In Conversation with Maggie Chapman

Maggie Chapman is a feminist, environmentalist, peace activist and Quaker socialist.  She is currently the Rector of the University of Aberdeen. Maggie was among the first elected Green councillors in Scotland and until mid-2019 was Co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party.

The public meeting we had planned with Maggie in York on 28 March was cancelled due to the situation with Coronavirus. In its place she agreed to an interview for the website, in full below.

Would you be happy to introduce yourself and share a little about how you got involved in working for change? 

I was born and brought up in the sunshine in Zimbabwe. Postcolonialism and the politics of race and inequality shaped my childhood, even though I really wasn’t aware of it at the time. I had a very happy, and in many ways, very privileged upbringing. My parents created a very safe, welcoming and open home, and, whilst we were not that well off compared to many of my school friends, we never wanted for anything. 

But I was very aware that many people around me were not so fortunate. I realised, at quite a young age, that we (my family) placed value – mostly sentimental, it has to be said – on material possessions that the vast majority of Zimbabweans had never seen, nevermind owned. Or took for granted. I saw the racial inequalities – which often mapped onto economic inequalities – very starkly all around me, even if I didn’t understand how or why they existed, and what sustained them. And I had some sense that these inequalities were problematic, even if I didn’t know how to articulate this sense or think it through. Racial differences of wealth, values and aspirations were often explained away as cultural preference and practice. I’m not sure that this satisfied me, but it did placate me. For a while, at least. Because I was protected and nurtured in a society that valued education.

I went to the Dominican Convent in Harare – Zimbabwe’s first school, founded in 1892 – for both my primary and secondary education. I was brought up a Methodist, but the school was between home and my Dad’s work, and in the age of petrol rationing, that mattered! Zimbabwe was not formally racially segregated, and I learnt a great deal from my classmates, who came from pretty much every racial community in the country. We talked about (small “p”) politics. We debated world events. Despite our racial diversity, we shared hopes and dreams because we could. Post-independent Zimbabwe invested in education: for over a decade, it was one of the most literate countries in Africa. And Convent, as we called it, whilst fee-paying, had significant financial support mechanisms for less well-off families. And so the education I received, infused with the Dominican’s holistic approach to learning and emphasis on charity, taught us to see diversity as strength, difference as beautiful, and faith as being about making the world a better place.

At home, alongside the perhaps old fashioned but good-hearted paternalism, my sister and I were instilled with a very clear sense of justice and humanity and the importance of principles. Both my parents planted the seeds of my love for the world around me, gave me the foundational belief that all life mattered and that kindness would take me further than wealth. Their two daughters would never not be encouraged to do things because they were girls. And being wasteful was never an option … something my non-hoarder partner struggles with everyday!

Equipped with these values, when I began to understand more about how the world works, and how deeply unequal it is, it was no leap at all to see the connections between social, environmental and economic justice. And a handful of very patient people encouraged me to turn my principles into activism and action. At university, I got involved in societies and activities focussed on social justice, peace and spirituality, and started attending (irregularly), a small lunchtime Meeting for Worship in Edinburgh. At the same time, I got involved in (big “P”) Politics, and it was just obvious to me that the Scottish Greens best reflected my values about the world.

Some people of faith working in politics have encountered difficulties in reconciling the two. Could you share anything about your faith journey as it relates to social action? 

In some ways, I think my answer to this question is a bit of a cop out. I think, at best, I’m a very bad Quaker: I have wandered a long way away from faith in the conventional sense. I don’t think I would call myself a “believer”, and I have many more questions about faith than I probably ever had. But the pluralist embrace of the Religious Society of Friends continues to appeal, and the light within is a powerful motivator for me to strive for a peaceful and equal world. So I suppose I don’t really encounter conflict between my spiritual life and political activism, possibly because I don’t put much emphasis on the former. But more fundamentally, I do not see any conflict between the Quaker teachings of peace, kindness and love and the Green principles of equality, inclusion, social justice and environmental concern.

Your last two speeches to the Scottish Green Party conference emphasised the role of social movements in creating change. Since the Coronavirus crisis almost all public gatherings have been closed down yet significant social change is happening. What’s your take so far on the emerging situation? 

I think we need to be clever in our response to this situation. I think that the social movements behind the climate strike and Extinction Rebellion have achieved as much in a year as many of us working in environmental organisations have achieved in decades (I should be clear here that I don’t think it would have been possible to have these social movements without the work in those organisations – it’s not an either/or, nor should we disparage the work done in those organisations). 

But it’s also very clear that the protestors have catalysed action that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. And they’ve done it through occupying the streets. That obviously will have to change in a period where we can’t associate in these ways. 

I’m very optimistic about the possibilities of doing online campaigning. That needs to move well beyond petitions and the ‘clicktivism’ that emerges from conventional marketing thought. 

If we can go beyond our online ‘filter bubbles’ and begin to reach out to people this offers a real chance. We’ve had an example of how people can be put before the economy. We must make the case that to stop climate breakdown, to end the arms trade and to harness the digital tools that are currently monopolised by tech billionaires. 

Over the past 40 years, we’ve been put on a productivity and consumption treadmill. And one thing about a treadmill is that it’s very difficult to get off once you’re going. I don’t think we’ll go back to a situation where people get back on the treadmill and run at the same pace we were going before. For many office workers the presenteeism of the last decade is falling away. 

All of this provides more opportunities to communicate online, built the case and make sure that we don’t go back to the world we had before. 

Originally we were planning to talk about the crisis of poverty in the UK, prompted by the reports which revealed that 14 million live in poverty in the UK and that more that 100,000 people have died as a result of cuts.  We were also planning to explore the connections with the global climate crisis. Why do you think there has been a worldwide effort to combat the Coronavirus pandemic but not to address the ongoing crises of poverty and climate change?

I think there’s an important factor here which is that very much of the capitalist system is based on a morality. That morality values richer people more than poorer people. In that context, austerity – which destroys lives on precisely the basis of wealth – is acceptable to elites. It reinforces capitalist normality. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom will never be a victim of austerity, but he did get Coronavirus. So if you can insulate your loved ones from austerity through wealth, it seems more acceptable than an infectious disease that could affect anyone, and could affect them now. 

That said, there is something quite different with climate breakdown. Capitalism is deeply and fundamentally entwined with fossil fuels. The industrial revolution, which birthed modern capitalism formed at the nexus of fossil fuels to power factories and new financial forms to pay for those factories. 

So if capitalism has always existed in a symbiotic relationship with fossil fuels it’s easy to see why there has been enormous resistance from capitalists to any move away from fossil fuels. The deployment of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) and the creation of conspiracy theories about how climate breakdown wasn’t happening are classic elite strategies to stop change. 

I’ve always believed that capitalism could not provide an answer to climate change. Quite simply it’s easier to buy doubt than it is to fundamentally reorientate the economy. That’s why I’m a socialist, and a Green. 

One of the things I think Coronavirus has exposed is that, even in a capitalist economy, another world is possible. It will be very difficult to argue that the economy is more important than people’s lives again. Not that it will stop them trying, of course! But we need to be ready, to make the point that an economy that is based on saving lives is what we did in the corona-crisis. And that it is now possible to build a wellbeing economy, rather than a growth economy. 

Across the UK national identity appears to be becoming an increasingly important factor in politics. In England this is leading to greater xenophobia, but Scotland appears to be forging a more inclusive sense of nationhood. Is there something that progressives beyond Scotland can learn? 

I think one of the great errors of the socialist movement has been its puritanism. One of my heroes is Raymond Williams – who may be known to many of you as one of the leading peace activists of the 1950s and 60s. But he was also a great Welsh literary theorist, and his work on the location of identity has a lot to say. I sometimes joke that if you want to know why the world is the way it is, you need to start by reading Raymond Williams. His sense of working-class Welsh identity articulated in Border Country and the People of the Black Mountains reflects a way of conceptualising how we can live in community, in a progressive way. 

Too often progressives have abandoned community and faith to the political right. That’s a terrible shame, and it’s not something we can continue to do. I like Billy Bragg’s attempts to build a progressive English identity, but I sometimes feel he is ploughing that furrow almost alone. 

I also think it’s much easier to form a progressive identity in a country like Scotland that is much less attached to it’s past as an Imperial power. While Scotland (particularly lowland Scotland) was a significant partner in the creation of the British Empire, it’s not the basis of Scottish identity, in the way it is for many in England. 

There needs to be a serious reckoning in England about the role of Empire. Far from a benevolent enterprise it was responsible for terrible, terrible crimes. From an Gorta Mór (sometimes known as the Irish Potato Famine) to the Bengal Famine, the British Empire chose starvation for colonised peoples in the name of laissez-faire economics. In Brexit I see a desire to return to Britain’s role as a globally aggressive force. I don’t see it being particularly realistic, or something that can be achieved. But the seeds are there for really nasty politics. If, as I think is very likely, Brexit turns into a national humiliation, that will be a very dangerous political context. A political context that might well lead to hard-right politics. 

We all need to find ways to give people a sense of belonging, a sense of identity that is built on the progressive values that still, I believe, underpin people’s beliefs. I think there’s an instructive example here. In the years that led up to the Brexit vote the tabloid press went into overdrive blaming immigrants for a whole range of problems. Most of these were actually government choices – and the decision to pursue austerity. But people were told time and again that the NHS was said to be creaking under the pressure of immigrants. That classrooms were supposedly filled with children who couldn’t speak English and all sort of other terrible lies. We can’t stop people lying. But what we can do is make the case for immigrants. 

In 2014 I ran for the European Parliament. The election was all about UKIP, and how much people disliked the EU. And that dislike was located in disgruntlement about immigration. I wanted to work with the material given to me. Despite widespread scpeticism – mainly based on a belief that the case for immigration couldn’t be made, I ran a campaign based on the value of immigrants. 

It wasn’t to try to dissuade people of the lies they’d be told. I knew that wouldn’t work. It was to put an opposing position. We made the case that immigrants didn’t just use the NHS, they staffed the NHS. They didn’t just use public services, they paid enough taxes to more than cover that use of schools and hospitals. 

The result was a campaign in Scotland that debated immigration. Coming, as it did, months before the Independence Referendum, it changed the nature of that discussion. In the referendum campaign, this solidified into a ‘Scottish position’ that was about welcoming immigrants. 

It requires a smart approach, and an understanding of the politics, but we can build reasoned cases for a more collective approach to our society. We have made huge progress in public awareness of the seriousness of climate breakdown in the last year, with the Climate Strike and Extinction Rebellion. Both of which articulate the Quaker approach of ‘bearing witness’, and the socialist belief in structural change. 

At the moment QSS is engaged in a process of sharing and co-development of our collective thought about Quaker socialism. Would you consider Quaker socialism to be distinct from socialism in general?  If so – how? 

For me socialism is about freedom from alienation. By that I mean that our work, our lives and the things we create should be created by us, for us as part of a contribution to the collective good. The relationship must not be coercive. I believe that the capitalist principle that if you have no capital you must sell your labour – you must alienate yourself – is at the root of much of the dysfunction of our world. And the reality is that if you don’t participate in your own alienation, you starve. 

I think there are some really interesting overlaps here. Quakerism has a very long lineage of liberal paternalism. Some of the best paternalism, but still paternalism. The Cadburys and Frys and other Quaker industrialists did ‘business for good’ – producing chocolate as an alternative to alcohol. They treated their workers better than almost all other workers in the history of capitalism. But they didn’t go that next step of freeing their workers from alienation. 

And that’s where I think there’s a really interesting conversation to be had. In the meeting for worship we are all equal. That’s right. But shouldn’t we articulate that in a new way of living? An economy that works for us all. 

I’m very interested in the transformation of the economy from mass-market capitalism to a data economy. At the moment that’s disastrous. Billionaire tech-bros in Silicon Valley are deciding what we do and how we do it. There’s a cliche that data is the oil of the 21st Century, and we’re currently using it to drive advertising so that people can have tailored messages getting them to buy things that they don’t need. Or we have authoritarian governments, like the People’s Republic of China using data to curtail people’s liberties. 

As always I believe another world is possible. The unique thing about Quakerism is that it is a belief system that is based on the individual’s conscience but in a collective setting. As we see more automation, so our daily work will turn to focus on the fundamental human qualities: caring and creating. We will need to become better at making decisions together. This feels much more like a Quaker world. 

Yet I don’t feel we’re considering these questions. In some ways, our approach has become too oppositional. Care and creativity have always been at the heart of my relationship with Quakerism. But it’s something else I think that we might want to share. The Quaker Meeting for Business offers a model of decision-making that might be more appropriate for a world in which human need to do less ‘grunt work’. Consensus, bringing people with you, giving way where you believe it is right are all qualities we see rarely in our debate. 

Socialists talk about ‘prefigurative’ actions. Those actions that ready us for a world after alienation. That feels very close to living in a Quakerly way. 

A Quaker socialism must be free of the authoritarianism that 20th-century socialism inherited from Lenin and the Bolsheviks. But it must also recognise the need to give all people the freedom from alienation that those Quaker industrialists didn’t recognise. 

The future will be one where we are much better able to understand what human needs and planetary needs are, and where we can plan to meet them. That requires us to learn from where we’ve done that work of prefiguration. Where it is we’ve built lives where we can be fully in touch with our profound human need to care for others and for the world. Where our creativity is nurtured and unleashed. And where we can recognise the value of others in the decisions about what we do together and how we allow ourselves to live. 

For me a Quaker socialism is one that recognises the value of living differently in the world while seeking to change that world. It is a socialism that is based on the value of all people and of the world. It is a Quakerism that isn’t just opposed to war and injustice, but that seeks to build a different way of being in the world. In the way those Quaker industrialists used technology to build businesses for good that treated their workers well, so we need to meet the challenge of our contemporary world in a way that harnesses the opportunity to create a society that has those Quaker values at its heart.