Jonathan Taylor: The pacifists who took a stand for their principles

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FEWER people in Britain would go to war now than ever before. After the scars of Afghanistan and Iraq, the scares of Syria and Ukraine urge caution. We don’t want to be involved. We don’t want to risk British lives. We don’t believe sufficiently in justice, or in democracy, to fight.

This week saw the International Day of Conscientious Objectors, and it’s easy to think we’re all pacifists now. But actually, pacifism is a principle too far for most people. We don’t want to fight because it’s not expedient to do so in the current places of crisis. It’s not that we’ve suddenly become converted to another principle: pacifism.

Pacifism interests me professionally because I am the head of Bootham School in York, run under the auspices of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. One of the central tenets of Quakerism is a belief in the peaceful resolution of conflict.

As we remember the anniversary of the First World War, I recall the very difficult debates that went on in Quaker circles – and Bootham School – about the principle of pacifism. It’s one thing to avoid conflict out of expediency – and we can do so more easily (or self-deceivingly) if the battles are in a far-off land. But would we stand up for peace in more urgent, closer conflicts, where the security of our own land was at risk?

In the “Great War”, pacifists and conscientious objectors were subject to ridicule, hatred, and at times physical assault and injury. White feathers were handed out to men who refused to volunteer. They were called traitors or foreign agents, or cowards. Their families were denigrated and ostracised.

At Bootham, the headmaster, Arthur Rowntree, too old to be drafted himself, trod a delicate line between doctrinaire pacifism and support for those of his pupils who, following the dictates of their own conscience, chose to fight.

Many Quaker boys chose to go to war. Many others found a way of squaring their conscientious objection with their patriotism and worked for the Friends’ Ambulance Brigade, founded by Bootham Old Scholar Philip Noel Baker, who would later be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and other young Quakers. The school’s war memorial honours the memory, without judging, of those who “followed the light” according to their own consciences.

One of Arthur Rowntree’s great achievements was to hold on to the culture of peaceful pursuits when most public schools were indoctrinating their pupils through military training and “drill”. Rowntree knew that educating his pupils for the time which would come when war ended, as it inevitably would, was a better investment for the future than the brutalism of the war machine.

He believed the challenge for education was to show that it is not by struggle that the fittest survive, but by mutual aid, by fellowship and by co-operation.

In his words, a Quaker education meant “nothing quiescent and passive, but as meaning active loving kindness and courageous endurance”.

One wonders now what good might come were the resources of our country to be invested, seriously and authentically, in peace, rather than in armaments and war.

Conscientious Objectors – “conchies” – were branded cowards, and subjected to bullying and psychological – and sometimes physical – torture. Their motives were as widely different, of course, as those of the men who joined up to fight. In the popular imagination they were simplified into “heroes” or “cranks”: those who held fast to their beliefs, or people who were essentially not “one of us”. We know nowadays what forces can be unleashed against those who “object”, whether it be to government policy, or to the norms of our society.

It would take enormous courage to stand up for the principle of pacifism were we to face a similarly stark choice as faced our forebears 100 years ago. One Bootham old scholar, who had taken the option of prison rather than war, wrote to the school in 1917: “I am free from the reproach of my own conscience – that is true freedom... one day, if we are true, our cause will prevail, and when that day comes the world will be a happier and nobler place.”

In the meantime, we might ask whether our country’s foreign policy – or our own personal responsibility for our nation’s affairs – is guided by principle, or expedience. As a headmaster, I am not, thank goodness, tortured by the same immediate questions as my predecessor Arthur Rowntree.

But I feel I am bound – by the Quaker values of the school, as well as by my personal values – to educate my students for personal responsibility and the ability to make morally-informed choices. And if we can show them that conflict – which is inevitable, and repetitive and difficult – can nonetheless be resolved through peaceful means, they might carry that understanding through their lives as opinion-formers and leaders of the next generation. After all, we’d all vote for peace rather than war, wouldn’t we?

Jonathan Taylor is headmaster of Bootham School in York.

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