It’s rather difficult to write anything coherent about the Big Society, not least because other than Dave (and I’m not even certain about Dave), nobody knows what exactly it’s supposed to be. There is some not unattractive rhetoric about volunteering, which we’d all like to see more of; there’s also more than a sneaking suspicion that Dave is trying to get public services on the cheap by palming them off on the voluntary sector. Anyone looking for philosophical clarity is, one fears, looking in vain.
But murky waters don’t deter us round here, do they? There are still things that can usefully be said, and a good starting point is a recent pair of thought-provoking pieces by Ed West over at the Telegraph. One is on the failure of the coalition government to deliver its promised bonfire of the quangos, and we’ll return to this theme presently. First, however, let us ponder the fate of the YWCA.
Come on, you remember the YWCA. I mean, surely you remember these guys:
The reference is to the Young Men’s Christian Association, proprietor of establishments where a young man down on his luck can stay until he gets his feet back on the ground, as well as getting himself clean, having a good meal etc. The YWCA is the women’s equivalent.
Or it was until recently. You see, the British section of the YWCA (though not the international body) has just rebranded. And here’s the surprise. One may have expected, in this secular age, the “Christian” bit of the name to be ditched in the name of diversity. Less expected would be the YWCA ditching all four words in its name and adopting the cryptic title “Platform 51”. Presumably this is meant to better reflect its focus, although what “Platform 51” actually signifies is a mystery to me. Which may not be coincidental.
In a sense the name doesn’t matter; what’s significant is how the charity has changed, and what it says about the nature of do-gooding.
The YWCA was founded in 1855 with the aim of providing spiritual and moral support to young women against the physical and moral poverty of the new cities, and it did this, among other things, by running prayer groups. In contrast today’s YWCA now “lobb[ies] for changes in the law and policies to help all women”, and its chairman is a former equality quango manager Helen Wollaston.
Indeed its brochure states: “We campaigned for the Equality Act to protect pregnant schoolgirls and teenage mums from discrimination, harassment and victimisation. Young mums told us about their experiences, including being advised to leave school, not having access to a full curriculum and being stopped from sitting exams because they were pregnant. They are now legally entitled to the same education as anyone else.”
Well, quite. This may well be legitimate activity, it’s just a very long way removed from the founding principles of the YWCA, which is perhaps why the name change is fitting.
A remarkably similar story could be told about the National Council for One Parent Families, which these days operates under the auspices of Gingerbread, both charities having merged in 2007. The National Council was originally set up in 1918 as the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child, as a response to the rise in illegitimate births during the First World War. Its purpose was to encourage a more humane and tolerant attitude towards young women who, let’s be frank, were treated in a very cruel way by contemporary society. While it too was a rather stern Christian-inspired charity, it did a commendable amount to help unfortunate young women, including encouraging the churches to set up homes for them, and helping to have adoption properly regulated for the first time.
Where this parallels the YWCA is that by 1971, when it changed its name, the National Council would have been virtually unrecognisable to its founders. Its concept of the unmarried mother’s state as an unfortunate one did not survive fashionable 1960s ideas of sexual morality; its charitable functions had been largely taken over by council social services departments; therefore, it reinvented itself as a feminist advocacy group, which concentrated on lobbying the government for very detailed changes to things like tax law and the rate of child benefit.
I pass no comment here on whether the old or the new versions are more legitimate. Both have been reflections of the prevailing culture. The interesting thing is the evolution over time. One side of this, of course, is mission creep, the occupational hazard of the do-gooder. That’s how Amnesty, since it dropped its ban on domestic campaigning, has developed a whole range of policies that have very little to do with Amnesty’s historic remit of supporting prisoners of conscience. But what interests me more is the changing relationship between the voluntary/charitable sector and the state.
This is something we’re familiar with locally in terms of the grantocracy. We can trace much of the phenomenon back to a pacification strategy developed by the Northern Ireland Office under Douglas Hurd and Tom King back in the 1980s. A key aspect of that was to counter Sinn Féin’s popularity in areas like west Belfast by funnelling development funding through agencies run by the Catholic hierarchy – a strategy so blatant that some local priests remonstrated with their bishops about being turned into political pawns. Under the New Dispensation, and with US and EU peace money flowing in, this has reached the point where the peace industry is now the largest employer in the north.
One thing we’ve been able to trace through the peace process is what’s happened to the voluntary sector – or to be more precise, the funded community sector. We’re not simply talking about extravagances like building a huge new theatre in Newtownabbey. (There may of course be a great appetite for Brecht in Rathcoole, but it would surprise me greatly.) We’re talking about a situation where a small charity will get a grant, will then get a suite of city centre offices and some professional staff, and find itself spending much of its time advising the government on its specialist area.
This is where Ed’s lament on the coalition’s failure to significantly reduce the number of quangos is probably a bit forlorn. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that the Big Society will mean more, not less, quangos, and here’s why.
It’s not just that the structure of government in Britain probably requires a certain number of quangos (though there are certainly too many). More to the point is how we conceive of a quango. Classically, a quango is a government body hived off and given a semi-autonomous agency status. But what if it works the other way around? If a charity is largely funded by taxpayers’ money and spends most of its time and energy influencing government policy, hasn’t it become a quango in all but name?
It’s as well here to take the long view. The great flowering of charitable activity in the Victorian period took place in a context where the state was failing to provide even a basic level of care to its citizens who had been uprooted in the Industrial Revolution and were crammed into sprawling, poor, insanitary cities. Whatever the dreams of small-state libertarians, or the fears of those at the sharp end of benefit cuts, an out-and-out return to this situation is not likely.
We then see a development where after 1918, and particularly after 1945, Big State comes in to provide a safety net and obviates the need for a lot of the pre-existing charitable sector, which continues to thrive only in certain areas where the state either doesn’t intrude (animal welfare is a good example) or works through voluntary agencies (overseas disaster relief). Although, and this is important, there is no Chinese wall dividing the two.
Let’s bring in the material factor here. Over the past couple of decades, many charities have become increasingly dependent on public money. Lottery money, fair enough, is not strictly taxpayer money, but fulfils many of the same functions. On top of that, factor in direct grants from government departments such as the DCLG and DfID, local councils or, for that matter, quangos. One can’t blame often cash-strapped charities for taking what they can get (though bureaucratic processes favour better-off charities who are better at filling out grant applications), but obviously there are strings attached.
Let’s take another example, that of Stonewall. As you know, Stonewall cut its teeth as a campaigning organisation, though it’s long since won virtually all of its demands. It has also, under New Labour, become increasingly involved in what’s termed “policy development”. I know Stonewall is often criticised by the more agitprop wing of gay activism for becoming the government’s in-house gay lobby (to which one might add pointed questions about exactly how representative it is), but Mr Ben Summerskill and his associates might respond that they’ve exchanged independence for influence – such as having a scrutiny role over just about any government policy that might conceivably affect gay people. Now, Stonewall is not quite a quango yet – it still does independent stuff, and its state funding is outweighed by private and corporate donations – but we might look on it as a transitional form, like Archæopteryx.
So what does this mean for the quango state? I would argue, as a counterpoint to Ed, that the whole Big Society programme is likely to mean an increase, not a decrease, in the size of the quango state. Oh sure, there may be fewer bodies officially styled as quangos. But we’ll see more and more charities and voluntary bodies which are funded to a greater or lesser degree by the state, do work on the state’s behalf, and increasingly come to function as quangos.
In days of yore, Marxist theoreticians used to talk about “state capitalism”, as an organic tendency of the state and capital to fuse. Perhaps, in thinking about how the third sector is going, we might have a category of “state voluntarism”.
 On the history of the National Council as a mirror for changing social attitudes, there is exhaustive detail in Peter Hitchens, The Abolition of Britain, Chapter 8.
 There’s an obvious parallel with New Labour’s largely unsuccessful attempts to counter Muslim radicalisation by writing cheques to people like Ed Husain.
 One bellwether to watch is Citizens UK, the umbrella group of largely faith-based charities that’s been very enthusiastic about the Big Society, notwithstanding its support from the arresting combination of the Catholic hierarchy and the trade unions.