Matthew Hilton and James McKay (eds) The Ages of Voluntarism:
How we got to the Big Society (Oxford University Press, 2011)
Originally posted on the VAHS blog on 30 May 2012,
based on a review in Contemporary British History.
In recent decades, the history of voluntarism has moved from being a footnote for social historians to a burgeoning and dynamic area in its own right. Offering evidence that the relationship between history and policy has always been a reciprocal one, this growth has come in the years since the 1978 Wolfenden Report, which called for an increased role for both the private and voluntary sectors in welfare provision. However, its policy relevance has never been greater than it is today, with politicians seeking help from any willing source in answering that nagging question: What is the big society?
Hilton and MacKay’s edited volume sets out to place this policy debate in historical context. There are a number of other collections available that bring together the wide ranging history of voluntary association and charity in the British past (see a review of two here). The strength of this collection is that it is more focused than some others, with core themes of participatory and political association and the relationship between voluntarism and the state. The editors’ opening chapter introduces these themes by exploring the conceptual debates around them. As such they ground this book within the long-standing political debate, rather than the wider historical literature, something left to the authors of the book’s various chapters and embraced most fully by Helen McCarthy and Peter Shapely.
The relationship between Labour and the voluntary sector is the focus of two chapters, one in the middle of the book and one at the end. The first, by VAHS co-founders Nicholas Deakin and Justin Davis Smith, picks up the theme of political education from the preceding McCarthy chapter, as Michael Young’s postwar mission of ‘making socialists’ (see p. 85). They also note Harold Wilson’s view that the voluntary sector made a ‘distinctive, indispensable and socially irreplaceable role… in tackling social problems and creating a better society’ (see p. 88). Despite this well-made case that Old Labour hostility to voluntarism is a myth, Peter Alcock’s chapter suggests that the New Labour era saw ‘a rise in the profile of voluntary action’ (p. 158). In particular, he argues that the building of new institutions, such as the Office for the Third Sector, facilitated greater support for and regulation of the third sector – broadly defined to include social enterprises and mutuals as well and charities. He notes both the increased co-ordination and complexity of partnership with this ‘strategic unity’.
The prominence of Labour in this book, explicitly tracing the origins of the Big Society, rather raises the question of why there is no chapter on voluntarism in Conservative politics. Filby’s chapter does address the Thatcherite approach, although there is no wider Conservative context as we have for Labour. This is one of three ways in which this fairly slim volume could have benefitted from additional chapters. Another would have been a chapter reassessing whether or not there really ever was a Victorian ‘golden age’ of philanthropy, especially since the book’s core argument is against a decline from that supposed zenith. Equally, there is no real discussion of the major areas of service provision the voluntary sector lost to the welfare state, such as hospitals. Those supporting what is cast here as the Prochaska-Thatcher thesis will likely suggest the argument would collapse without this omission, something an additional chapter could have rightly dismissed. However, the edited volume that covers every dimension of its topic is, to say the least, a rarity. And the real strength of this book is its tight focus on its core theme: the continuous yet changing contribution of voluntarism to civic participation in modern Britain.