One Saturday afternoon, I was attending a talk, given by Alan Pinch and Enid Pinch on inequality in the UK and the wider world at Mount Street Quaker Meeting House in Manchester. During the lifetimes of people in the room, there were those, who had witnessed the campaign for the 1944 Welfare Reforms, supported the Miners’ strike, noted the Northwest’s regional dependency on manufacturing armaments and sought answers to local to global effects of climate change. Attending were interested individuals as well as members of Green and Labour parties. Nobody disclosed they were a good Tory and not all present were Quakers.
It reminded me of meetings I attended in my teens to talk about political ideas. Sadly, the world has gone backwards since then, though not everything was great in the 1970s. While hearing that 1.6 billion people have been lifted out of poverty is good news, millions of people in the UK today are heading back into it, including children. An awful lot of them are in work, struggling already or looking carefully at inflation and interest rates.
Universal Credit could be a good thing, if its current implementation plan could be amended. 50,000 people have died from pollution in UK too. An unequal society is a better society? I just wanted to hear how that sounded. It sounds like what it is, nonsense; a more equal society is a better one. So, how do we go about achieving it?
Small groups like us, talking and listening, leading to action, like campaigning groups, local food growing and cooking groups, Save Our Bank groups are part of the answer. Some suggested introducing the Citizens’ Wage to end poverty, wherein everybody receives a basic income to live on. There are pilots under way in Glasgow and Iceland. Others thought its implementation would be too problematic. Better to keep a range of benefits.
If some 60% of the electorate is not represented by the party they voted for in government, then do we need to build a progressive alliance to bring back more ‘socialist’ policies in power? Does that mean electoral reform and, if so, of what type? Or can Labour win a majority on its own, even after revised constituency boundary changes?
Sometimes, judging by the headlines, it feels like little positive change is taking place. Small groups, like ours, meeting on a stormy Saturday afternoon, talking about what matters to us, contribute to the good in the world. One day, we might just reach the tipping point, needed to make UK a more equal society, politically and economically. And, as our chair, Jonathan Dale reminded us, this would be fulfilling our testimony to equality.
As we got ready to go out into the dark night, we were presented with a challenge! What if friends created their own local Quaker Socialist groups in their meetings? The following day, I spoke about this in the notices after meeting. One friend unexpectedly came up to me afterwards to say he was interested. ‘Good’, I said. ‘I’ll send an email round the googlemail group to see who else is interested.’ It’s a contribution, friends!
So, you may well ask, what does a small Quaker Socialist group look like, and how does it differ from any other Socialist group? Well, that’s a good question. We haven’t got one yet but let me think… Each would have its own character, I suppose, depending on those involved but, probably, it attracts mainly older, white, middle class people, employed in or retired from public service. That’s not like Socialist groups these days, then? The manager of our local meeting tells me that attendance at local Labour Party events when they hire a room is heaving, particularly with young people.
I think a Quaker Socialist group would attract young friends to it, where we have them. Some would find themselves leading it in many cases. The group meets face-to-face at the meeting house or in people’s homes, as often as agreed, with food to talk and learn, a film to watch or text to discuss, perhaps a speaker. It also uses technology like Skype or Zoom to get together online, widening the circle, to discern what actions to take or groups to connect with and which campaigns to take part in or support.
But there’s hardly anything Quaker particularly in this, you might say. Well, no, I’m coming to that. I was once listening to an elderly Quaker friend, who had been active in local politics. He told me that, when faced by opposition, the thing to do was to crush it. And if they got up again, crush them still harder! Perhaps, this is the reality for many politicians today. But does it have to be this way..?
I’m reading George Lakey’s ‘Viking Economics’ at the moment. It’s an enlightening read. In the Nordic states in the 1940s and ‘50s, a consensus of people of all social classes decided they wanted to end poverty and worked out how to do it. They supported radical and progressive organisations (trade unions and political parties), able to take them there. This approach met with strong resistance from employers and banks, sometimes using the police and the military to break strikes, till they too realised everyone benefited from having a high wage economy. Rather than paying for individuals to be idle, the opposite seems to be the case. The basic income, in fact, stimulates the individual’s desire to work creatively and constructively, earning more and paying taxes. Everybody gets on with living now that they don’t have to worry about childcare, housing, education, health care, even eldercare costs, which are subsidised either in your own home or in a care home. The necessities of life are affordable and not a worry. So, people pay higher taxes at a level necessary to make this work and everyone buys into it because everyone benefits from lifelong ‘universal services’. So-called Popular, right-wing, anti-immigration parties support the safety net, even proposing measures to strengthen it, placing them well to the left of the Democratic Party in the US.
We Quakers have a discernment process, which we believe is spirit-led. Together with our core belief that there is ‘that of God in everyone’, it’s hard for us to think about crushing anyone, though we might wish for it at times. We’re only human, after all. Rather, we do what we can, individually and together, for the good of all in our society, advocates for equality and supporting good causes and campaigns, rebuilding belief in social capital, like that, which existed widely in Britain from the late 1940s to ‘60s. It started to unravel in the 1970s.
Such an approach also means accompanying ‘the good Tory’. They may even be leading the way, though, regrettably, I personally don’t know anyone, where I live, who is a Conservative. Maybe, a Quaker Socialist group could meet with members of the local Conservative Association to explore common ground..? I’ve no doubt Tories care deeply about this country and its people too. The idea that the richer people become, the more this wealth ‘trickles down’ to all of us somehow still holds on to the nation’s psyche. Does anyone still believe this, when millions of people in the UK are wondering whether they will have to make a choice between mortgage or rent rises and food or clothing for themselves and their kids?
In 1918, London Yearly Meeting approved eight “Foundations of a True Social Order”, which warrant revisiting today. Number 8 reads, ‘The ownership of material things, such as land and capital, should be so regulated as best to minister to the need and development of man.’ (Quaker Faith and Practice: 23.16). And American Quaker and author, Douglas Gwynne, reminds us that when George Fox published his “Fifty-Nine Particulars” in 1659, ‘for the economic empowerment of the poor, Fox advocated that church lands be parcelled out to the poor for farming. Manor houses, church buildings, and even Whitehall (the government’s administrative headquarters in London) should be converted into almshouses for the disabled. Fines should go to poor relief, not to the lords of manors. All forms of patronage should be outlawed.’ (Douglas Gwynne, A Sustainable Life, Chapter 4, p.62)
It was Joseph Chamberlain, the nineteenth century Liberal Mayor of Birmingham, later a Liberal-Unionist, and not ‘the good Tory’, who pushed for and achieved great social improvements, leading to the city being called the ‘best governed in the world’ (1). It gained greater powers for local authority control, which addressed public health issues, housing, education as well as supporting wealth creation. This voice is still there within the moderate elements of the Tory Party. Occasionally, you hear a few of their voices, when discussing the roll-out of Universal Credit, for example.
I know Quakers as a body, The Religious Society of Friends, do not outwardly support one political party over another. Individuals can and do align with all political persuasions and none. Our disparate views are often reflected in the letters pages of The Friend. Yet, just as we meet together to discern our ways forward in our business meetings, encountering diverse, even awkward views before our clerks reach for a minute to describe the ‘sense of the meeting’, then so can Quakers work with others of all political persuasions to bring about the peaceable kingdom on earth…or at least in the UK. They fought for it and achieved it in the Nordic countries. Why can’t we? And how long does it take..?
From all this , you might think I ‘m a socialist. Well, I probably feel a
socialist. I feel all Quakers should be socialists…however, I don’t like
labels, which is why I’m a Quaker and prefer to hold issues in
the Light and see where the ‘still small voice’ guides me, us. I appreciate my
views are not underpinned by any philosophical thinking and I prefer it
that way. I can draw on new light, listening to all views without
prejudging, even to that ‘good Tory’, who just might hold a vital piece of
Wikipedia, Mayors of Birmingham, Julian Ralph, (June 1890), in Harper’s New Monthly magazine, pp99-110