Why gagging charities is consistent with the Big Society

Tomorrow, the The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill is due to receive its second reading as part of a rushed progress through Parliament.  Most of the charitable sector is in uproar over the possible consequences for charity campaigns –  for example the Guardian today carries a view from a leading human rights lawyer that the Cabinet Office’s assurance that the Bill will not affect charities does not stand up.  The concern is that the wording of the Bill will drastically curtail charities’ ability to campaign within a year of a General Election – in other words at precisely the time when they are most likely to be able to influence democratic debate – by limiting their spending.

It comes at a time when charities have been under the cosh of a highly politicized campaign about the salary levels of senior charity officers; charities could be forgiven for believing that they are under a sustained attack.

At first sight, this seems to sit oddly with David Cameron’s much-touted remarks about a Big Society, in which voluntarism plays a central role in supporting the quality of life of the vulnerable.  But in fact it is completely consistent with it, because of the view of charity work that underpins the Big Society rhetoric.  It’s a view that sees charities as ameliorating the collective failures of society, rather than challenging them – of dealing with symptoms rather than causes and.  And discussions about poverty in particular are inevitably political – it is impossible to understand the causes of, for example, the extreme child poverty that exists in Britain without asking questions about why this should happen in one of the richest countries on the planet.

The point is that advocacy has no place in the Big Society view of charity, based as it is on an essentially Victorian view of philanthropy – in which support is doled out against a background of easy moral judgement about lifestyle choices and hard-working families, with its recipients expected to know their place and be silently grateful.  It is a model of charity that emphasises the moral and economic superiority of the giver.  Advocacy challenges prevailing power relations and undermines the idea that getting on in life is a matter of individual effort and character;  the language of the political class in Britain in 2013 is profoundly opposed to what advocacy means. The Big Society, deep down, is a reformulation of There Is No Such Thing as Society.

Or, to quote Clement Attlee, writing in 1920:

Charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim. In a civilised community, although it may be composed of self-reliant individuals, there will be some persons who will be unable at some period of their lives to look after themselves, and the question of what is to happen to them may be solved in three ways – they may be neglected, they may be cared for by the organised community as of right, or they may be left to the goodwill of individuals in the community. The first way is intolerable, and as for the third: Charity is only possible without loss of dignity between equals. A right established by law, such as that to an old age pension, is less galling than an allowance made by a rich man to a poor one, dependent on his view of the recipient’s character, and terminable at his caprice.

The consequences of this bill may be unintended: but they are profoundly congenial to Tories and Liberal Democrats and, shamefully, more than a few in the Labour Party.  We have become a society in which advocacy for the poor and vulnerable is becoming a subversive act – something we need to think long and hard about.

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