White Poppies

Symon Hill explains why the Quaker belief in pacifism leads him to wear a white poppy.

Symon Hill explains why the Quaker belief in pacifism leads him to wear a white poppy.

To be Quaker is to choose a religion fundamentally at odds with the dominant values around us. For me, this is both exciting and challenging.

Quakers often enjoy publicity at this time of year, because – like other pacifists - we wear white poppies. Like most Quaker commitments, this is often misunderstood. White poppies are not about insulting the dead, but about honouring them by working for an end to war. It was this visible commitment to pacifism that initially attracted me to Quakers, but the attitude grows out of something deeper.

The starting-point of Quakerism is that the inward light of God is available to everyone. Of course, we are all limited by our own contexts, egos and the inclination to fall back on human rules. I admit that Quakers – myself included - often fall for a shoddy substitute of our religion that mistakes sympathy for love and lack of commitment for open-mindedness. But Quakerism at its best is shocking in its radicalism. If God's light is present in all people, then to hurt another person is to hurt God, to refuse to learn from others is to set ourselves above God and to treat anyone as my inferior or superior is simply blasphemy.

Far from fluffy idealism, this involves a hard struggle to reorient our lives and to improve the world. I cannot believe in the universal availability of God without rejecting the lie that there is no alternative to war and poverty. This is no excuse for naivety: campaigning needs to be effective. I am proud of the role that Quakers have played in campaigns to abolish the transatlantic slave trade, reform prisons and secure human rights.

While I wear a white poppy as a memorial and a campaigning tool, it is also a sign of a belief in a different world. When protesting outside the London Arms Fair last year, I experienced a moment of powerful clarity when I was struck by the flimsiness and transience of the arms dealers' power compared to the everlasting light of God, accessible in all our hearts if we will turn to it.

The power that was in Jesus is available to us now. His teachings of love, justice and nonviolence are a realistic approach to life, society and politics. As a Quaker, I cannot separate personal from political, sacred from secular, earthly from heavenly. The Kingdom of God is within us. It is up to us to live it.

Symon Hill is a Christian writer and activist. His latest book is Digital Revolutions: Activism in the Internet Age, published by New Internationalist.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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