In a conversation with some Friends I became aware of a tension which seemed familiar. I thought about it as the difference between representation and function. There was a fear of things becoming ‘top down’. A worry that those making decisions were not hearing the views of the people on the ground. I thought this came from a view that everyone needed to be involved in decision-making, that it was important that everyone was represented. The contrasting view is that those who carry responsibility and have knowledge should be the ones to make decisions – the ‘experts’.
Quakers hold strongly to the notion of equality of all. They practice a flat structure. They are suspicious of hierarchies. In their decision-making there are no votes; one voice may express the mind of the Meeting, though any decision has to be approved by those gathered together.
However, now that Quakers are charities, Trustees have legal responsibilities as well as being accountable to their members. Liability for safeguarding, protecting the resources both financial and property, and health and safety matters all fall to the Trustees. They have to be informed of the risks and take advice whenever necessary when they make decisions.
During lockdown I think this tension has become more pronounced. And as we approach the next phases of the Coronavirus pandemic the possibilities for friction are likely to increase.
The same issues I can see in the politics of the nations that make up these islands. What is the role of the scientific experts (who are not always of the same mind) and the politicians who make policy decisions, and the population who may or may not follow government advice? Should there be a government of national unity? Should the same policies and practices be followed in all four nations? Are politicians listening to the voices of the people or pursuing their own ideological manifesto?
One problem of asking the people to decide was clearly revealed in the referendum about our relationship with the European Community. When there are only two options, the danger is that there will be an almost equal split. If there are more options then the splits may become even more difficult to resolve. On the other hand following ‘expert’ advice does not have an unblemished record either. I have just been reading that we have successfully phased out fluorocarbons that were used in our fridges but the chemicals that replaced them are of the very long lasting kind that will be around for hundreds of years, like the plastic that has now penetrated every part of our planet. Sometimes the experts do not know what is best. And their sense of confidence in their technological solutions and their allegiance with those in power might blind them to the needs of the poorest and marginalised sections of the world population.
As a Trustee, and a Friend in a Local Meeting and a citizen of this country I occupy different places within these tensions. I have to remember that though I may know more, I do not know everything. And I need to hear what is being said by those who think and believe differently from myself. As a Friend and citizen I must also recognise that sometimes there are no clearly ‘right’ choices, and those who have to make decisions may well be trying to do their best.
Listening and vigilance are good qualities to nurture in these situations. Experts need to hear the voices of the people whilst offering their insights, and the people need to be trusting but also vigilant!