Mayors and morals

Michael Woolley asks where Quakers in public office should draw the line

It was a medal parade, eighty soldiers erect in desert fatigues, the lord lieutenant, the high sheriff, a brigadier – and all around an enthusiastic flag-waving crowd. Once the cheering died down I leant to the microphone and continued: ‘You have just been awarded medals for your service in Afghanistan’. The crowd erupted.

How on earth had things come to this? The short answer is that I’m the mayor and the city has a good relation with the regiment. But I’m also a Quaker and there’s the rub. I joined the Religious Society seven or eight years ago but had been involved for years before. Peace has never been a particular concern for me, though of course I am familiar with the testimonies and respect them. It is good that there are people to witness to the awfulness of war and killing, even if I am not absolutely against war myself. I am in favour of peace – but then who isn’t?

However, giving out medals and making the speech was a challenge and certainly made me think. If I did not do it, was I bravely standing up for Quaker principles or letting down the young men who have risked their lives and who have seen comrades killed? If I did do it, was I endorsing a war in which I don’t really believe?

So what does a Quaker at a military parade say? This Quaker said that we couldn’t imagine what they’d been through, that we do know how dangerous things are and how very pleased our city is that nobody from the regiment has been killed or seriously wounded. Then I went on to speak of the job they do. The regiment specialises in aerial reconnaissance and I asked rhetorically whether the ‘man on the hillside is a shepherd or a terrorist. If he’s a shepherd we want him on our side; if he’s a terrorist things are rather different. Making the right decisions is terribly difficult but terribly important and we really admire the professionalism you show and the care you take’. More cheers from the crowd.

What I was trying to do, in that difficult context, was send the message that killing must never be lightly undertaken, that they must be careful to get the right man. It wasn’t the place for either pep talk or sermon but speaking positively about their work and their skill perhaps got the message across.

I was proud to speak to the soldiers. They were clearly proud themselves and with a band playing and the people cheering – emotions were stirred. For some, I imagine, this was the first time in their lives they had felt so valued and respected. I meant what I said about them being brave and about their being welcome back. Did I lean too far towards popular sentiment by taking part at all? Or was it right to be there and try and provoke some thoughtfulness? It would be interesting to know what Friends think.

Michael is mayor of Chichester.

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