On Thatcher and Charity

Originally posted on the VAHS blog as Margaret Thatcher and the Voluntary Sector on 17 April 2013

Today sees the ceremonial funeral of Margaret Thatcher. The past week has seen plenty of discussion, essentially about how she was both phenomenal and phenomenally divisive figure in British politics, and there is little merit in rehashing those arguments and assessments here. However, it is worth noting her importance in relation to those aspects of British national life that we discuss here on this blog: charity, campaigning, community participation and civil society.

Margaret Thatcher’s appreciation of ‘Victorian values’ was well known. In a 1977 speech she said that ‘the Victorian era — the heyday of free enterprise in Britain — was also the era of the rise of selflessness and benefaction’. However, it was always clear that economic freedom came first. In 1988, Margaret Thatcher addressed the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, laying out the theological foundations of her worldview. The word ‘charity’ was not used. The closest she came was saying:

“How could we respond to the many calls for help, or invest for the future, or support the wonderful artists and craftsmen whose work also glorifies God, unless we had first worked hard and used our talents to create the necessary wealth?

Margaret Thatcher delivering her 'Sermon on the Mound' speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on 21 May 1988Meanwhile, the most cited line from the speech became that ‘Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform’. It was to this moral individualism that she later attributed her 1979 election victory: ‘what they really wanted was the independence and freedom of self-reliance and responsibility’. This was a classic Thatcherite statement, based on a tension between state and individual, but with little attention paid to those social institutions and organisations that mediate between the two. Where social action played a role, it was as a buttress against an over-mighty state. She told the Women’s Royal Volunteer Service in 1981 that the ‘willingness of men and women to give service is one of freedom’s greatest safeguards. It ensures that caring remains free from political control.’

For Margaret Thatcher, voluntary organisations were only important to the extent that they served a role in an economic or political agenda. In this respect, a young Opposition Treasury spokesperson called Gordon Brown observed in 1988:

“We have seen charity pulled from the lumber room of social history, dusted off and, much to the embarrassment and anger of Britain’s voluntary organisations, presented to a doubting or indifferent public as a vital component of thoroughly modern Thatcherism.”

However, this was also part of something bigger. The 1978 Wolfenden Report had called for a greater role for private and voluntary welfare provision before she came to office, in line with changes already underway in the 1970s. This shift from the old welfare bureaucracies to a contract culture within which voluntary agencies could (attempt to) bid alongside public and private providers began before 1979 and has continued and expanded since 1990. One challenge for us is to separate the woman with the wider changes, but how far is such a distinction possible when we are considering someone who sought to reshape the nation over 11 years as Prime Minister?

It would be a mistake to write Thatcher and the Thatcher governments out of this story completely, however, as they were key agents of this change. Since 1979, as the late historian Geoffrey Finlayson noted, the commercial, charitable and informal sectors have been ‘seen more as potential alternatives to the Welfare State than as a supplement or stimulus to it’. However, the legacy of the Thatcher governments for the voluntary sector lies primarily in unintended consequences. This was true when opposition to her policies proved a great impetus to the establishment of campaign groups opposed to industrial closures and mutual networks of support amongst striking communities, and it was true for the relationship between the voluntary sector and the state.

Government grants increased from £93 million in 1979/80 to £293 million in 1987/8 while becoming more selective, at the same time as local government funding and the grants they were able to give were cut dramatically. Consequently, as historian Frank Prochaska has written for this blog and elsewhere, in her desire to roll back the frontiers of the state she centralised what remained and made the voluntary sector evermore dependent upon it. This has led to serious  questions about the independence of the voluntary sector that remain a major debating point today. For example, Eliza Filby has written about the local collaborations between the churches and the Manpower Services Commission in the early 1980s, which did provide some practical support for the unemployed but also cast the churches in the role of paternalistic agents of the state. This caused problems when programme changes and funding cutbacks showed the voluntary associations were a low priority for the government and left them tainted with an association to an unpopular political agenda. Above all else, we might therefore remember Margaret Thatcher’s most lasting legacy in this area as the increased politicisation of charity. Perhaps a fitting if unexpected legacy for such an inherently political person.

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