Deadlock and reform: the hour is getting late

By Jill Segger
January 21, 2019

A minority government loses a central plank of its legislation in the largest defeat recorded in parliamentary history. The Cabinet and the House is divided, the fissure replicated across country, family and friendship.

The entire process since 23 June 2016 has been mired in dysfunction, procrastination, ignorance and delusion. The Prime Minister has shown herself unequal to charting a way though this desolate landscape. Lacking in imagination and empathy, rigid and without the understanding that an unfolding of changing circumstances and growing knowledge demands an evolution in thinking, she has been reduced to a stubborn absurdity, which this morning (21 January 2019) took us further into stasis as her short lived and evidently meaningless gestures on cross-party consultation, has, in her own words, “yielded little”. It seems that Plan B is simply to be a re-iteration of Plan A. This is a dispiriting catalogue of failure and sclerosis but it is necessary to know the heft of an obstacle when considering how it might be shifted.

Democratic politics are of necessity adversarial. Debate and difference, exercised with integrity, provide the anvil on which principles and policy are hammered out. But when this decays into an aggressive tribalism in which it becomes hard to recognise need and to respect legitimate interests, the need for radical rethinking is obvious.

To explore a better way, we need to press our politicians to exercise humility and openness and to drop the stance of the spoiled child to whom failing to get everything they want is a defeat. An understanding of compromise, with a clear perspective of the common good is difficult for many of them. Let us be honest, it can seem difficult far beyond the green benches. Who among us has not scrabbled for the last word or the killer fact at some time?

If the UK is to be brought back from the brink of economic disaster and social turmoil, the megaphone diplomacy has to stop, as does the all-or-nothing stance taken by many who should be capable of showing greater moral maturity. Real discussion which would enable the exploration of achievable solutions is possible, but a policy which is running down the clock must be rejected if it is to happen.

Theresa May has made of her 'red lines' a cage. She has refused to remove the gun muzzle of 'no deal' from the temples of those she previously claimed to want to consult. This is manipulative and dishonest. It can be challenged.

Among Quakers – who are just as vulnerable to blinkered and self-interested error as anyone else – there are specific tools for dealing with deadlocked and potentially bitter situations. It is worth reflecting briefly on two of these, and while taking into consideration the differences between the Society of Friends and parliamentarians, remembering that we are constituted of the same raw material.

The Quaker 'Threshing Meeting' is not an isolated event but part of a process. It poses questions and enables a respectful hearing of positions in which the participants are invited to speak plainly. Its purpose is not to make a decision but to bring all present to an understanding of the available options.

The 'Meeting for Clearness', although it can stand alone, might be seen as the next stage of the process. Its intent is, within an atmosphere of worship, to aid individuals or groups to discover the truth within rather than to offer advice or guidance. These techniques have been successfully used in progressive organisations outside the Society of Friends and their efficacy depends on participants being grounded in a desire for the common good. It is also important that all who so wish should be heard. In a Quaker setting, this means speaking out of silence – a concept which MPs could do well to think about.

This may seem to be as much a product of wishful thinking as some of the claims fron Brexit's wilder shores. I defend it in the words of George Fox: “this I knew experimentally [through experience]”. I suggest that in the shorter term, the time is ripe for bringing some of these practices into a Citizens' Assembly and taking the longer view,  to use the experience as a foundation for considering reform to an ethos and structure of government which has failed us so badly.

And let the closing words belong to Bob Dylan: “So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

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© Jill Segger is 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. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

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