Individual Quakers have been and are involved in political processes, sometimes as politicians, and more often as citizens. Friends are also involved collectively, through a variety of agencies, including QUNO at the UN, QCEA in Europe, and national committees such as the Friends Committee on National Legislation in the US (FCNL).
William Penn is probably the most famous of all Quaker politicians: he drew up the constitution for Pennsylvania in 1681, and was its governor for several years. The political ideas in his ‘Holy Experiment’ found their way into the constitution of other states, and into the federal constitution too. Quakers were key members of the Pennsylvania legislature in the early days, as they were in Rhode Island. Several Quakers have participated in other legislatures around the world, notably John Bright, Joseph Pease, and Philip Noel Baker in the British Parliament.
Most Quaker involvement in politics over the centuries has taken other forms, such as advocacy. Public statements and wider campaigning are key aspects.
Friends in many countries make public statements on issues of the day, from a Quaker perspective, with a view to influencing political decisions and policies. Many do this individually, but often these statements have an ‘official’ status, as they have been developed by, and on behalf of, Quakers in the country or region in question. In 2010 Australian Quakers wrote to their government about defence spending. In January 2008 Friends in Nairobi made a powerful statement to Kenya’s President in the context of the violence after the December 2007 elections, setting out Quaker principles and proposing a way forward.
Wider campaigning on political issues is also done by individuals and collectively. The historic anti-slavery campaign, the work of Elizabeth Fry and others on prison reform, and more recent work on human rights are some of many examples. Individual Quakers have been involved in setting up several current campaign organisations, such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Oxfam and Anti-Slavery International. Some Quaker bodies establish ‘official ‘ campaigning organisations such as FCNL in the US, which regularly informs its extensive mailing list of issues to write to their members of Congress about.
Nonviolent direct action has always been a hallmark of Quaker approaches to campaigning. An early example was the boycotting of sugar produced by slave labour, during the historic anti-slavery campaign. British Quakers have developed a training programme, Turning the Tide, to help participants (many of whom are not Friends) work out the nonviolent direct action methods that might work in their own contexts.
Sometimes Friends are in a position to mediate international political disputes, and have done so in several cases, such as the independence struggles in India or Zimbabwe. Sometimes they have been caught up in internal political disputes within their countries, and have been able to mediate between different community groups, such as in Rwanda after the genocide, or in Kenya after the post election violence in 2007-8.
More often they enable protagonists to find, or begin to find, their own solutions, through what is often called non-formal diplomacy. The parties to a dispute come together in a safe confidential environment, such as a Quaker House. There, perhaps over a shared meal, they can have off the record discussions in which they get to understand each other better and are more likely to see a mutually acceptable way forward. The best-known Quaker Houses are probably the two QUNO (Quaker United Nations Office) ones in Geneva and New York, where much work of this kind is done, but there are, or have been, several others.
Some Friends organisations contribute to political policy development. QUNO at the United Nations, and QCEA (Quaker Council for European Affairs) in Brussels, both take part in policy development from time to time, independently or in partnership. Disarmament, conscientious objection, sustainable energy, restorative justice, and human rights, are some examples. Quaker bodies in different countries may also develop policy proposals that they can feed in to political processes.
A recent and important Quaker intervention in political processes has been election observing. This has developed in post-conflict countries, mostly in Africa, where the hope of sustained peace requires elections to be, and to be seen to be, free and fair. Recent work in Burundi is a good example.