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Just as the bureaucratic mind cannot cope with the creative chaos of competing organisations pulling in different directions, post-war British politicians have not been able to imagine any form of democracy operating outside the parameters of ministerial control. The Victorian belief that democracy is inherent in independent voluntary institutions is largely beyond their understanding. In 2001, Gordon Brown remarked: "Politicians once thought the man in Whitehall knew best. Now we understand that the mother from the playgroup might know better." Rest assured, he didn't mean it. This is the same Gordon Brown, who, in an article in The Times in 1988, decried charity as "a sad and seedy competition for public pity". As Chancellor and later Prime Minister, he assumed that one way to invigorate his political agenda was by further co-opting and financing charities. Government funding escalated.

As the state insinuated itself in the folds of charity, the government, not the voluntary citizen, has become the presiding judge of what constitutes charity or public benefit. While definitions continue to revolve around the issue of independence, governments of all stripes tend to see charitable institutions, at least in the health and social services, as agencies under their supervision. Traditionally, charities saw themselves as having their own objectives. Government stresses professional competence and efficiency. Traditionally, charities stressed personal service and moral purpose. Government expects welfare to be systematic and comprehensive. Traditionally, charities valued selectivity and improvisation.

Government provision depends on compulsory taxation; it is not religious or altruistic but quantitative and materialist in conception. It is largely about furthering equality. Charitable provision, on the other hand, cannot be extorted by force. Its proponents have flourished in a liberal polity, often underpinned by religious belief that is primarily individualistic, even though it may also be egalitarian. To a Treasury official, representing the collective, a hospital waiting list is an abstraction. To a charitable campaigner, representing the individual, it is an offence. Distinctions between charity and government action are thus deeply rooted, not least in thinking about their respective roles and boundaries. The state will almost certainly retain its pre-eminence in the health and social services in Britain, but the perennial question remains: where should the balance lie between the "right" to welfare and the "virtue" of charity?

In recent decades, the balance has been further complicated by the so-called "contract culture". In 1990, the Home Office, in the interests of efficiency, directed that in dealing with voluntary organizations government departments should establish clear policy objectives, and grants that did not relate to such objectives should be phased out. With the implementation of that policy the government sought to enlist the voluntary sector for its own purposes. As charities are brought into the orbit of government they are encouraged to take on board a view of welfare that is favoured by the state.

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Malcolm McLean
November 11th, 2014
2:11 AM
Running a charity is a good middle class route to influence and government funds. There's usually an element of sincere motive, but pretty soon a grant or partnership comes along. That's so important to the charity that retaining this relationship becomes the overriding priority. People running the charity also benefit personally, if not by direct financial compensation, then indirectly by being asked to help formulate government policy, which is flattering, and tends to turn into financial benefit.

Malcolm McLean
November 11th, 2014
2:11 AM
Running a charity is a good middle class route to influence and government funds. There's usually an element of sincere motive, but pretty soon a grant or partnership comes along. That's so important to the charity that retaining this relationship becomes the overriding priority. People running the charity also benefit personally, if not by direct financial compensation, then indirectly by being asked to help formulate government policy, which is flattering, and tends to turn into financial benefit.

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