Interview with David Barclay



CHRISTIANS IN POLITICS – INTERVIEW

We ask a selection of Christians about what inspired them to participate in politics, how they build relationships, where they look in Scripture for consolation and inspiration, and how they flourish amidst the pressures of political life.

This month we interview David Barclay. David has been politically active since his University days in his student union. He has worked as a community organiser and civil society activist, particularly on issues to do with money and debt. 

  1. What inspired you to get involved in civil society institutions?

I’d always been interested in how big change happens through history and the role of individuals and particularly of Christians within that. I’ve got a very interesting family history – some of my ancestors were abolitionists and were involved in ending the slave trade within the British Empire so they have always really inspired me. I studied History at University and so was always interested in that.

Where the rubber hit the road in terms of personal experience was when I was an undergraduate student. I had the opportunity to run to become the JCR President which meant I would represent undergraduates in my college within Oxford. I decided to go for that really just through a sense of wanting to be involved in the community. I saw this as a chance to be part of something, to be part of the life of the college. What was interesting was that I very quickly discovered some of the power dynamics of the college. So for instance right at the start of the year one of the environment secretary reps was almost suspended from the University for holding an illicit apple pressing party during freshers’ week. This was a fairly major overreaction from the Dean, in charge of discipline. That was my first experience of political crisis (!) and made me investigate who has power, how that power is really used, and how can we speak up for people in that instance.

Although that was a single individual, the experience got me interested in wider questions and I got to become the university wide student union president the year after I graduated.

  1. What lessons did you draw from your family history and the abolitionist movement?

The importance of vocation or commitment. For many of the abolitionists there was a moment in their life where they felt they had to commit to doing something about the injustice they saw. For instance my ancestor visited a prison and was very politicised by the people he saw on death row for very petty crimes.

Also the perseverance that political commitment requires. It took a long time for the abolitionists to make change, and there was not just one route to do it. My ancestor did become an MP and worked in Parliament but the abolitionists were not just successful because they were good in Parliament. They were successful because they combined the activity in Parliament with lots of innovative campaigning outside of it. They were the first people to use petitions, boycotts, iconography badges and things like that - it was only through the combination of all those things that they were able to make a difference.

This has been a big inspiration because I used to think of politics as what happened in Westminster and went through this process of realising actually that there is so much to politics than just what the parties do.  As important as that is, there are so many different ways in which you can be political and have a political impact.

  1. Once you decided that your vocation was in becoming politically active within civil society, presumably you have to build relationships with people who have views opposed strongly to yours: how did you find that experience?

Unsettling, for sure. I remember that when I was involved in student politics, the fee system was changing. £9,000 fees were coming in and I had some students saying that I was not being radical enough – they wanted more radical, drastic action from students. One of my fellow sabbatical officers was involved in the Occupy-style student protest.

Then I had other students saying that I was being way too radical and that the student union was being outrageous and not representing all students by taking a particular stand against the marketization of higher education.

So that was very interesting and I think it does come down to that sense of how you relate to other people in the end. That I had built strong enough relationships with fellow sabbatical officers meant that we were able to keep a sense of common purpose and momentum even though we disagreed about particular issues.

  1. Would you give any suggestions or advice about how one can go about building strong relationships with people you disagree with?

For me community organising is a helpful methodology for how civil society organisations can work together on issues of the common good. It has a set of very practical tools and ideas and one I come back to is self-interest.

Self-interest is not the same as selfishness. It is simply about what motivated people to act. What is it that they are interested in, what they are passionate about? When I approach the idea of building political, public or even just working relationships, I go at it with a sense of wanting to communicate some of my core self-interest, some of the slightly deeper stuff that motivates me. And I want to try and make a deliberate attempt to understand that on the part of the other person. If you start off relationships like that, that gives you a much greater chance of building something that can survive disagreements

  1. When you are confronted by a difficult situation and need inspiration, do you draw on any piece of scripture and wisdom?

For me, the whole of my faith informs the whole of my politics or at least I hope it does. There are certain things that are foundational: care for the outsider and the marginalised. Both in the Old Testament – God telling the Israelites you have to look after the widow and the orphan. But also just the way that Jesus was – the people he chose to interact with – the way in which his miracles and his healings were both a physical but also a social and political restoration of people. I have always felt that to be a profound motivation and a compass for how to set my politics. And I guess also a comfort that Christ promises to be with us: that it was his mission first and we are just carrying it on.

But also I more and more come back to the doctrine of the Trinity as a key political motivation. It reveals the primacy of relationships. That we worship a God who is relational and has made us out of an overflow of relational love and has made us for relationships. When Jesus sums up the Old Testament of the prophets – it is about relationships. ‘Love your God, Love your neighbour as yourself’. Right relationships. The root of so many political problems are in fact broken relationships and worldviews which don’t set the right level of value on the importance of relationships.

That is a problem for both the left and the right. Whether it is a kind of extreme neo-liberal worldview that says we are rational actors looking to maximise our utility. Or whether you have a worldview that says we are ultimately defined by our class or economic position. I find both quite unconvincing on a fairly basic level. So the Christian insight that comes from the Trinity – that we are first and foremost relational beings - now drives a huge amount for me. Both about the process of politics (how it should work) but also the outcomes of politics (How we design policies and public services)

  1. You talked in the beginning about how politics can be quite consuming and unsettling. How do you deal with that while making sure that you have relationships to support you?

I think that is a key question. And one that is particularly pressing for people who are in even more stressful positions than I am. For me, it comes back to having a living faith; being part of a church community that is supportive; and having a wonderful wife, family and friends around. You need your work and career to be put in perspective in terms of what is important in the rest of your life.

But also from a faith perspective we need our own efforts to be put into the perspective of what in the end God is up to. What in the end we believe about the destiny of the world. Ultimate salvation and redemption does not come from our own efforts. It is God’s work in the end. There is liberation in that. Even though our problems can seem so overwhelming and our efforts seem so insignificant, the fundamental Christian hope is that we a part of something that will in the end have the last word. Love will triumph in the end. And so there is great joy in the invitation to be part of that. For me that is the deep motivation that keeps me going through triumphs and tragedies –I want my life to be a contribution to that victory of God.

 

David Barclay is a Partner at Good Faith Partnership, which exists to connect leaders from faith, politics, business and charity on issues of common concern. He has previously worked as community organiser at the Centre for Theology and Community on the Just Money campaign and founded the Buxton Leadership Programme. He was also previously President of the Oxford Student's Union.