An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


Charity is politics – only English “common sense” pretends otherwise

Charity is politics – only English “common sense” pretends otherwise
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The claim by Brooks Newmark that charities should stick to knitting rather than politics was greeted with some rather amusing responses. But it betrayed two deeper elements of English politics. First, conservative (small c) Englishmen believe so uncritically that charity is somehow a neutral, apolitical beast. And second, a complete lack of understanding about the history of voluntarism in this country.

In an otherwise typically pompous and Self-righteous piece on language, Will Self made an important point about the English middle classes:

Orwell’s ideology is ineffably English, a belief in the inherent reasonableness, impartiality and common sense of a certain kind of clear-thinking, public-school-educated but widely experienced middle-class Englishman – an Englishman such as himself.

It’s by no means as pernicious an ideology as Ingsoc and its attendant newspeak, but it’s an ideology all the same.

Charity is one of those things that falls under “common sense”. Giving is good. But somehow this private act, conducted by associations of individuals in public, should remain outside the world of politics. We don’t even like it when charities get too close to business. Charities – that invisible hand of capitalism – are supposed to be this nation’s uncorrupted soul. Our apology for all that… unpleasantness.

Historically, this makes no sense. Changes in technology have given charitable organisation the ability to reach far more people than before. The rise of state provision in welfare and health has changed the domains in which charities operate. Without an element of professionalisation, it would be impossible for many organisations to operate; and since their work cannot happen without some state or business involvement, it is ridiculous to think they shouldn’t comment upon or try to steer government policy.

Larger national charities have always attempted to influence Whitehall and Westminster, but since the second world war there have been far more active lobby groups. Organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group and the Disablement Income Group worked to improve the lives of people living in poverty. Their currency, however, was expertise. And while they raised significant sums to make a real difference on the ground, their real skill came in giving politicians the evidence and motivation to change government policy.

CPAG and DIG were directly involved in helping the DHSS of the 1960s and 1970s formulate the specifics of new policies. Today, Royal Commissions and government enquiries could not function without voluntary-sector input. It’s not just that these group lobby – the government requires them to do so.

Moreover, since the 1970s many have become reliant upon government grants (central and local) to survive. The economic downturn, combined with the hiving off of central services to third parties means that charities have become more and more intertwined with government policy. This has been true of governments of both hues. It seems absurd to ask those involved in providing state services to refrain from comment on said services.

What we have seen, however, is that many personalities in this government do not take criticism well. The Prime Minister has struggled to move “difficult” people on for fear that they might try to oust him, or that it would look like a damaging volte face. A lack of a majority means he has few options. And, indeed, the fact that only a minority of people actually voted for his party at the last election (a growing problem for both Labour and Conservatives with the rise of small parties and declining turnout) means that the majority of people are likely to take issue with his policies. Silencing a sector which has become an integral part of British social policy isn’t going to fix that.

Charity has never been apolitical. It is a political choice when we decide which sections of “the poor” are worthy of our help (veterans? disabled people? homeless?); when we decide what sorts of schools we want to fund (Eton? faith schools? Steiner?); whether to support hospitals or stray cats; global warming or teenage mothers; its all political. To pretend otherwise may be “ineffably English” – but it’s also a lie.

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