A New Civil Society Minister

Cameron's Civil Society Ministers: Nick Hurd, Brooks Newmark and Rob Wilson

What is the job of the Civil Society Minister? Rob Wilson MP (above right) will be pondering this question as he succeeds the short-lived tenure of Brooks Newmark (above centre). His departure was part of an uncomfortable double-billing of headlines for David Cameron on the weekend ahead of the final Conservative Party conference before the next general election. The other was that of a second parliamentary Tory defection to UKIP, meaning a second byelection could see the libertarian/anti-immigration/anti-EU party with at least two seats in the House of Commons before the next general election. The attention will all be on the Prime Minister’s struggle to maintain an alliance with the unhappy right-wing of his party. In many ways, the lack of significance around this other loss for the Prime Minister tells us the other half of a worrying story for Downing Street.

The newspaper stories about the resignation of Brooks Newmark inevitably focus on the sordid details. Via WhatsApp he sent pictures of himself to a young woman he believed wanted his help to enter politics. Instead, she was an undercover reporter who sold the story to the Sunday Mirror. The story ran in The Sun under the headline “LOOK AT THE SIZE OF MY MAJORITY”, while the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson helpfully commented “the paisley pyjamas at least show that some Tory traditions are being upheld”. While I have a lot of time for the view that personal misdemeanours should not force the end of a political career, I can’t deny being somewhat relieved to see this particular departure from the ministerial stage.

Ministers are often in post for too short a time to really grasp a complex brief, but Newmark’s two months is especially fleeting. You might think he would have had no time to do anything newsworthy, but you’d be wrong. After his first speech in the role, he stunned a conference on social action by declaring that charities should “stick to their knitting”. Asked in a Q&A session about concerns expressed by Tory colleagues about the boundary between campaigning and lobbying, he said:

“We really want to try and keep charities and voluntary groups out of the realms of politics. 99.9 per cent do exactly that. When they stray into the realm of politics that is not what they are about and that is not why people give them money. The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others.”

In doing so, the new minister was quoting Gwythian Prins – an emeritus professor whose expertise lies in the field of defence policy and history, who was criticised for a lack of relevant experience when appointed to the board of the Charity Commission. In an interview with Third Sector magazine, Professor Prins explained his approach: “Done properly and effectively, regulation is the single best way to protect and comfort traditional charities. We have to deter the bad guys and thereby reinforce the good guys.” Part of this, presumably, was “charities keeping their campaigning within their charitable objects and purposes”. He continued:

“Problems arise when charities push the envelope, and some have recently been in the public eye because of this. If a charity campaigns about matters that appear to be outside its objects, then naturally we will look at it. The weather has changed on this front. The public expects charities to stick to their knitting, to use an old-fashioned phrase. There’s huge affection for charitable activities involving the giving of time and money. I agree with my neighbour in the village coffee shop: this is something that has to be protected and cherished.”

Understandably this language was noticed far more widely when used by a government minister, and the backlash was inevitable – and twitter was not short of witty comebacks from those involved in the campaigning work of the voluntary sector.

charity knitting

The view of Brooks Newmark, and of course Gwyn Prins and many others, is problematic for a number of reasons. The least of which is that knitting can itself be political – in addition to the examples above, those living in the trendier parts of the trendier cities will be familiar with yarn bombing and craftivism. More importantly, as one tweeter noted, the notion that charity is something respectable, safe and domestic, is somewhat out of keeping with its history. Even the most traditional of charities are not apolitical, as fellow historian Gareth Millward has recently been blogging:

“Charity has never been apolitical. It is a political choice when we decide which sections of ‘the poor’ are worthy of our help (veterans? disabled people? homeless?); when we decide what sorts of schools we want to fund (Eton? faith schools? Steiner?); whether to support hospitals or stray cats; global warming or teenage mothers; its all political. To pretend otherwise may be ‘ineffably English’ – but it’s also a lie.”

I see this in my own research. Although I usually focus on pre-NHS voluntary hospitals, institutions providing care and treatment for the sick poor in an uncomplicated charitable service, politics is everywhere. Should those whose sickness is more a manifestation of their poverty not be treated in the infirmary of their local workhouse? Should the state not provide grants to these voluntary organisations to ensure the continuance of much needed medical services? Should doctors not fear becoming salaried servants of the state if the proposed National Health Service comes into effect? These are just a few of the questions that loomed large in my period. The idea that charities exist in a cosy world, safely separate from bitterly contested party politics, is bunkum.

Recently I’ve also been working on a more directly political episode in the history of the voluntary sector – researching the history of the Child Poverty Action Group. CPAG was one of those organisations established in the 1960s, alongside Shelter and the Disablement Income Group, that overturned assumptions that the postwar welfare state had abolished poverty and began to campaign for the adoption of particular policies to achieve that aim. For half a century such groups have had an important place in British (and global) civil society, and their history is beginning to be written. Matthew Hilton and others have led the way in this, emphasising the significance of professionalisation and expertise for this new brand of voluntary organisation.

One danger here is of playing into the hands of a certain view of modern British history that sees the 1960s more generally as the time when it all went wrong – in this case with these professional campaigners effectively co-opting a charitable tradition for the purpose of their own lobbying. My initial steps into researching this chapter of charity history suggest perhaps more continuities, something kaleidoscopic rather than a radical break. In the case of CPAG, the image of a small group of trouble-making sociology professors having a spat with Harold Wilson’s Labour government is very much a partial one. As founding member and long-time CPAG president Peter Townsend recalled in a 2000 witness seminar:

“Although [the local branches] had a very fitful history, there was a vitality in them and a lot of publicity going on in some of them. Moreover, which is a point related to correct or democratic representation, some of the campaigning groups got involved in welfare rights issues and rubbed noses with people who were experiencing the sharp end of life. I think that led to a kind of authority which has not been mentioned yet. The group, along with some other groups that came into being at the time, actually was both communicating with the public generally and politicians in particular.”

These campaigners may have looked more like professional lobbyists, but they were often rooted in their own communities and in wider grassroots movements – the very tapestry of civil society. The fact their politics was radical and confronted establishment thinking was itself part of a long tradition. Let us not forget women in Britain have only had the vote on equal terms to men since 1928. Yet the history of civil society, as imagined by some, is one that finds no place for the suffragettes, let alone the chartists or the trade union movement.

We might have assumed that David Cameron offered something different from this Thatcherite view of civil society when he declared he wanted to see communities with oomph. Indeed, I began blogging in the earlier days of the Coalition when it was still possible to hold out some hope that, beneath the sloganising, the Prime Minister actually intended power to be devolved out, as well as contracted out, from central government. Most academics were, to say the least, deeply sceptical of a political agenda summed up in the crass dichotomy of “big society not big government”. Pat Thane, Frank Prochaska and Glen O’Hara all offered thoughtful critiques from different perspectives. There were more constructive engagements (including edited volumes from Hilton and McKay and Ishkanian and Szreter) from those who saw an opportunity for rethinking civic relations in Britain in the twenty-first century.

One reason to have some hope was the appointment of Nick Hurd (pictured top left) as Civil Society Minister in the coalition government. For two years in opposition and four years in government, Hurd was tasked with making something of David Cameron’s vague but seemingly genuine talk of the ‘big society’. He had no previous expertise in the area, but held the brief long enough to build relationships and gain a firm grasp of the issues at stake. The rarity of this must be in large part responsible for the view of NCVO Chair Martyn Lewis that Hurd was “undoubtedly the best charities minister that we have ever had”.

It was certainly not because he had been able to win over colleagues across government to a strong agenda supporting Britain’s voluntary organisations. Half-way through Hurd’s time in office I felt able to write that the big society was dead. By then the charge sheet included a decline in paid staff and the increase in food banks, cuts in both government grants and the budget of Hurd’s Office for Civil Society, a damning report from the Public Accounts Committee in 2011 and a cap on tax relief for charitable giving in the 2012 Budget. There were also high-profile desertions from policy advisor Steve Hilton, ‘big society tsar’ Lord Wei, and the decision of Joe Anderson (then Council Leader and now Mayor) to withdraw Liverpool from being a big society vanguard area. Now we can add most prominently the Lobbying Act to the list – a hugely problematic piece of legislation that restricts campaigning in an election period, including by charities.

Where David Cameron entered Downing Street talking about civil society being a key component a participatory democracy, empowering communities, voluntary organisations are now just another problem for government to regulate. It certainly exposes the government to the charge of shrinking the state and being guilty of over-reach in their management of what remains. Its political significance lies in the fact that talk of the big society (alongside promising an end to top-down reorgansiations of the NHS) was David Cameron’s favoured means of demonstrating this would not be his way of governing.

So what of the new civil society minister? He strongly supported the Lobbying Bill and even complained to the Charity Commission about the Family and Childcare Trust, whose activities on twitter he said amounted to an endorsement of Labour policy – primarily on the grounds that they used the same hashtags as Labour campaigners: #childcarecrisis and #childcarecrunch. He seems unlikely to repeat Nick Hurd’s unusual trick of being a popular minister in an unpopular government, particularly in the run-up to the first general election governed by the new legislation.

There are serious debates to be had about the balance between state and society in the twenty-first century, and the place of charity and campaign groups within this. Their rebranding as the ‘third sector’ by New Labour was part of a closer and more complex relationships with government, leading to concerns today of a corrosive effect on their independence. This relationship is a delicate one, but also one that lies at the fault-lines of British governance. A glance back to the past shows something more diverse and chaotic than the outgoing, or it appears the incoming, minister has recognised.


2 Replies to “A New Civil Society Minister”

  1. Reblogged this on Infrastructure and Other Animals and commented:
    Here’s an interesting blog from George Gosling on the history of charity campaigning, in the light of Brooks Newmark’s resignation from his Minister for Civil Society post. During his time in post, Mr Newmark criticised charities for getting involved in politics and campaigning, suggesting they should ‘stick to their knitting’.

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