Frenchgate – a Case of Quaker Agency Capture?
I was far from the only Scottish Quaker, or “Friend” as we call ourselves, to have been stunned last Wednesday night when investigative journalism by Jim Waterson of Buzzfeed revealed that the Quaker-originated Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (JRRT) had helped to pay the legal costs of Alistair Carmichael MP in fighting off his own constituents over the “Frenchgate” scandal.
As I examined the background in response to people asking – “What’s up with the Quakers?” – I have been drawn to the sorry conclusion that the Carmichael scandal is the small issue. The bigger issue, for Friends at least, is that it appears as if what we thought was one of “our” charitable trusts has undergone agency capture – to serve as a honey pot for the Liberal Democrats party. I stress that what I write here is a private view-in-progress, and while I have consulted with other Friends, it does not express any corporate position. The JRRT and the Liberal Democrats can reply through the comments section of this article if I have inadvertently misrepresented them in any way.
The trigger to the seeming Quaker link with Carmichael had been the publication that day of the House of Commons’ register of members’ financial interests. Carmichael disclosed that he had received £34,000 from the JRRT in January this year “to help meet my legal costs.” Later, it emerged that he received a further £16,000 when the scale of those costs became known, bringing the total now to £50,000.
The background to Frenchgate is that as the May 2015 UK general election approached, the Scotland Office – the UK Government’s remaining foothold in Scottish governance – leaked a memo to the Daily Telegraph designed to undermine electoral support for the Scottish National Party (SNP). It was seen by many Scots as a UK government “dirty trick”, reminiscent of the independence Referendum less than a year earlier. The memo claimed that Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader and Scotland’s First Minister in its devolved parliament, had told the French ambassador that she would “rather see David Cameron remain as Prime Minister” than have a progressive alliance elected to govern the UK.
Ever since the days of Thatcher, Cameron’s Conservative Party has been a deeply toxic brand in Scotland. The truth unraveled when both Sturgeon and the French Ambassador denied that such a conversation had ever taken place. At the time, Carmichael was Secretary of State for Scotland, running the Scotland Office. Before the election, he denied all knowledge of the leak. However, using mobile phone evidence a Cabinet Office inquiry pointed the finger at one of Carmichael’s aides. After the election he admitted that he had authorised the release of the story. He had got through the election on the strength of a lie. He had held on to his seat by a majority reduced from 10,000 to just 817 against the SNP candidate. In this way, he remained as the only elected LibDem MP in a Scotland that is now represented by just 3 MPs from Unionist parties, the other two representing Labour and the Conservatives. The Independent Press Standards Organisation subsequently upheld a complaint against the Daily Telegraph, which published an apology.
Using the Representation of the Peoples Act 1983, a group of Carmichael’s constituents crowdfunded over two hundred thousand pounds to call Carmichael to account. The court found for the complainants on two out of three points of law. The judges said that Carmichael had, beyond reasonable doubt, lied “for the purpose of affecting (positively) his own return at the election.” However, he escaped being unseated and a fresh election called on point three – namely, that his lie had been political rather than personal. Carmichael, himself a lawyer, had got off on a technicality, but the judges subsequently refused his attempt to have legal costs awarded against the complainants.
Such was wider the lack of sympathy for this line of defence in Scotland that Carmichael’s own crowdfunder brought in just some £15,000 towards a legal bill estimated at ten times that figure. Where would he find the balance of his costs? We now know. The JRRT rallied to cover a third of his costs with Joseph Rowntree’s Quakerly sweetie money.
Joseph Rowntree (1836-1925) was a York businessman and Quaker. This Christian-rooted denomination was founded in the 17th century at a time of religious turmoil in Britain. Its roots were with the prophetic figure of George Fox in northern England, and its greatest systematic theologian – if such a concept is not a misnomer for a Spirit-led movement that shuns creeds and dogmas – was a Scot, Robert Barclay of Gordonstoun.
While most Christian denominations of the time were slugging it out as to who was to be counted amongst the Damned, and who, as God’s only Elect, Quakerism taught universal salvation. God was for all who sought God and waited on that inner light (John 1:9), typically in the stillness of silent Quaker worship punctuated with occasional ministry from any – even strangers from off the street – who might feel moved by the Spirit to stand and speak.
Such a liberal approach to faith was duly persecuted for its heretical teachings. Friends urge one another to “Walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in everyone.” Our Peace Testimony speaks of forsaking outward weapons. Our refusal to write off any human being, no matter how lowly – or even, how outwardly despicable – resulted in an influential social gospel spanning anti-slavery work, prison reform, mental health, scientific enquiry, interfaith appreciation, tackling the roots of poverty, improving industrial relations and, these days, environmental concerns.
The concept of “fair dealing” or “fair trade” is central to Quaker practice. As such, our spiritual forebears’ businesses flourished. These included Rowntree’s, Cadbury’s and Fry’s confectionary companies, Clark’s shoes, Barclays and Lloyds banks – but not certain firms that tried to hijack the reputable name and turn it into a brand, such as Quaker Oats. Quaker industrialists became rich, but because (relative) simplicity is a core testimony, many left their money to the poor, and that, embracing a radical vision of social reform. Informed Quakers take very seriously the petition in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come … on Earth as is in Heaven.” Heaven is not just for pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die. It’s for us to live out in the here-and-now.
It is probably the case that Joseph Rowntree was the most prominent of all the great Quaker industrialists. In 1904, he drew up a trust Memorandum, marked ‘Exceedingly Private’. This was his manifesto, intended for his executors, for how he wanted to use the wealth (that had mostly come to him late in life) posthumously to change British society in accordance with “the spirit of human brotherhood and alive to the claims of social justice.” He wrote:
I feel that much of the current philanthropic effort is directed to remedying the more superficial manifestations of weakness or evil, while little thought or effort is directed to search out their underlying causes.
The funds were to be applied in ways that kept in mind Rowntree’s three heads of concern – social, political and religious. He saw that the need was social. The levers of change, political. The moral compass and inner motive force, spiritual.
Of the three trusts that were initially set up, only two need concern us here. The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT) was to operate within the tax advantages of charitable law. The Joseph Rowntree Social Service Trust, Limited, was to be a non-charitable, taxpaying, limited company, so that it could fund political work. Later, this trust was renamed as the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (thus JRRT), but it went on to set up its own charitable arm and this subsidiary trust still retains the Social Service name.
The remit that Joseph envisaged for the JRRT included such activities as buying newspapers. The 1904 Memorandum noted: “Perhaps the greatest danger of our national life arises from the power of selfish and unscrupulous wealth which influences public opinion largely through the press”. His second son, Seebohm Rowntree (1871 – 1954), was a pioneer of modern poverty research. He gave us such terms as “the poverty line”, and was influential in the idea of the NHS, old age pensions and welfare benefits. Both Joseph and Seebohm had been Liberals, and Seebohm shifted the trust’s policy away from trying to control sectors of the press, towards supporting the Liberal Party. This, he felt, was likely to be the most effective instrument for political change in the Britain of his time.
Let there be no question that, from a radical perspective, the JRRT like its sister trusts does wonderful work. I have often thought that if I suddenly became very rich, I would give it to the Rowntree trusts wisely to disburse. The JRRT funds groups such as CorporateWatch, GeneWatch, openDemocracy, work on the detention of terrorist suspects, opposing mass surveillance by governments, sexual and gender issues, and the duty of “speaking truth to power”. In writing this missive I am, ironically, walking the path that I have learned, as a Quaker, from its bygone witness.
It is as a legacy of Seebohm’s era that the trust gives heavily to today’s Liberal Democrats. The accounts for 2014 show total grants disbursed to the value of £1.4 million, of which roughly half went to a multitude of LibDem causes, including £3,750 to LibDems in Inverness East, Nairn & Lochaber, and £18,000 to Willie Rennie MSP.
However, it would be one thing for a body of Quakers to decide, using due discernment, to give half of old man Rowntree’s money under their care to the LibDems on a perpetuating basis. It feels – at least to this Quaker – like quite another when a group of Liberal Democrats decides to do the same, there being currently only one of the six directors listed on their website as being a Quaker, and four of the six are politically active Liberal Democrats, including such high profile figures as Sir Nick Harvey (the Chair) and Baroness Brinton.
The issue might not have come to public attention were it not for the astonishing grants to Alistair Carmichael. Many in Scotland were shocked by the trust’s extraordinary statement of explanation issued over the weekend to justify the awards to the disgraced MP. Had the explanation been straightforward compassion for a man who had stumbled in life, and admitted so, it would have been easier to defend on Quaker grounds. There is that of God even in church elder, Alistair Carmichael, and probably a lot more than meets the eye at the moment. But that is not what the trustees said. What they said is:
Thanks to the perversities of the UK’s electoral system the 50% of Scottish voters who supported unionist parties at the General Election are represented by only three MPs. Had nationalists succeeded in their case against Alistair Carmichael, they would have worsened further the current misrepresentation of Scottish voters’ views in Parliament. Worse still, the effect on case law would have been to subject many more legitimately elected Members of Parliament to the risk of personal bankruptcy in defending themselves in court against vexatious and highly political claims.
Let’s get that straight. In the aftermath of the independence Referendum, when many of us are still licking our wounds on both sides of the debate, an English based trust is saying that the choice of Scottish voters in May 2015 under the UK’s electoral system represented a “misrepresentation” of their views. This, it feels obligated to put right by supporting a mendacious politician who has held on to his seat in the face of ordinary Scottish people, (myself included), contributing to clean up politics in the wake of Frenchgate.
Now, such may be a justifiable policy for non-charitable political trust. No doubt Machiavelli himself took every opportunity to set up trusts to dodge a bit of tax on his political campaigns. However, for a trust founded by our Friend the good Joseph Rowntree, a trust that still claims on its website – “Our values are rooted in liberalism and Quakerism” – it is astonishing. Astonishing, given that Carmichael’s case for his own defence rested on his own claim that he had lied politically.
I will turn in a moment to the current “Quaker” status (or otherwise) of the JRRT, but first, let it be said that for many Quakers, especially in Scotland, the JRRT’s statement will feel like a stake driven through the heart. Truth is a central Quaker testimony. We don’t see it just as something that you tell or not tell. We see, or at least, attempt against our own failings to see it as a way of life. “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Most of us probably treasure the Truth Testimony even more than our rightly cherished Peace Testimony. Without Truth – capitalised – there can be no peace. Under “Our Values” on the website of Britain Yearly Meeting – the Quaker governing body for the UK – one finds the statement:
Quakers try to live according to the deepest truth we know, which we believe comes from God. This means speaking the truth to all, including people in positions of power. As we are guided by integrity, so we expect to see it in public life.
Friends have gone to prison, some have even impoverished themselves or died for this principle. Truth is the demanding and costly air that we seek to breath, and share, and on which the deepest aspects of our reputation and approach to faith stands. Chapter 29 of our governing handbook, Quaker Faith and Practice, opens by asking: “What shall we hand on? Where is the Spirit now leading us?” It answers:
Individually and corporately Friends are seeking new ways of expressing our testimonies to equality and social justice, to the building of peace, to truth and integrity in public affairs, and to simplicity in a lifestyle that reflects our renewed understanding of our relationship with all creation.
That expression, “truth and integrity in public affairs” (my emphasis), is precisely the reason why so many of us in Scotland contributed to the Orkney constituents’ crowdfunder – and not just “nationalists” as the JRRT implies, as if to support the SNP is akin to treason. Far from being “vexatious”, we who gave to the campaign – nationalists and even some of us who have, in the past, voted for the LibDems – wanted fair dealing; and Mr Carmichael had, by his own admission, denied that to his constituents.
His constituents might have expected a body like the JRRT to help them with that concern. Instead, it its memo of explanation undermines them. It makes them out to be “vexatious” and undemocratic, when quite the opposite is true. That is what has driven the anger in Scotland this weekend, including coverage in all the newspapers of reference and, unsurprisingly, a full front page on The National. But my concern in writing this is not with the politics. It is with the religious repercussions for Quakers. Social media and newspaper comments show unambiguously that the public perception has been that the Quakers – supposedly respected for integrity – bailed out a political liar in order to swing the wishes of the Orkney and Shetland electorate.
Being highly democratic – in theory any member has the spiritual power to stand in the way of a business decision in the path towards seeking “unity” – our decision making processes are invariably very slow. The Quakers as a corporate body don’t have a Bishop or some such similar figure who can speak up for us all at a moment’s notice. We function from a different mode of ordering and it may take months for Scottish Friends to pass any comment on the JRRT-Frenchgate connection, if we decide to do so at all. In recognition of that reality, and feeling the concern strongly, what I did was to take some soundings from “weighty” Friends as a check and balance, and then proceed to do my own research as is written up here.
In response to my enquiries, the JRRT trust secretary emailed me this morning, saying:
We are not planning to make any further statements on the matter but by way of background I have set out two points below:
Firstly I would comment that our sister organisation, JRF (Joseph Rowntree Foundation), should never have been brought into this matter in the first place. JRRT and JRF share a founder but the decision making and governance are entirely separate. The decision to contribute to Alistair Carmichael’s legal expenses was a decision taken by the Board of JRRT alone.
Secondly, whilst our website makes reference to the Quaker heritage of the organisation, our statements on this particular matter make no reference to Quakers or the Religious Society of Friends. The JRRT does not describe itself as a Quaker organisation nor make any claim that its grants are made in the name of Quakers or the RSoF.
That latter point is what I find both remarkable, and concerning. Not only does the JRRT have only one trustee out of six who is a Quaker, it has removed itself from linkage to the Religious Society of Friends (as Quakers are formally known). As said earlier, it is now a board of prominent Liberal Democrats who control what Joseph Rowntree had intended to be a Quaker resource, and which still leans on that authority when it so suits. In the world of Non Governmental Organisations, this looks prima facie like a case of what is called “agency capture”, where a resource is taken over, and used as a platform or honey pot for those who have – wittingly or unwittingly – colonised it.
Curiously, and reading between the lines, it looks to me as if Joseph Rowntree had harboured concerns that such could come to pass, and tried to take steps to prevent it. His 1904 Memorandum is incredibly prescient. Dear to my own heart, land and land taxation issues were prominent as a means of getting to the roots of problems, and not just fiddling with the symptoms. He said, for example:
Every Social writer knows the supreme importance of questions connected with the holding and taxation of land, but for one person who attempts to master this question there are probably thousands who devote their time and strength to relieving poverty and its accompanying evils. In my view, therefore, it is highly undesirable that money should be given by the Trusts to Hospitals, Almshouses, or similar Institutions.
Clearly, he had hand-picked his own trustees, and while I have not researched the matter, it is most unlikely in that era that these would not have been Quakers, at least, mostly so, and been expected to use standard Quaker business method to guide their decision making with a higher power. The Memorandum suggested that both the JRCC and what became the JRRT (originally the Social Service Trust) should be wound up within 35 years of their origination. During that time, he said, these trusts would be:
… in all human possibility, likely to be mainly administered by the original Trustees, who are closely in sympathy with my general thoughts and aims, and will, I believe, give to the administration of these Trusts the same thought and direction which I should have given them myself.
However, Friends are not control freaks. He also left it so that the trustees were free to act as they might find fit, with “no legal or binding force” from him “in any way or direction”.
My reading is that during the course of time the decency of such a spirit led to attenuation of the Quaker ethos, so that instead of it being Quakers giving money, perhaps, to political parties and mainly the Liberal Democrats, it is Liberal Democrats doing so. Whether intended or unintended, there lies the agency capture, and the ramifications of the lie that was Frenchgate are its exposé.
Our Quaker heritage – used not as a desirable badge of esteem, but as a three hundred year old tried and tested working instrument – matters. In Quaker decision making we use spiritual discernment. The Jesuits even came and studied the Quakers when, in the aftermath of Vatican II in the 1960s, they realised that they had lost their own traditions of discernment, and needed to re-learn them. The current Pope, a Jesuit, often speaks of discernment. It is a powerful technique, because it involves holding an issue “in the light” (of God) in the hope that the decisions made will go beyond inevitable partisan interests and biases. We speak of waiting to be “lead” by, or “moved” by the Spirit, and that is why silence plays – or ought to play – a considerable role in our deliberations. A minute is written up by a clerk or clerks as the “meeting for worship for business” commences, so that all are clear on what is being determined, and there can be NO argument about it later as often happens when minutes are written up by an individual retrospectively.
Without such a methodology and its spiritual grounding, the process of trusteeship such as Joseph Rowntree anticipated being exercised cannot be expected to be honoured. At the deepest level, I think that this is what has gone wrong with the JRRT.
Given that Joseph Rowntree did not want his wishes to have legal teeth, there is probably nothing that Friends can meaningfully do about it. All we can say to the world in the light of Carmichael is, “It wasn’t us” – and yet – in a way, it is us, because we let go of the rudder of trusteeship, and these things happen in ever-so-human situations. Friends today can control the JRRT no more than they can control the ethics of Joseph Rowntree’s original confectionary company, long since taken over by Nestlé.
Can anything, then, be done? Let me be very clear. I have no problem with a Quaker non-charitable trust giving to a political party if such is how it is moved using due Quaker business method, and the decisions taken by a majority of trustees who hold the Quaker ethos in their hearts and heads. The problem is not that the LibDems are given to. Not even that Carmichael was given to. The problem is that it appears, at least prima facie that the LibDems are giving unto to their own, using resources intended for Quaker social, political and religious work, in a framework that Joseph Rowntree clearly wanted to see remaining in sound Quaker control.
Where, then, might lie what our tradition would call “an opening of the way”?
One would be that some or all of the existing trustees might exercise what we would call “the ministry of laying down.” That is to say, letting go of things is as spiritually important – perhaps moreso owing to the human tendency to cling on – than starting them up. The trustees (or some of them) might, therefore, want to search their consciences, and consider their positions. They might want to reflect on the question of whether agency capture is, in fact, what has happened, and whether that feels right.
However, such a course of action may not be necessary. Good people when handling power inevitably hit rough patches from time to time. Blind spots arise, and become habituated. In speaking truth to power, we can push with one hand, but must always try to support with the other from behind.
There is a very great deal of wonderful work that the JRRT, like the other Rowntree trusts, carry out. I know. My own on land reform and community empowerment benefited to the tune of £74,000 from the sister JRCT some fifteen to twenty years ago. I believe that the Rowntree family of trusts are amongst the most important in Britain in bringing about change for a better world. There is a freshness and transparency to the JRTT’s website that gives me hope that things can be, as their name implies, reformed.
Recently, the trust has been recruiting for up to three new directors. Their recruitment publicity states that they are keen to appoint “at least one Director who will maintain the Trust’s links with its Quaker heritage.” Their Person Specifications expect new directors to be “appreciative of our Quaker heritage,” and also states: “We are especially keen to hear from Quakers and those who have a background in academia, law or understanding of finance.”
Such a spirit could provide the impetus for a shift of ground. I can say no more than that. The Carmichael affair set me quaking. Shuddering might be a more honest description. But I can see a potential opening of the way. I do hope that the current trustees might consider giving it thought and taking heart.
Meanwhile, when I see on social media abuse being hurled at Mr Carmichael, could I just say that in the Quaker way, we do our best – difficult though it often is – to seek that of God in all. One of the first grants I ever landed for a good cause was through the Social Democrat MP, Dickson Maybon whose patch was Greenock and Port Glasgow. He taught me how to write an appeal letter and had me direct it to a peculiar House of Commons charity. It was called, he told me with a wry smile, The Saints and Sinners Club.