Questioning Cameron: a Quaker method

By Jill Segger
December 19, 2011

If power is ever to change its mind or examine its thinking, it needs to be taken out of its comfort zone.

A couple of years ago, the Quaker Meeting of which I am a member, invited the local MP to an evening of dialogue on Trident. This MP - a Conservative - is probably towards the left of his party and has been sufficiently supportive to be described as “a friend of the Meeting House”. This is to his credit as he knows he is vanishingly unlikely to gain any electoral advantage from this stance. Quakers are not among nature's Tories.

His general demeanour on entering the Meeting was that of the realistic man of the world who expected to dominate the debate. The body language said that these well-meaning but naïve people would present him with little difficulty. A master of the universe had arrived.

But what followed was evidently not what he had foreseen. Not just because we were rather better informed than he appeared to have expected, but because of the manner in which the dialogue was conducted.

Politicians thrive on adversarialism. The Paxman treatment raises their adrenaline levels and presents them with every possible opportunity to exercise those tricks of their trade which have been honed over years of dodging issues and creating advantageous sound-bites. Answering a different question from the one asked, swamping discussion with reams of statistics, refusing to acknowledge error and generally arguing that water may flow uphill are the politician's stock in trade - responses automatically generated by the stimuli they are accustomed to receiving.

But Quakers do not operate in this manner. Our MP was heard with courtesy. He was not interrupted and each time he cut across a speaker, he would be permitted to finish before his interlocutor returned calmly to the point. Periods of silence punctuated the exchanges - standard practice with Friends but obviously unsettling to a politician.

This is not to suggest that he was given an easy ride. The questions and challenges posed to his views were searching and his initial assured nonchalance gradually gave way to obvious unease as he was required to address ethical issues without the help of the confrontational reflexes to which he was accustomed.

We did not alter his public stance on Trident, but he had the grace and honesty to acknowledge that we had “given him a real moral work-out.” That is an attitude carrying potential for change.

David Cameron's 'Christian values' speech has attracted a good deal of criticism and no little derision. There are a good many grounds on which to take issue with what the Prime Minister had to say to the Anglican clerics gathered in Oxford last Friday (16 December) to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.

The language of 'Christian Country' and 'moral collapse' carries a good deal of worrying baggage which need to be unpacked and subjected to critical analysis. Challenges should be made as to the nature of the 'Bible values and morals' which Cameron claimed in support of his thesis. They do not appear to be those of social justice and care for the poor.

I should like to see this analysis and challenge undertaken by the Society of Friends. If an invitation were to be issued to the Prime Minister to engage in such dialogue with an appropriate Quaker group, he would be unable to fall back on the stereotyped responses given to the 'usual suspects'. Like the MP whose engagement with Quakers I have described, he would be deprived of the polemical atmosphere which provokes sparring rather than understanding.

Shallow, opportunist and unexamined thinking should be offered the opportunity of improvement. I believe that the Society of Friends is particularly well placed to offer such an opportunity to the “committed, but vaguely practising Christian” who leads our government.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: You can follow Jill on Twitter at:

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