The institutions which society once regarded as generally trustworthy are crumbling. Serious wrongdoing, greed and self-interest has been exposed among MPs, the press and the banks. Relationships between politicians, the press and the police have come under close scrutiny and more than thirty arrests have been made as a result of the Operation Elvedon inquiry into the bribery of police and public officials.
The crisis of trust that we are experiencing is the sour fruit of the collapse of the post-war consensus, which underpinned a more collective and mutually responsible society. The ethos of the 1980s, with its fixed belief that market forces – in other words, money – must always dominate all other considerations, accelerated the process. The common good was for sale and there were many eager to snap it up at a bargain basement price.
Collapsing confidence in what were once the pillars of our common life now presents us with a clear choice. We can either sink into an apathetic cynicism, which refuses to believe that good governance is still possible and as a consequence adopts many of the behaviours it condemns, or we can stand firm and sound deep to that within which recognises and longs for something better.
There was an illuminating moment during the Treasury Select Committee’s questioning of Barclay’s chief executive, Bob Diamond, last week. Although the proceedings resembled a light toasting rather than a serious grilling, anger at the bank’s rate-fixing was evident. However, Diamond’s smooth evasion and obfuscation appeared unshakeable until John Mann, the MP for Bassetlaw, asked him: ‘Do you know the founding principles of the original Quaker bank?’ For an instant, panic flashed in Diamond’s eyes, but by the time Mann had named those principles, ‘honesty, integrity and plain dealing’, the well-trained corporate operator had once again composed his features into neutrality – ‘no comment’ made flesh.
It was a powerful moment and, as a journalist and commentator, I have heard its unmistakable echo in my inbox and Twitter feed over the last few days. Something is stirring that goes well beyond the immediate reactive anger to MPs expenses, to press and police malpractice and to the stunning level of ruinous greed displayed by bankers. People are acknowledging and seeking for those qualities of integrity, which momentarily disconcerted Bob Diamond. They are, as yet, perhaps uncertain where to look for inspiration and guidance, but there is, beyond doubt, a hunger for a better way.
The tide is rising and the opportunity is there for the Religious Society of Friends to take it at the full. A considered public statement on honesty, integrity and plain dealing in our national institutions would be well received. Handled with sensitivity, it could prove to be the means of enabling and focusing a national conversation which power would find difficult to ignore.
The challenge that George Fox flung down in Ulverston Parish Church rings across three and a half centuries: "What canst thou say?"
This article first appeared inThe Friend (www.thefriend.org ) on 12 July 2012 and is reproduced with acknowledement.
© 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: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger  You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen