You’ve probably never heard of Life in a Steamer: Or, the Letter-Bag of the Great Western.
It’s a book written by Canadian, Thomas Chandler Haliburton, published in 1840, aimed at passengers seeking distraction while making the long steamship journey between Bristol and New York.
The book is best remembered for Haliburton’s advice: “Never discuss religion or politics with those who hold opinions opposite to yours; they are subjects that heat in handling, until they burn your fingers.” In other words, if you want to avoid arguments, don’t talk about religion and politics (you could probably add football to the list).
What is political?
‘Political’ is not just which party you support, or whether you love or loathe Trump, May or Corbyn (there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground), or whether you’re for or against Brexit. If you express an opinion on, say, whether companies should pay more or less Corporation Tax, you’re expressing a political opinion, even if you don’t intend to.
Arguably, our post-Trump, post-EU Referendum, post-2017 General Election world has become significantly more politicised and polemical, with extreme views frequently expressed by both sides on a range of issues and political figures.
And thanks to social media, we can effortlessly like or share a post, potentially with a huge number of others, thereby revealing our bias on a wide range of political matters without even commenting. But whether it’s Twitter, Facebook or client meetings, should you reveal your political views or is it better to keep quiet, even when someone else expresses their political opinions?
Huddersfield-based My Management Accountant provides small businesses with a range of accounting services (“from year-end accounting, tax returns and payroll to management accounts and finance director services”).
Managing director, Martin Bown, set up the business in 2009. As a rule, he says, he keeps his political views to himself. “I also respect that others can have different views and I try not to judge them for that, providing they’re not extreme.
“But where I become more vocal is when politicians’ behaviour is unfair and unreasonable, for example, the expenses scandal, or where they avoid answering a direct question, or rely on soundbites rather than facts, as happened in the campaigning for the EU referendum.”
Matter of opinion
Bown concedes that some politicians and events are so important that he struggles to keep his opinions private. “Trump and Brexit are two examples, about which I’ve had many conversations with clients, colleagues and business associates. Discussions aren’t a bad thing, but there can be people with different opinions who don’t want to discuss them, in which case I step back, rather than allow a reluctant conversation to sour.”
Bown believes that accounting professionals should always remain professional. “Accountants are a business owner’s most trusted advisor, the relationship must be a good one based on trust,” he stresses. “At no point would I want things to be affected by errant discussions about politics. If I’m asked my opinion I’d probably give it, but caution is advised. Providing someone’s expressed views aren’t offensive, it’s best to keep your opinions to yourself – and avoid conversations about politics or religion.”
Chartered accountant Elaine Clark is the founder and managing director of CheapAccounting.co.uk. It’s a network of qualified accountants who provide tax and accountancy services online to small businesses throughout the UK.
She also prefers to keep her political views to herself, although not when it comes to people in positions of power and responsibility – regardless of their political persuasion, which can bring problems, she admits. “I remember Tweeting my views on Dianne Abbott getting her figures wrong in a live radio interview and the backlash I received was extraordinary.
“One person thought my criticism reflected my political beliefs and demanded I explain how ‘the other side’ could do a better job. It’s extraordinary – the things that can be read into a mere 140-character Tweet. I’ve been equally critical of politicians from other political parties.”
Clark doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with sharing opinions, providing they’re not offensive. “We live in a free country, of course people will disagree with each other. But now people don’t seem to be able to express an opposing view without being subjected to personal attack or ‘flaming’ [i.e. hostile and insulting interaction between people on social media). If someone resorts to aggression, they’ve lost the debate. Flamers and abusers will always exist, because they can remain anonymous. But it’s cowardly and best ignored – the block button really helps,” she smiles.
Crossing the line
Clark believes there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed when expressing your opinions, with racism and sexism and other prejudices patently unacceptable. “Not wishing to offend others will tell you where that line is, while accounting professionals should be mindful of professional standards,” Clark reminds us.
What about headline issues, such as the sexual harassment of women in the workplace? Clark responds: “With important issues about which I have strong views, I’ll happily express my opinions publicly. Clearly, sexual harassment should be condemned – and I don’t care if my views on that upset others.
“You can’t please all of the people all of the time. I’m happy to please some people some of the time, people I’m unlikely to offend with my opinions, which are far from radical anyway. In life, you must be true to yourself and accepting of others. That way opinions can be expressed and debated, which is healthy, surely?”
Mark Williams contributes to The Guardian Small Business Network and planned and wrote the Start Up Donut website – a leading source of advice for would-be entrepreneurs.