All politicians kill the thing they love – charities beware
Farewell, “Disgusted” of Tunbridge Wells. The Conservative MP for that constituency has this week published a paper that invites a new nom de plume for submissions from the Kentish town: “Enlightened” of Tunbridge Wells.
First Principles: Poverty is Relative and Social Exclusion Matters is a model of clarity and common sense. Greg Clark, MP, assisted by Peter Franklin, has added to understanding of what poverty means in Britain today, and pointed a sensible direction for opposition policy. Yesterday on the radio David Cameron gave solid support for Mr Clark’s thinking, adding ideas of his own which he has been signalling for some time now.
What are these Tories saying? Pointless, I suppose, to recommend looking at the original document rather than media reports of it, but you should. The headlines were all about Winston Churchill and Polly Toynbee, but Mr Clark’s paper for the Conservative Party’s Social Justice Policy Group is not, in fact, an attack on Churchill and nor is it a headlong rush into the embrace of a female left-wing Guardian columnist.
So set aside the imagery that usefully captured the headlines — of Churchill’s theory of a welfare safety net with ladders, and Toynbee’s metaphor of a Saharan camel caravan where none are left too far behind. What Mr Clark is saying, and what Mr Cameron repeated yesterday, is on one level obvious. Poverty is relative. The thought is hardly new. Mr Clark quotes Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations arguing that in his own day a failure to possess a linen shirt “would be supposed to denote . . . [a] disgraceful degree of poverty . . .” In yesterday’s Times Mary Ann Sieghart suggested this is just as applicable today.
Mr Clark quoted figures to show that if you take “the poor” to be those who have fallen a long way behind the rest of us, then poverty has been getting worse under both Conservative and (now) Labour governments. He suggested (and Mr Cameron agreed) that helping the worryingly large band of increasingly hopeless stragglers to catch up should be an important goal of social policy. He pointed out that this was not the same thing as compressing the gap between those in the middle and those who are relatively close behind them.
To put it in everyday terms, imagine that our tax-credit system helps a moderately hard-up household get within reach of buying a better car than the elderly Fiesta they now run; but the gap between these people and those who cannot afford a car at all widens. Depending on definitions and use of statistics, such a change can be presented as either an increase or a decrease in overall poverty. Mr Clark and Mr Cameron are arguing that we should look past the statistics and understand that a growing gap between the very poorest and the rest is a huge headache. We are becoming more strung-out as a nation. As a group, the hopeless stragglers represent an enormous burden on the nation’s health, education, law enforcement and (I would argue) general sense of tranquillity and common justice. They generate unhappiness, both for themselves and for the rest of us: a sense of reproach.
As Shadow Minister for Charities, Social Enterprise and Volunteering, Mr Clark will be taking forward Tory ideas for tackling the problem he identifies. It is in the nature of columnists to be contrarian, so having said that I think he and Mr Cameron are right, can I introduce two doubts?
The first is long-term. You will have noted Adam Smith’s running-together of poverty and what he calls disgrace. That may sound un-PC but Smith is making a perceptive point. A feeling of failure arises from the way you are seen by those who have done better than you. But (to take up Toynbee’s Saharan metaphor) by narrowing the distance between the camels in your caravan, by compressing the train, you do not alter the order of precedence. Though closer to the tail of the camel in front of him, the last camel is still last. It may be that a group between whose members the differences are made smaller begins making more of small differences. A sense of relative failure — Smith’s “disgrace” — may not be dispelled as reliably by compressing the range of incomes as anti-poverty campaigners hope.
My second doubt is more immediate. Mr Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith have been making much of the excellent work among the socially excluded of a wide variety of non-governmental groups. A whole platoon of local self-help societies, charities small and large, church groups, business-in-the-community ventures, all show striking returns on the money and effort invested. Voluntarism, evangelism, philanthropy, even enlightened commercial ventures, really work.
From this the Tories draw the conclusion that government policy should be to look beyond direct state intervention, beyond the delivery of public services by public sector structures and bureacracies, and rope in a rainbow of freelance initiatives. Grants should be easier to get, hybrid partnerships between local authorities and citizens’ groups should be easier to set up. The public sector’s ancient distrust of what it sees as amateurism outside its gates, should be replaced by an open invitation by the State to us all, to find ways of helping each other.
It sounds lovely. But there’s a problem. And it is not, I think, the problem that Mary Ann suggests: that there just aren’t enough of these one-off freelancers. Freelancing can be encouraged and expanded tremendously. But how do you keep the “free” in freelance, once you’re an item in a government strategy document?
A comparable fashion gripped us during the 1980s when the Tory Government became envious of the efficiency of the private sector and keen to introduce business culture into government. The late Julian Critchley said of Margaret Thatcher that “she cannot pass a branch of Marks & Spencers without inviting the manager to join her private office”. This yielded fewer results than hoped. Initiatives wilted. Bureaucracy mounted. Mrs T’s new business recruits turned their faces to the wall.
Mr Cameron may find that the reason the small platoons he wants to rope in to a national plan have been succeeding is that they have not been roped in to a national plan. No targets; no mission statements; no inspectors; no departmental imperatives; no health ’n’ safety; no paperwork; in some cases no year-end accounts. Their clients among the poor have not seen themselves as having “rights” nor their staff as having “duties”. Nobody has been paid at civil service rates. Working hours have been ad hoc. Working conditions have often been primitive.
All that is threatened, once you are answerable to a minister or town hall. And if you are not answerable then sooner or later when something goes wrong, you will be made answerable: a child loses a finger on your new playground swings; a volunteer turns out to be a paedophile; the petty cash goes missing; and the tabloids scream Something Must Be Done. Observation of charitable NGOs delivering aid abroad leads me to think that the closer outfits get to government, the more they behave like governments. They lose their edge. They bicker about pay scales.
I have argued in other columns that there is at the heart of 21st-century politics a deep despair. We no longer believe in the aptitude of the State to do anything itself. The State looks enviously at public service delivered by agencies not in its employ, and thinks: “I’ll have some of that.”
But it’s slash-and-burn; it’s Blood of Virgins. Politicians love unpolitical people. They love can-do enthusiasts. They woo and capture them. Then they kill the thing they love. Show me the Salvation Army captain filling in a medical benefits form before heaving a comatose alcoholic on to the kerbside, and I’ll show you a Tory initiative heading nowhere. If Mr Cameron and an incoming Conservative government are really to harness the small platoons, it will have to be a most ingenious harness.