Dr Frank Prochaska, historian and member of Somerville College, has delivered a lecture entitled ‘The State of Charity’ to the Annual General Meeting of the Charity Commission.

The lecture, which Dr Prochaska delivered to a full auditorium at Church House in Westminster on 17 September, compared the practice of philanthropy in the Victorian era to the increasingly state-funded provision of charity in the era of the welfare state in Britain. ‘The boundaries between the state and charity used to be clearer’ he said.

In recent decades charities had put their independence at risk through accepting service contracts and funding from the state, a problem that resulted from a personal or individualist philanthropy being supplanted by a collectivist view of how provision for the needy should be provided.

Perhaps the most illustrative example of postwar official disdain for philanthropy in Britain was the creation of the NHS, since it involved the government nationalisation of more than 1,100 voluntary hospitals which had been funded through private giving.

“It was the biggest government confiscation of property since the dissolution of the monasteries,” said Dr Prochaska, in response to an observation from a member the audience that Henry VIII’s closure of the monasteries had meant the loss of widespread care for the sick.

William Shawcross, Chair of the Charity Commission, with Frank Prochaska

One man’s democracy

Dr Prochaska also pointed to how the Victorian belief in democracy was exemplified in the practice of philanthropy, whereas many who advocated the more statist approach despised philanthropy for its reflection of unequal class structures and thus of existing power relationships between the classes. Dr Prochaska cited Gordon Brown, who once described philanthropy as ‘a sad and seedy competition for public pity’.

Dr Prochaska pointed out that government is now by far and away the largest provider of funding to charity, giving some £14 billion in 2012-13, with the result that charitable campaigners too often do what they are paid to do rather than what they care about.

“No one is rude to his rich uncle,” he noted.

Part of the answer, he said, lay in the typology; charities needed to be obliged to be more transparent about what proportion of their funding was derived from government and, if it were above a certain threshold, the question of their charitable status might need to be reconsidered.

He also pointed to the remarkable tradition of working-class philanthropy – the charity of the poor to the poor – saying that this aspect of philanthropy is now all but ignored.

He argued that the issue of the relations between the state and charity did not look likely to be addressed any time soon, given that politicians of all parties wished to co-opt and regulate charities for their own purposes.

“The poor will always have us with them,” he said in conclusion.

Dr Frank Prochaska is the author of several books on Victorian Britain. He is married to Dr Alice Prochaska, Principal of Somerville College. A transcript of his lecture can be accessed on the Charity Commission website. An article about the talk can also be found on the Civil Society website.

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