dreadful chest infection. We have her script, and if necessary Jan will take over if she cannot continue. At the end of that talk, whoever gives it, there’ll be a further opportunity to think about her suggestions in a break out room, hopefully - technology allowing - with the same group of people. Then we’ll come together for closing worship. The brevity of the session means we haven’t planned for a plenary. But we do welcome your feedback so please post comments in the chat at any time, and we’ll collect them all at the end of the session and use them in our further planning. Alternatively, you can you can get in touch with us after the meeting today at firstname.lastname@example.org – one word, quakertruth; all lower case. That’s email@example.com. And that’s also the address to use to if you would like to comment further, or like more details or – depending on what you hear this evening – you hear the call and would like to join us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Truth and Integrity. What can we say about the first of these?
You may be familiar with the cartoon where two people are looking at an outsize numeral placed on the floor between them: one is shouting it’s a six, the other is screaming it’s a nine. While both participants see the issue differently, neither of them is claiming it is three, or seven or eleven.
We at QTIG accept that there may be perception - and perspective - and nuance, but 2 + 2 = 4.
I’m very aware there is much more to be said about Truth, but we could find ourselves spending the rest of the evening discussing the various meanings of truth and not why we do what we do. I’d like to move on to integrity in public life.
The historian Peter Hennessy describes our constitution as dependant on the ‘good chaps’ theory - the idea that the people who offer themselves for public service are decent, principled people who will uphold the Nolan Principles. Those Principles, let me remind you, are Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty and Leadership.
And we in the UK can be very grateful that we live in a society where these qualities are quite visible: unlike the experience of my Egyptian son in law, the lives of ordinary citizens are not blighted by endemic bribery and corruption. Aspects of our current democracy demonstrate accountability in action:
- We currently have a former Prime Minister and the current PM subject to degrees of investigation;
- the Deputy Prime Minister has recently resigned - albeit reluctantly – churlishly – but he did resign - for behaving unacceptably to staff
- the dominant political party in Scotland is under investigation,
So far, so good. Now listen to
Emily Maitless – McTagart Lecture 2022
‘Things that once would have shocked us now seem commonplace.’
And she cites a number of pieces of evidence, among them :
- The unlawful attempt to prorogue Parliament
- the governing party’s Twitter account changing its name to Fact Check UK – in the middle of an election campaign
- - the admission by the then Northern Ireland secretary that he would be prepared to break international law – but only in a very specific and limited way.
‘We are seeing politicians move in directions that are deeply and clearly deleterious to basic democratic governance.’
There are those who consider Emily Maitless to be part of the liberal elite. So let’s try this:
If you seek proof of the malaise in public life, the saga of a ( Conservative) party donor who helped facilitate a personal loan for the Prime Minister being appointed BBC chair will do nicely. That is the kind of thing the UK rails about when it happens abroad:
That by the way, was Robert Shrimpton, in that bastion of radical leftie wokery which is the Financial Times.
David Miliband argues that a climate of Impunity is sweeping the world. This impunity is not just in political life.
When three of us wrote an article in Friends Quarterly, one section of the article specifically cited the post office scandal as epitomising this – ordinary people’s lives shattered, decent honest people going to jail, and no-one, no-one, accepting responsibility. Ditto Grenfell. Ditto 2008 banking crisis. And what about fast track PPE contracts? Or continuing party donations from Russian oligarchs?
No matter when or where this process originated, it is the acute scale and frequency of examples, promulgated and exaggerated by social media, which makes some of us feel as if we are swimming in sea of filth.( And if you think that is a metaphor, you might follow The Times’ campaign on clean waterways.)
Such widespread lack of integrity undermines trust. Lack of trust frays the social fabric which knits us together, breeds fear and resentment, and prepares the way for strong leaders. In other words, it threatens liberal democracy.
And while QTIG is not party political, we are unashamedly political in possessing a strong commitment to those structures which enhance and enable liberal democracy to flourish.
- Because equality is a strand in our Quaker DNA, and only a fully working democracy promises one person one vote and equality before the law.
- Because as Quakers we hold that every single person carries the sacred within them, and it is liberal democracy which undertakes to value each individual, and respect their personhood.
Is it our task alone? We do not think so, and wish to explore with others of faith and non-faith our common interest. But do Quakers have a special responsibility in this area?
In 2016 a letter to the Friend set a challenge:
Speaking of a post-truth society, it said Friends have always placed a high value on truth and fairness. Is it time for Quakers to take an active, public stance on this issue?
The QTIG response to this searching question is a resounding yes. With Quakerism’s deep, historic ties to Truth we feel we have a responsibility to challenge the post-truth manifestations of our age. Just like our Quaker forebears, we live in the world, but are not of the world.
We at QTIG would also suggest that as Quakers we have the additional responsibility to move the discussion to ‘kinder ground’, to use that wonderful phrase from Thomas Penny’s 2021 Swarthmore Lecture.
In accepting the challenge posed by that letter, what challenges do we face in our work?
We have a number:
- Learning to build a boat, whilst trying to sail it: we are developing an organisation whilst trying to work effectively
- The pool of iniquity is large; we are a small pebble: currently, we are insignificant
- Humpty has been broken, he will not be put back together easily. The task is long term: We prepare for work after our generation, and lay foundations for others to build on
- Increasing the scope and reach of our work: currently a few dedicated Friends undertake most of the tasks – we need to involve more people, and diffuse what can be done to a local and regional level.
Fundamentally, I suspect our greatest challenge was set by Jessica Metheringham, in her excellent introduction to this session.
‘The political world includes people who spread outright lies and misinformation, and who thrive on the chaos they create. There is a difference between those with whom we disagree honestly, and those who act in bad faith.’
Two thousand years ago, a great spiritual teacher said to his followers:
“I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.”
As Quakers, a people of faith, I believe we have a special responsibility to develop our wisdom and continue engaging with politics, unafraid of power.
Why? Because it’s how the world can be made a better place.
Let’s contrast the picture Emily Maitless described, with the words of the Irish journalist Fintan O Toole, writing about the landmark, remarkable Good Friday agreement, which brought peace to a troubled land :
It showed that politics can work…”
he said, consciously choosing, as it did,
“generosity, compromise and reconciliation.”
Just imagine what it would look like to have “generosity, compromise and reconciliation” at the heart of this great experiment in governance called British democracy. How much more healthy - in every sense of the word - would we all be? ‘True Justice’, to quote the title of Adam Curle ‘s inspiring 1981 Swarthmore Lecture. As that spiritual teacher of long ago told us: wise people build their houses on rock. The firm foundation underpinning all is truth and integrity.
We say on our website:
Where truth and integrity flourish, so too can personal relationships. Where truth and integrity stand firm, so too can our democracy and our precious traditions. Unless truth and integrity are universally acknowledged and practised, at a fundamental level, international relations cannot fully and completely address the crises that threaten our very existence.’
At QTIG, in our small way, we try to recognise and increase the stock of truth and integrity in the world.
And how we attempt to do that, Jan will explain when he is ready.
What (Jan Arriens)
We are small body with an enormous task before us. Our concern is to do what we can to help bring truth and integrity back to centre stage in the public discourse. Values matter – values shape our society. As Will Hutton has written recently in a newspaper article, “the United States is a grim warning of what happens when a society dispenses with the idea of truth. Fragmentation, paranoia, division and myth rule – democracy wilts.”
So – what one can we do to advance truth and integrity? We are doing so on two fronts, visible and invisible.
On the visible front, we have our website – quakertruth.org. That is, of course, primarily a resource for Quakers themselves; others are only likely to find their way to it if they are aware of our existence and what we are doing.
One of the main initiatives we have taken in this regard is the Quaker Truth & Integrity Award. The Award is an annual one, and there is no financial element to it. It is somewhat controversial, as we don’t generally go in for promoting competition or ranking people and organisations, and we are aware that some Friends feel uncomfortable with the idea. We do, however, have an established example of such practice, in so far as Quakers each year announce a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. We do so as a previous recipient of the prize, in 1947. That allows us under the terms of the Prize to submit a nomination. Even though the Nobel Peace Prize committee discourages the disclosure of nominations, the American Friends Service Committee together with a representative from Britain Yearly Meeting have developed a tradition of doing so and carved out a special place for the nomination in the US, where it is highly prized.
Similarly with this Award, we are seeking to commend a person who or body which has made an exceptional contribution towards the enhancement of truth and integrity in public life in Britain. It is made in the spirit of seeking kinder ground, as a model, or example, for us all to follow, and we are hoping that as time goes by it will also become a highly prized and respected award in this country. Very much as a secondary consideration, it could also form a valuable source of outreach by keeping Quakers in the public eye.
We expect to announce the recipient of the prize shortly, together with the date and venue of the award ceremony.
A second, visible strand of our work consists of webinars, podcasts and the possibility of organising an all-faith conference based around truth and integrity in public life. The field of webinars is, of course a crowded one, and we are giving much thought as to how this could be best organised – in which regard we would welcome any ideas and offers of assistance. What we have in mind is providing a platform for well-informed academics, politicians, journalists and other social commentators. Initially this would probably be just for a Quaker audience but we would also hope to broaden the programme out more widely.
On the less visible front, the most important thing we are doing at present is a programme of writing letters to individuals commending exceptional instances of good practice. Since praise rather than criticism tends to be much rarer, especially in the case of public figures, such communications can be greatly appreciated, as we have already found. At the moment we are concentrating on fairly prominent public individuals, across the political spectrum, but there is also every scope to broaden this out at more local level, which Martina will be looking at in the final part of this session. An example of such an exchange of correspondence, in this case with John Nicholson MP, may be found on the website (under More Pages/Responses).
At the moment, our letter-writing team is tiny and we would greatly welcome volunteers to help identify people we could write to and to help writing the actual letters.
In addition we are reaching out to other bodies in this field, especially faith organisations, letting them know of our existence and sounding them out about the idea of an all faith conference. In this regard and in other areas as well we are working closely together with Friends House staff.
We also reach out to home nations and regions, providing speakers to Quaker gatherings such as Area Meetings, and occasionally also speak to other bodies such as other faith groups and organisations, while also cooperating closely with Friends House staff.
We are also filling the need for educative pages on our website about the nature of our democracy and how it might be influenced. Again, Martina will be looking at how we are preparing a package of activities to be placed on the website for local and area meetings to implement in their local area.
This work stream requires a sound administrative base, and we are taking particular care to “build the QTIG boat”. Apart from the website this involves establishing our organisation on a firm Quaker basis. That can take a surprising amount of work but we do not wish to launch a leaky and unstable craft; instead we need one that will be able to sail to unknown destinations for decades to come.
Finally, let me stress that the work is currently being undertaken by a small team, so that our resources are limited. We are delighted that truth and integrity is on the agenda for Yearly Meeting and that the staff at Friends House are focusing so clearly on this issue. Some 20 years ago, we had the Truth and Integrity in Public Affairs programme (TIPA), when much of the work was done by BYM staff. Now, the focus is very much on getting Friends themselves to carry the work. This means that what we are able to achieve will, ultimately, depend on the enthusiasm we are able to generate among Friends. We need your ideas and active support. Please note that we will be having a plenary QTIG meeting at 7 PM on Tuesday, by zoom, when we will discuss our work: do join us if you can, if necessary joining QTIG beforehand on the website so that you are sent the link.
We hope that in the breakout rooms we will be able to look at not just the current programme of work but what other initiatives you feel we might be undertaking and especially how Friends could contribute.
How? (Martina Weitsch)
We have all heard, many times, that we should write to our MP to voice our concerns and to let them know what we think. Quakers are no less (and possibly more) likely than the general public to be doing this already.
So I’m not here to teach grandmothers and grandfathers to suck eggs.
But those of us who do this, who engage in this way, may be forgiven for being frustrated with this process. It doesn’t seem to get us anywhere.
What we want to consider here is how we use that engagement to build a relationship; a relationship that leaves less wriggle room for the decision-makers to brush us off with a standard response that doesn’t require them to think hard about where they stand and what the truth looks like for them. But it is also a relationship that leaves less wriggle room for us to brush off these interactions as clicktivism that we feel we have to do but don’t really believe in as bringing about change.
Now let me start by saying that I am as prone to clicktivism as the next person. I have signed countless petitions that come across my inbox; I have sent countless letters to MPs and Councillors in my time. I have had MPs of every colour and shade (except a Green MP) and they have been more or less open to hearing what I have to say.
And all that is worthwhile in a way.
What I am driving at here is stepping this up a bit and doing so as local and area meetings rather than as individuals.
There are a number of advantages in doing this:
· If you do this as a group you can have conversations within the group that may lead to better communication based on better information
· If you do this as a group the decision-makers are more likely to take notice
· If you do this as a Quaker group, in the UK, most decision-makers will have a generally positive view of Quakers and respect us for our history as a peace church; it is harder to dismiss us
· If we do this as a group we have a broader reach geographically. As an individual, you have one MP; you have a small number of Councillors in your ward; as a local or area meeting you span more than one ward and more than one constituency.
So, there are three things that I think are important to consider when deciding to embark on this as a group:
· Who are the decision-makers we want to focus on (and why)?
o This could be one or several local MPs; you will need to think about whether they are on the front bench/the shadow front bench or in significant committee roles; engagement with them will be affected by that
o This could be members of the House of Lords with an association with your area
o This could be local councillors or a whole local council
o This could be your local Police and Crime Commissioner
o This could be your local elected Mayor and their team
o This could also be a local business that is particularly controversial, engaged in a business activity you want to questions and known not to be truthful about what they do and say.
The next question your group would have to consider is the initial issue you want to raise with the person you are focusing on. This is critical.
You need to consider this from the point of view as a conversion opener; it has to be a topic you care about; it has to be a topic they care about or should care about; it has to be a topic where you see some form of common/kinder ground, where your views/your approach feed into their interests.
I will give some examples from my own constituency and my own wider area:
My MP is Conservative, in a relatively safe seat, with a background in agriculture; he is a backbencher who generally toes the line. But at the point when the Sue Grey report into Partygate came out, he called for Johnson to resign because of the ongoing lying around this issue. So there is a chink of integrity.
But the issue I have most commonly written to him about is the UK’s stance on Israel/Palestine and I get fairly anodyne responses. Here might be an opportunity to get into a deeper conversation. A conversation that is also about the integrity of the stance of the UK government which says all the right things (quite often) but doesn’t follow it through with actions. Imports of Settlement Goods and cooperation in security research and arms development are the areas where this might be worth discussing. So if that is what the local/area meeting wanted to do a plan could be developed to open that discussion.
Another example from my area is the Drax Power Plant. Here, the conversation could be with the local MP(s) and with the company itself. There is some evidence that the way they source their biomass for burning is not in line with what they say and is damaging ancient forests. They deny that; but there is a BBC documentary which is pretty clear on the subject. Because this power plant covers a wide area (in terms of the area they provide energy to) this might be something for both the Area Meeting and/or a group of Area Meetings or even Quakers in Yorkshire. The more groups are involved the harder it is to do the coordination. But the better informed the group can be because more people can do the necessary research.
The final example is looking at members of the House of Lords that have an association with your area.
Here, it may also be useful to look at the policy issues they are interested in.
Of course, some members of the House of Lords are former MPs and they will continue to take an interest in their old constituencies, especially if they have taken a name that reflects this, for example Lord Willis of Knaresborough (who represented Harrogate and Knaresborough in the Commons before being elevated to the House of Lords), a constituency firmly in my area meeting. They could be bishops (such as the Archbishop of York, for example).
Or, as another example, Lord Wallace of Saltaire (in Yorkshire but outside the area of my Area Meeting) who lists Yorkshire as an area of interest.
In short, finding the right focus person/s is going to be a lot of hard work unless you have some connection already. But even though we may have grave reservations about the institution of the House of Lords, engaging with decision-makers there whilst they are there can be very useful. As much as it pains me to say this, in recent years the HoL has been the last defence of democracy in this country against a government that lacks integrity to an extent that is probably unprecedented. So whilst we have the HoL, let’s use its clout.