NJPN Open Meeting: ‘A Better Kind of politics’

Members of NJPN received a warm welcome at CAFOD to consider aspects of truth and integrity in the public arena. How do we achieve a kinder form of political engagement, one truly at the service of the ‘common good’

The network heard from two speakers from the Quaker Truth & Integrity Group (www.quakertruth.org).

Peter Hussey commenced his remarks by referring to Pope Francis’ call for a better kind of politics – “one truly at the service of the common good”. But is this a description that we would recognise of our current politics – do equality, fairness and the wellbeing of our neighbours feature in the interactions we see in our parliament, on our television screens, or in our news or social media? Or, instead, do we hear people who have stopped engaging and say: “There’s no point – they’re all the same”. Democracy can only really exist when political leaders are honest and practise integrity. ‘Spin’ can be just a variation of emphasis, but it becomes unacceptable when it is a lie. After 13 years in government, accusations of dishonesty and failings of integrity are bound to be directed primarily at the party in power but reminding ourselves of claims about the existence of “weapons of mass destruction” suggests that power, not political opinion, is the main enemy of truth. In light of these problems, the Quaker Truth and Integrity Group wants to work along with other groups to
highlight injustice or failures in standards.

Parliament itself has set out seven principles of public life (selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership, see https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-7-principles-of-public-life) and government needs to be measured against these principles. Whilst it is true that some may enter politics to line their own nests, but many more, possibly the majority, want to improve the lives of the communities they represent. They are people who try to operate with honesty & integrity. QTIG are committed to finding such people and supporting them as much as possible
by giving them positive reinforcement. QTIG seeks the “Kinder Ground” to offer to politicians, writers, and administrators, away from the chill winds of recrimination and accusations – wanting to encourage those who stand for truth and integrity rather than, primarily, looking for fault.

Citing the example of the Brexit Bus with its promise of an additional £350m a week to spend on the NHS, Peter said that Boris Johnson might have to carry some of the blame for many of the lies and misconceptions around the Brexit referendum, but he was only effective thanks to an army of other opinion formers. And this is part of the established pattern of misleading statements from our political leaders, whether it be “There is no alternative” to austerity,
or the existence of “weapons of mass destruction”. We see similar problems now in the discussion of climate change, or budgeting for capital projects. Our politicians and the media of the day provide a revolving door for a tiny group of people who manage information and opinion. Many work in parliament, but many others work in lobbying firms, think tanks and the media. The internet offers great benefits (fact checking etc) but also allows for lies, conspiracy
theories and group thinking.

A politics “truly at the service of the common good” is a precious thing that will take patience and kindness, as well as truth and integrity. It may require moving away from tribalism and the politics of conflict. It may require a movement of people acting in faith and with love, it may need us to move away from difference and towards unity.

Jan Arriens built on this introduction by explaining what the Quaker Truth and Integrity Group are practically doing to promote a better kind of politics. They in particular want to shine a light on the good and bring back truth and integrity to centre stage. In this endeavour, they have developed a Declaration https://quakertruth.org/declaration/ that they hope people will send to their own MP. They urge people to write to their MPs, other elected representatives, and others in public life, commending them whenever they act with integrity. QTIG wants to promote a more participative democracy and constitutional reform that will allow for MPs to be more responsive to the needs of their constituents
rather than other vested interests. They also want to promote higher standards of truth telling in the media. To these ends, they have also introduced an Award for an individual who makes a marked impact with their standard of honesty & integrity. Do people have possible nominees to suggest? (see https://quakertruth.org/truth-award/)

The Quaker Truth and Integrity Group want in particular to work with other faith groups, and beyond,to promote better standards in public life – both promoting greater awareness of, and building up more respect for, the Nolan Principles.

In the discussion that followed, there were exchanges on the adversarial parliamentary system (even the architecture of the House of Commons that does not encourage bi-partisanship); the first-past-the-post electoral system; the whipping system – all of which contribute in different ways to the polarised positions taken by our politicians.

Several examples were given of other groups that might be interested in supporting QTIG’s Declaration, learning about the Award, making combined statements, and developing common programmes of work – for example the Catholic Union of Great Britain, Christians in Politics, More in Common, Hope not Hate, Together for the Common Good etc. CAFOD (and other such groups) also have ‘Parliamentary Correspondents’ etc. who could be alerted to the Nolan Principles and the work of QTIG in the course of their campaign efforts.

In smaller group discussions, some of these issues were brought further forward since everyone seemed to agree with the initial question – they were all very worried about the standards of honesty and integrity in public life. Participants discussed issues such as: the importance of challenging untruths; the need to get the facts out and explain underlying problems (e.g. to counter misinformation about migrants and refugees); an awareness that the promotion of justice (more than charity) requires advocacy and ‘good’ politics; the importance of education (in schools, and indeed in seminaries) about the values we require of public service; is it enough for the MP to be sincere or how do we ensure that they have accurate information for policy making; the need to discuss issues rather than labels and reality; the value of faith groups using their
voting power to assert good values; the importance of the (Catholic) hierarchy thinking more strategically and ‘outside of the box’ in promoting greater truth and integrity in our politics; the need to recognise that integrity in public life requires change (and formation) not only in our elected representatives but also in the electorate; the value of hope and looking for it in ourselves and others; the need to promote that human values and human dignity should be at the heart of any faith initiative, thus avoiding misguided claims of “being too political”; the need to work on an ecumenical basis to promote some of these principles more effectively.

There was general agreement to a statement to be proposed to the Network executive proposing continued cooperation between the NJPN and QTIG.