I’m a Quaker and this is why I find it very hard to vote at all

Vote None of the AboveThis is the sixth and last is the ‘This is why I vote’ series where writers are asked to discuss the reasons for their own political opinions and how they tie with their own faith. As it has progressed, I’ve had several people ask me if there would be a post giving the views of someone who currently does not vote. Frank Cranmer who co-authors the incredibly informative Law & Religion UK blog has kindly offered to give his perspective on this. Frank, as the headline points out, is a Quaker who was previously an Anglican. He is parliamentary and synod editor of the Ecclesiastical Law Journal. He is also the Secretary of the Churches’ Legislation Advisory Service, the primary purpose of which is to keep the Churches informed of what is going on in the secular policy sphere and to let Government know the Churches’ views on legislation and policy proposals that might affect them. You can also follow Frank and Law & Religion UK on Twitter.

The first five articles in this series are I’m a Christian and this is why I vote Conservative, …why I vote Labour, …Why I vote Green, …Why I vote UKIP and …Why I vote Liberal Democrat. The purpose of sharing these viewpoints is to encourage an open conversation on how faith may be tied to differing political streams of thought. It builds on the findings of the recent Theos report that has analysed voting patterns of Christians, revealing some clear political divisions between some Christian groups.

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I suppose that because I spent most of my adult life working as a clerk in the House of Commons I developed a somewhat warped view of politics and politicians. A very long time ago I was at an election-night party at which about half the guests were colleagues and the other half were members of the local Labour Party. As the results came in, the House of Commons contingent cheered and booed the successful candidates seemingly at random. In the end, the Labour activists asked us what the hell we were playing at – to which we replied that we had to work with these jokers and we didn’t have much time for pompous, boring party hacks of whatever political allegiance. But, for me, the issue goes much deeper than that.

I should say at the outset that wild horses wouldn’t drag me to vote for the BNP or UKIP and that by instinct and upbringing my default position is left-of-centre. That said, however, I found it impossible to vote for a Labour Party that took us to war in Iraq and Afghanistan and was so deferential to Clinton and George W – both of whom, in my view, are people whom you must love in the Lord because it’s the only way you can. But possibly the lowest point for me was when Charles Clarke (Home Secretary from December 2004 to 5 May 2006: remember him?) not only gave us the Identity Cards Act 2006 – thankfully repealed – but brought forward a proposal to allow the police to hold terror suspects without charge for up to 90 days without any mechanism for judicial review. In the end, the plan was ditched, not least because of opposition from a significant number of Labour backbenchers. But it left a very nasty taste indeed.

As for the Conservatives, although (with Margaret Thatcher, I’m afraid) I firmly believe that the free market is the least-inefficient method of allocating resources, in my view its concomitant has to be proper State provision for the poor – of which there is an alarmingly-high number in the UK. Some elements in the Conservative Party seem to think that those who are unemployed should simply pull themselves together and find a job: tell that to folk living in places like the parts of Birmingham where the unemployment level is between 8 and 10 per cent. And I was utterly unconvinced by the Chancellor’s arguments for reducing the top rate of income tax from 50 per cent to 45 per cent. But my principal reason for avoiding the Conservatives is their attitude to human rights in general and to the European Convention on Human Rights in particular. We need a robust and justiciable regime of human rights to protect us against arbitrary and capricious decisions by public authorities and, incidentally, we need an equally robust and accessible mechanism of judicial review of their actions – neither of which seems to be within the comprehension of Lord Chancellor Grayling. And how can we lecture corrupt regimes about their behaviour and promote good governance within the Commonwealth unless we are absolutely squeaky-clean ourselves?

And then there are the Liberal Democrats. At least they have realistic views on the EU and what I regard as a proper regard for human rights: unfortunately, however, they have been compromised by their participation in the coalition with the Conservatives. And I don’t share their enthusiasm for yet more constitutional reform: not because I think that the UK constitution is perfect beyond compare but simply because there are far more important things to worry about. And Lib Dem proposals for reform usually mean electoral changes that would benefit the Lib Dems – which makes one somewhat doubtful about their motives.

If this has any kind of religious angle – apart from the obvious one of the Peace Testimony – it is this. I left the Church of England and became a Quaker precisely in order to get away from “doctrine”: I was no longer able to recite the Nicene Creed without my fingers crossed behind my back so it was time to leave. If I can’t sign up to a doctrinal check-list in matters of religion then, equally, there’s no chance of me signing up to someone’s predetermined political programme. Each of the main political parties has positions with which I agree: each has political positions from which I would run a mile.

As to politicians in general, I hope that the present lot have learned the lessons of the last Parliament. But the expenses scandal gave my belief in the system under which I had worked for 36 years a very severe shaking – from which I have not quite recovered. It wasn’t just the worst offenders who ended up in jail that bothered me; it was the run-of-the-mill MPs who evidently thought that expenses were simply a convenient add-on to their salaries. If I had behaved like that I would certainly have been sacked on the spot and probably prosecuted into the bargain.

So what to do? Write “none of the above” on my ballot-paper? Or is that just a cop-out? Possibly vote Green (I’ve done it before)? Possibly hold my nose and vote Labour on the grounds that at least a Labour Government won’t take us out of the EU or try to rewrite the ECHR? We’ll see when the time comes – but, at the moment, the first of these is the most likely option.



Categories: Government, Party politics

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6 replies

  1. Thanks Frank, I empathise completely with your reasoning for not voting.

    I use my God or Mammon scale. Here’s my thumbnail definitions of the parties in order of threat to (my) Christian values:

    Way out in front are Conservative-UKIP -lets face it, two flavours of the same party- because they’re way off the scale in carelessness for human flourishing – which means ecological care. Elitist. Profits first regardless of cost to minions or planet. Heading rapidly toward fascism.

    Lib Dems are somewhere in between the Cons and Labour. Probably will never recover from coalition with the Tories.

    Founded on Christian principles more or less, Labour has sadly been moving down the scale since Blair. Hopefully Milliband can halt the slide, but don’t hold your breath.

    And the Greens – obviously I’m biased – but almost the mirror image of most things Tory and therefore much higher up the scale.

  2. Frank Cranmer says that he left the Church of England to escape “doctrine”. By his own admission that is misleading. He has merely transferred his epistemological loyalties from the domain of theology to that of a particular brand of politics.

    • OK: perhaps I should have said that I left the C of E to escape “precise theological formulations and statements of faith” – hence my reference to the Nicene Creed – though I’d have thought it was pretty obvious from the tone of that paragraph what I was talking about.

  3. A very interesting post. Before trying to persuade you to give the Lib Dems another go, I’d like to ask you about your wavering between compromised parties. It would be simple for you to say ‘I won’t vote because they’re all compromised and I don’t want to be guilty by association with any of them’.

    You haven’t argued that, but it doesn’t seem to me as if you’re happy with the obvious conclusion:that if you are going to participate in the political process at all, you have to do so understanding that you will be associating yourself with people, supporting people and one or more parties, who are not perfect. But I guess life doesn’t have to be simple!

    As for the Lib Dems, just a few points. I joined in 2010 during the general election campaign, and was considering resigning just a few months later. I didn’t because despite the compromises made with Conservatives (and there have been more, and worse, since), I felt that most people I met in the party had joined for the right reasons and were trying their best to do the maximum good in some pretty awful circumstances. Undoubtedly the party is tainted by association with the Tories, but I am not at all convinced that better options existed – either for the party or for the country.

    Although I’m not a Quaker, or in fact a Christian of any denomination, one of the things I appreciate about the party – more and more, the longer I’ve been a member – is it’s Christian, including Quaker roots and influences. I like the history, involving the great 19th Century Quaker industrialists and social reformers, and I like the freedom of debate and diversity of opinions. I’ve never been to a Friends’ meeting, but have many Quaker friends (within and outside the Lib Dems) whose influence I appreciate.

    Final point, on Lib Dem support for electoral reform. The reason we care about it so much is that without it we see it as being so, so difficult for positive social change to come about. We operate in an electoral system that disenfranchises huge swathes of the country, and all but guarantees that anyone wanting power is forced to tailor their policies towards a certain part of the electorate that does not have the concerns of the poorest very high up its list of priorities. Currently of course, Lib Dems’ potential saving grace is the current electoral system. For the first time in ages, we would now take a hammering under a fair and proportional system. We benefit from the grotesque first-past-the-post now. Yet we’re still in favour of abolishing it!

    Thanks again for writing such an interesting post!

  4. Perhaps Frank Cranmer should re-read his own essay. Evidently someone who “cannot sign up to a doctrinal check- list” will have problems with much more than the Nicene Creed. Nevertheless, I reassert my main point: the tenor of the rest of his article manifestly indicates a mindset that is decided on political matters, if not in relation to current party philosophies and alignments then certainly from the point of view of personal understanding. “Doctrine” can take many forms and when one desires to “get away from” religious dogma then almost invariably, dogma will re-emerge in a political and/or psychological guise.And given that the general thrust of this correspondence is the relationship between Christianity and politics,it is not without significance that in an age in which there is a dearth of serious theological reflection,there exists a profusion of political and quasi-political interpretations that in many cases have only a marginal connection with historic Christianity. But then, perhaps the concept of a faith rooted in theology and historical antecedents is no longer part of the “game plan”.

  5. I entirely understand Frank’s position. Having attended a Society of Friends’ School (Ackworth) after a lengthy period in a Methodist Boarding School (where I, too, had grave difficulty with the Nicene Creed) I joined the Society as had my Grandfather and who had served as a willing volunteer in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit during the Great War. I have been a non-attender for a very long time and have always had a problem with the “annexation” of the essentially apolitical nature of Quakerism by Communists and their fellow-travellers.
    “Doctrine” is merely the fixation of belief by others; Friends have no doctrinal obligations, but believe in that which God makes known to them personally. In that regard, one must be true to one’s self. Politics is not, therefore, a template for religion and it recognises that no Political Party has a monopoly on “good” or “bad” policies. All the more so with the Act of Secession in favour of a “Secular” centralised source of both Policy and quasi-Governmental control.

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