How would you describe your identity and beliefs in relation to religion?
An important part of my identity is that I am a Quaker, a member of the Religious Society of Friends. I think that has been very important throughout my career, because they encourage women to be participant and listen to women… and frequently I find myself being one of the few women, or even the only woman in a number of situations as I went through a scientific career, and having that affirmation behind you was good.
What made you decide to adopt/retain this identity?
I was born into Quakerism. I chose to remain, I guess, because I appreciate the way they worship, the silence… and the positive outlook as well. For instance, one of the tenets is that there is something of God, something good in everyone, which is a very positive way to look at people […] things like that.
Would you describe GB as an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?
I am concerned about the rise of Islamophobia… So, I don’t think we could say either of those (tolerant/egalitarian) … I think in theory we tell ourselves we are, but Jews in the past have had problems, I come from Northern Ireland (not part of GB!) where Catholic and Protestant communities have been at loggerheads…That is not always religion; it is because the religious label identifies culture, but I think often religious labels or religion may cause division, and there can be antagonism, or at least friction between cultural communities.
Has the HRA been a positive development for our society?
I think HR are an essential in a civilized society.
Are Quakers actively campaigning on any human rights issues at present?
We have actively campaigned on the same-sex marriage, which has occupied us most recently. Quakers have also maintained a position on the role of women. I am not sure they have campaigned a huge amount… If they have, it was before I arrived… but they have always said women are equal and a number of our structures reflect that. There is also, in general, concern for whatever group or sector of the community is looked down upon. It would have been immigrants, coloured people, people of African origin… I guess probably also Indian origin, but I think mainly Caribbean people who came after the First World War. So Quakers would be concerned that these people were treated as equal.
There has been a very concerning report about the use of torture in interrogation to get information, and although the most recent cases involve the USA, more than the UK, the UK’s role in rendition flights is very concerning…I don’t think we are clean on these issues. I think there is work to be done.
Does the State achieve the right balance between freedom and protection when it comes to intervening in the lives of citizens?
Possibly when money is tight, Government, politicians, local authorities, are more likely to get concerned about things such as the bedroom tax. If money is more available, maybe that’s less of an issue. Maybe it is expediency, rather than principles.
When should the State intervene in relation to expressions of religious belief?
If you are going to murder children because you think the devil is in them, it is clear [that the State must interfere]. What is less clear is with issues like female genital mutilation in which a community brings traditions from a previous country, which don’t fit comfortably with the way the new country where they have moved operates. I think if I am going to be part of a new country I should be conforming with the norms of that country.
Do regard living in a democracy as a positive thing? Does it make it easier for you to live in accordance with your beliefs?
I never thought about an alternative to democracy. The State allows Quakers to run schools. So, that is fine. No issues with that. If I am a member of the House of Commons or the House of Lords, there would be prayers each morning, led… well in the Lords by a CofE bishop… I don’t know who does them in Commons. You don’t have to be there for prayers, although if you want a seat you have to be there for prayers… at least in the Lords, because it is very crowded… but that is not a huge issue… That is a bigger issue for Atheists than for Quakers.
I would be anxious about dictatorships.
Does your faith mean that you feel that you have a personal responsibility to vote?
My faith means I have a personal responsibility to vote and to take an interest… actually I applied to be a member of the House of Lords… I didn’t get in, as you can see, but I applied… There are lots of Quakers who are local councillors. I don’t know if there are many Quaker MPs at the moment, usually there are one or two.
Should Parliament have the final say in making and changing law? Would you welcome a more empowered judiciary, able to strike down legislation?
I haven’t thought a lot about the divide of powers between Parliament and the judiciary, but I must confess that an increase of the powers of the judiciary would make me feel anxious. Obviously the judges can comment if the laws should be changed, but they would not do it themselves.
Does it concern you that the House of Lords is not elected?
I think it is essential that there is a second House. This is very, very desirable. I can see an argument for the second House to be put together in a different way from the lower House, and I am not sure that the sort of party politics we have in Britain necessarily gets the best people into the House of Commons. It gets the best who operate that system, but they may not be the best people. Therefore, I would be reluctant to have an elected second House. There are other issues in the House of Lords. I think we need to find other ways to put together a responsible Upper House, which does not involve the same politics as in the House of Commons.
How do you feel about the presence of bishops in the House of Lords as of right?
The number of bishops of the CofE in the House of Lords has been drastically reduced… It is not as large as it was until recently, I think it is not good that ministers of other religions cannot be in the HofL. The existence of Anglican bishops prevents ministers of other religions and I don’t think that is right. There are, however, people of other faiths in the House of Lords. I am not sure if they are faith leaders or not, but they are definitely people of other faiths. They are all of them the ‘people’s peers’. There are very few… four or five, but they are barred in the same way that ministers of the Christian faith are barred. Interesting anomaly.
Do public authorities generally respect the will of Parliament, as expressed through legislation?
I can’t really think of cases of public authorities ignoring deliberately primary legislation, except for those situations in which local authorities are saying that they cannot afford changes. Whether it exists in other contexts I am not sure, but I suspect it happens recently with the cuts, but I don’t know.
How do you feel about the EU and devolution in Wales and Scotland?
If you belong to a supranational body, such as the European Union, there must be a bit of give and take. You gain a lot of it, but it probably also means that there are times in which we don’t get our ways. We have to do what the rest of Europe has decided it is ok. This is just a question of degree and for myself I think we are getting more out of it, to be honest. A lot of scientists are getting a lot of money from Europe, which probably colours my views on this.
With respect to the four nations, again I met with the Smith Commission, which decided what would be devolved… and now legislation must be drafted… Certainly, in Scotland there is a very clear desire for more devolution, more powers for the Scottish Parliament. This is widely supported. I would be interested in seeing how it pans out. An example of another extreme is Northern Ireland, where until recently Protestant and Catholic communities were not in agreement and quite often in conflict. The Agreement required politicians to agree on some power sharing, which is quite fragile as an arrangement… I am not sure how this one is going to end up. So, my answer is very coloured by the situation in the area where we are talking about.
What does your faith teach you about the exercise of power and accountability?
Within the body of Quakerism itself there is huge ambiguity about leadership and if you show too much leadership maybe you will get your fingers chopped off (metaphorically)…
For instance, within the country Quakers would expect the PM, other ministers, etc, to abide by a code of ethics, requiring honesty and integrity and openness… But we have limited power I guess… You can write to the PM protesting, saying ‘hey, this is not good enough’ but in this democratic system you cannot always achieve change..
We haven’t had many Quakers in Politics… So, I am not sure in that field…
Are Quakers proportionately represented in public life?
Quakers are probably proportionally represented in local authorities… I don’t think they are in Parliament. I am not fully at speed on this, but probably there is no more than one MP and two or three in the House of Lords. We had more presence in the past, but nowadays Quakers have tried to keep their hands clean and decided not to get involved… They prefer not to be in situations where they have to compromise, I think it is fair to say… In the judiciary, I suspect we don’t have judges… We probably have solicitors and lawyers, but I am not sure about numbers.
The Law Lords have been moved out of the House of Lords… So, I think that is in the right direction. I suspect normally there is sufficient judicial independence, probably there are individual exceptions, but on the whole we are probably ok.
My mother was a JP in Northern Ireland in the times of the Troubles, and she had to work closely with the police and at times we would receive phone calls saying ‘Mrs Bell you will be careful, won’t you?’ She had to check her car all the time and I saw her getting closer to the police and the establishment and probably further away from the ordinary citizens as a result.
Again, an example from Scotland. In the run up to the Scottish independence referendum, there were questions asked about the role of the civil servants. There was a suspicion that they were being a bit more party political than they should have been. One of the things the Royal Society of Edinburgh wants to hold isa seminar on the role of the civil servants (and the media) in the run up to the Scottish referendum, but I am not sure we are going to get many speakers, I am sure they are all going to be unavailable. (Postscript – that is exactly what happened to our planned seminar!)
How do Quakers seek to challenge decisions which they perceive as problematic?
Quite often by very direct action we challenge decisions which we regard as problematic… For instance, when it came to same sex marriage, we decided that we would break the law if need be. However, it was not necessary in the end. Having said that, we had already decided that we would break the law by marrying same sex couples. It is an assertive stance. Quakers are in a special place with regard to marriage in England and Scotland, we are allowed to conduct our own marriages… So, we would have probably gone to prison or could have gone to prison, hadn’t the law met our demands so promptly. We didn’t offer any compromise here.
Quakers tend to be today very articulate. You find many of them in university cities….we have the means to make our voices heard. I don’t think we are in a bad position, and there are sectors of our society which are in a much worse position.
Is it important to you always to act within secular law?
I tend to be on the timid side of Quakers and I tend to uphold the laws, because I haven’t really felt at odds with any particular law… So, generally speaking I respect the law.
Quakers protest on quite a few things. They are pacifists, but on many occasions they engage in social activities, such as food banks, as we don’t like the cuts which have such a big impact on poor people. It is not so much legislation, but implementation of things. I can’t think of any other examples, apart from pacifism and same sex marriages.
Is the Rule of Law applied equally in our society? Do some groups experience preferential or prejudicial treatment?
Because they can engage in a more intelligent way even if you are arrested by the police… probably they get a different ride through the system, because you are educated, you are rational. The less educated receive worse treatment.
I don’t think I know the rest of Europe well enough to say whether we are worse or better… What I look at is the gap between the rich and the poor… in other words, the inequality.
Are there any laws which you currently find restrictive?
I am not aware of any legislation which has an impact on my religious freedom. There may be some developments which affect Quakers in legislation, but I am not fully aware of them.
Is there anything which you would like to add?
I am a Fellow at Mansfield College, Oxford. Our principal, currently, is Baroness Helena Kennedy. I was involved in recruiting her and got to know about some of the trials at which she represented people. There are clearly serious miscarriages of justice in our country and through my association with Helena, I am aware of that, which has been quite an education Helena Kennedy is her own woman.
Currently a Visiting Professor of Physics in Oxford University, she has been a Dean of Science and was for ten year Professor of Physics at the Open University, and had a wonderful year as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Princeton University. Her appointment to the Open University doubled the number of female full professors of physics in the UK!
She read a Physics degree at Glasgow University, Scotland. This was followed by a PhD in Cambridge (UK) in Radio Astronomy. During her time there she was involved in the discovery of pulsars, opening up a new branch of astrophysics – work which was recognised by the award of a Nobel Prize to her supervisor. She worked subsequently in astronomy at many wavelengths and in many roles, for much of this period working part-time while raising a family. She has used telescopes flown on high-altitude balloons, launched on rockets and carried on satellites, and built a radio telescope which was firmly grounded in Cambridgeshire. Later in her career she could be found in Hawaii panting for breath at 14000′ and using the UK’s infrared or millimetre waveband telescopes.
The Oppenheimer prize, the Michelson medal, and the Magellanic Premium have been awarded to her by learned bodies in the US. UK and US universities have conferred honorary doctorates on her. She is now a Fellow of the Royal Society, and was elected a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences in 2005.
She has been President of the Royal Astronomical Society and was the first female President of the UK’s Institute of Physics. She is now the first female President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s National Academy.
The public appreciation and understanding of science have always been important to her, and she is much in demand as a speaker and broadcaster. She hopes that her presence as a senior woman in science will encourage more women to consider a career in science.
In her spare time she walks, gardens, listens to choral music and is active in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). She has co-edited an anthology of poetry with an astronomical theme – ‘Dark Matter; Poems of Space’.