Charitable Campaigning: Reclaiming our Shared History

England has a proud history of non-party political campaigning for charitable causes, with roots deep in the development of our democratic society. Those who decry charity campaigning today are demonstrating a huge deficit of historical understanding.

That is the theme of a Lecture I gave at Cass Business School on 2 September, a full length copy of which is on this website (“Our Good Old English Fashion”) and a slightly edited version in the September edition of Charity Finance. Here are the bare bones.

The pivotal event of this history was the great agitation to abolish the British slave trade, accomplished in 1807, and then slavery itself, in 1833 – just after the Great Reform Bill. The extension of the franchise and the development of campaigning for a great moral and religious cause went hand in hand. Not surprisingly, the eventual success of these campaigns reinforced the idea that great moral advances could and must be secured by entering the arena of politics and parliament. Then as now, practical projects alone could not address systematic evils. So the abolitionists provided the template for countless campaigns in the years that followed, up to and including our own age. Some were agitations for political justice (eg the franchise for more men and women), some for economic justice (eg the Corn Laws) but many were for social justice and what would now be defined as charitable causes: religious freedoms, the rights of children and of marginalised and vulnerable people, temperance, conservation, animal welfare, human rights, better education, environmental improvement and many others.

The repertoire of campaigning techniques brought together in a new way by the abolitionists were themselves deeply rooted in our history. They included:

– a network of local committees up and down the country with a national office to spear-head and coordinate the campaign (modelled on the Quakers among others)

– a non-party political approach. Pitt and his enemy Fox were both brought on board. This was above party politics, as charity campaigning remains today

– meticulous, reliable, independent evidence-gathering and research

– a strong combination of religious and secular motives, both of which remain part and parcel of the charity sector today

– an evolving belief in human rights, derived from ancient religious beliefs going back to the Peasants’ Revolt as well as the Enlightenment and from Parliament’s struggles against absolutist Kings

– an international outlook, since these problems were global

– brilliant use of the media and user friendly communication

– canny combination of “insider”, parliamentary and extra-parliamentary arms of the campaign

– the use of mass petitions: the petition was a key instrument from the time of Edward 1st onwards (died 1307) to present evidence to, and seek justice from, the powers that be

– the use of legal test cases to establish legal protections and publicise evils (eg protection for runaway slaves in England threatened with being kidnapped and sent back to the West Indies by their masters).

– the breaking of the gender divide as women became very actively involved in the agitation against slavery. 500,000 women signed one petition to the young Queen Victoria. In the long run, there was no turning back once women were involved in the political commonwealth.

– consumer boycott of West Indian sugar

These techniques were predicated on hard won freedoms of expression and association, and of the press; on a Parliament and political system opening up step by step to a wider section of the population; on an independent judiciary and developed system of equity and common law; on the greater connectedness of society as roads, coaches and later railways shortened journey times and more people were gathered in large towns and cities. These proved to be irreversible advances. Once the new repertoire of campaigning techniques had delivered such a vast and improbable triumph, the die was cast for the promotion of a multitude of other charitable causes in the political arena.

Studying both the agitations against slavery and subsequent charitable campaigns, I conclude that charities get involved in political activities for the following reasons:

1 Excluded or marginalised people cannot obtain their rights without
entering and influencing the affairs of the State;
2 When external events threaten a charity’s beneficiaries they have
to respond by enlisting the support of the wider public, of State
agencies or Parliament itself;
3 Political activity is often needed in order to address the causes
of problems rather than just treat the symptoms;
4 Current laws or State practices (or lack of them) are part of the
problem, and need changing; and
5 Sometimes the safety and security of vulnerable communities or
people can only be won by the deliberate collective decisions of
society, not by practical projects alone.
To which we might add, the safety and security of all of us
in the age of global warming.

It must be emphasised that this great history is religious as well as secular, and features Tories as well as radicals. Wilberforce himself was fiercely conservative on political reform and a great supporter of Pitt’s repression of trade unions and dissent. While radicals and liberals were campaigning for some progressive causes, the campaigns to limit the hours of work in factories and mines and eliminate child labour were led by Tories like Richard Oastler and Lord Shaftesbury. Political activity has always been and remains a feature of charities associated with “right”, “left”, “centre” and “no” political orientation (see my blog Dangerous Campaigning Charities, 30 July 2015).

Reflecting on this history, those who are hostile or cold towards charities’ political activity have some questions to answer. Would they rather the slave trade and slavery continued? Would they like little boys to be climbing chimneys and working in mines? Would they rather the National Parks and Green Belts were covered in commercial developments, the distinction between town and country lost? Would they like women to be confined to the hearth and home? Would they rather Catholics, Non-conformists and Jews (among others) had no full civic rights? Would they rather parents had untrammelled rights to do whatever they want with their children? Would they like pet dogs to be truncheoned to death on the streets of London by police, as used to happen in the 1880s? Would they like homosexuals to be jailed and repressed (let alone barred from marrying each other)?

Our history shows that the desire to build Jerusalem is hard-wired into people of every generation; and that, to that end, non party political activity has been an essential part of promoting charitable causes. Those who believe charities should stick to their knitting have completely lost sight of our shared history as a democratic society trying to do what is right.


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