The Sun’s splash this morning is about a charitable but impecunious lady of 92 who killed herself after being constantly pestered by charities cold-calling her.
It’s time we woke up to the fact that charity, which we all assume to be good, has become a pretty nasty and anti-social business; and that – bizarrely – the poor would be far better off if charity was far less powerful.
Charity – or “The Voluntary Sector” as it pompously calls itself – has had a good run for its money. We still think it must be a good thing, although Eton College is a “charity”, with all the tax advantages that brings; sharp-toothed “charities” compete against each other and against private companies for contracts to run public services, desperate to show that they can cut costs with the best of them; churches and their adherents set up “charities” which are barely disguised religious recruitment agencies; and religious “charities” run schools with state funding, in order to capture the minds and hearts of the next generation at an impressionable age.
Yet charity is still regarded as a good thing – so much so that in December 2014 I heard Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg on Question Time defending the need for food banks partly on the grounds that they enable the middle class to exercise their charitable instincts.
The idea that looking after those who are unable to look after themselves is best done by handouts from charitable individuals and organisations is now close to being conventional wisdom. The notion that it should be the role of the state became so unpopular that I was attacked on Twitter for having said that Clem Attlee supported anything so outlandish. But he did, and I have proved it by setting out his views in my recently republished Clem Attlee in much more detail.
Attlee understood the problem as long ago as 1920, and he also understood – and partly implemented – the solution. In a book called The Social Worker, he writes of a charitable clergyman he had met who thought the porridge served to the poor should always be a little burned, to put off those who were not in dire need.
He thought that if a rich man wanted to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at whim. He anticipated Mr Rees-Mogg by nine decades, saying that when charity was the only option, “society as constituted was accepted, and the existence of the poor taken for granted, nay even welcomed, as providing an outlet for the benevolence of the rich.
“Charity is always apt to be accompanied by a certain complacence and condescension on the part of the benefactor, and by an expectation of gratitude from the recipient, which cuts at the root of all true friendliness. The charitable of the [Victorian] time seem to us to be smug and self-satisfied. They delighted in sermons to the poor on conventional virtues, and lack that sharp self-criticism that is the note of society today.”
It is unfortunate, he says, that “there should be a certain kudos obtained from giving to a charity which is absent from the performance of a duty; thus a man will oppose an increase in taxation or local rates while he is prepared to give far more than these increases in charity. Very many do not realise that you must be just before you are generous.”
Charity, he write, “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 . . .”
Charity “tends to make the charitable think that he has done his duty by giving away some trifling sum, his conscience is put to sleep and he takes no trouble to consider the social problem any further”.
The rich, he says, should “subscribe to pay the taxes. These were the true charity, impartial and impersonal, cumbering none with obligation, helping all.”
He quotes Bernard Shaw: “Most of the money given by rich people in charity is made up of conscience money ransom, political bribery.” It still is.
Religious charity is the worst of the lot. “One finds a large amount of charitable work being done with the principle object of benefitting the soul of the giver, the effect on the welfare of the recipient being a secondary consideration”.
Attlee was is especially horrified, as Nye Bevan was a quarter of a century later, by the fact that, in those pre-NHS days, hospitals relied largely on charity: “The whole business of collecting for hospitals by means of special days on which collectors stand at street corners and blackmail passers-by, or by which collections are made in factories, is thoroughly unworthy of the dignity of the service.”
He would have had choice words to say about the proliferation of charity ‘chuggers’ on the streets of London, and about the sponsors of academies and free schools, especially those that name ‘their’ schools after themselves.
Ninety years ago, Clement Attlee, with his dry, pedestrian but unrelenting logic, showed that has that charity can be an extremely harmful thing. Everything that has happened since suggests that, as often happens, Attlee was right.