the friend online
02 October 2009

Integrity in public life

Honesty in business was a mantra for eighteenth and nineteenth century Quakers. It’s not the full story though, says Tony Stoller

Truth and integrity in the conduct of business affairs was one of the keystones of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Quaker reputation. It is received wisdom that the honest way in which Friends did business underlay their commercial success (although the limits on accomplished dissenters joining the church, the army or the professions probably had something to do with it too). Quakers would not swear oaths, but their word could always be relied upon to be fairly measured and unadulterated. The ‘very fat man that waters the workers’ beer’ in Paddy Ryan’s socialist song could never have been one of the Quaker brewers.

Or could he? US president Richard Milhouse Nixon came from a Quaker family and was not without blemish in terms of truth and integrity. And we know that chocolate-maker Joseph Rowntree was not above a bit of mild industrial espionage. So we need to look rather deeper to ascertain what we really mean by following these principles in our working lives. Once your workmates get to know you are a Quaker, they expect more of you than they do of others. You should be slow to anger, honest when you speak, adept at reconciliation and honourable in all your dealings. One is often inclined to offer witness to a world that may not otherwise be accessible.

Writing nearly a decade ago in Wrestling with the Angel, I suggested a range of principles to follow, as we seek to be patterns, examples to others in work or public life. They include personal integrity and trustworthiness and obedience to lawful authority, whilst knowing when to challenge the powers-to-be if they are proceeding wrongly. This means being receptive to the ideas of others, including guidance from fellow Quakers, sustaining a bias against secrecy, yet retaining respect for legitimate privacy.

I added, then, that engaging with the political or commercial worlds involves being resolute in the face of criticism or adversity; speaking plainly and accepting being spoken to plainly by others. It also includes respecting the proper dignity of others and yourself, honouring and not abusing friendships at work, avoiding quarrels and showing compassion and good humour. Such a ‘Quakerly way’ includes also welcoming innovation, while not valuing the ephemeral above the traditional, simply for the sake of novelty, and seeking influence by example rather than by exhortation.

Nowadays, I would stress something more. On Jonathan Swift’s memorial tablet in St Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin is carved the epitaph he wrote for himself: ‘where savage indignation can no longer tear at his heart’. The dean has a lesson here for Quakers too. Truth inspires proper indignation at the follies of the world and integrity requires that it be expressed, not hidden.

Truth and integrity do not excuse Quakers from deploying firmness or directness; they often demand both. We are not permitted to shy away from difficult actions, telling ourselves we are being kind, when we are really avoiding the personal discomfort of making the tough choice. Our testimonies and our history deny us the option of avoiding plain speaking, hiding from the personal challenges that may flow from being direct. When that delegation of Quakers took what is now our peace testimony to Charles II in 1660, they were risking more than the disapproval of their neighbours. Speaking truth and behaving with integrity can make for a hard road, but it is the one that we must travel.

Tony Stoller is the editor of the Friends Quarterly. An annual subscription costs £19 in the UK and is available from our subscriptions manager Penny Dunn on 020 7663 1178. Wrestling with the Angel was written for the 2001 annual Swarthmore Lecture and in the book Tony discusses how Quakers engage with commercial and public affairs.

Tony Stoller


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A testimony to Love
Judy Kirby, Editor
Circles of silence
Gerard Benson
A view of Quakers
David Wood
Testimony to peace
Helen Steven
Middle East witness
Ann Wright
Peace for all
Stephen Hanvey
Living the testimonies
Helen Drewery
Harvey Gillman
Testimony to Equality
Jonathan Dale
Committed relationships
Phil Lucas
Quaker thought in literature
Marina Lewycka
Quaker thought in poetry
Gerard Benson
Ros Smith
Marian Liebmann
Equality and social justice
Belinda Hopkins
Testimony to Simplicity
Jan Arriens and Marion McNaughton
Laurie Michaelis
Testimony to Truth
Linda Pegler
Integrity in public life
Tony Stoller

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