Insight: Reinventing the wheel

A quick glance at recent history reveals that political interest in volunteering is far from a new phenomenon.

Modern politicians often present their burgeoning interest in volunteering as a revolutionary idea that came to them in a bolt of inspirational lightning.

However, according to historian and director of the Institute for Volunteering Research Justin Davis Smith, “Interest in volunteering is a strand throughout British political history certainly since the war but going back even further than that.”

And the reason, he says, is very simple: history repeats itself. “We should not be surprised that Government is looking at volunteering because they face many of the same social issues as previous ones,” he says.

The modern volunteering movement got going in the 1960s. By then, hopes the welfare state could fulfil all of people’s needs had faded and the voluntary movement was hit upon as a way to plug the gaps. This, of course, is still how many charities see their role today, while the limits of the state’s power is now regarded as a truism.

“There has been a recognition on both the left and the right that the state can’t provide the solution to all of society’s ills,” says Davis Smith.

Even the Fabian Society, whose historical suspicion of volunteers is well known, is happy enough to go along with that analysis. “As long as we maintain the idea that the state should be the guarantor of provision of services, we can take an honest look at the value volunteering can add,” says research director Tim Horton.

The youth of today

Another reason for the 1960s push to encourage volunteering has a modern resonance: concern about disaffected youth. Mods, rockers, hippies, Hell’s Angels and student revolutionaries were all seen as being disconnected from the rest of society, and both politicians and the media depicted them as a threat to it.

Compare this to current social exclusion minister Hilary Armstrong’s comment in parliament earlier this year that: “encouraging young people in particular to volunteer is an important way for them to improve their self-esteem, engage effectively with other people, and build skills and confidence that will serve them well in years to come.”

“There has been a growing recognition of the real value of volunteering as a means of bringing communities together and empowering people at the margins of society,” confirms Davis Smith.

Armstrong’ emphasis on building skills is also an echo of the past. Such bodies as CSV were established amid the conviction that volunteering – particularly community work – could be a way for socially disadvantaged people to better themselves and find their way into the workforce.

Emergency measures

Then came the economic downturn and service cutbacks of the 1970s. Once again, there is a familiar ring to the fears of unions that their members would lose their jobs as volunteers were called upon to deliver an ever-greater number of statutory services.

The Labour government gave assurances on that front, but even James Callaghan said in 1979: “the use of volunteers should, where possible, be extended”, culminating in volunteers maintaining essential services during the Winter of Discontent.

Volunteering’s cause was taken up with ideological fervour in the 1980s by the Thatcher government. The voluntary sector was lauded as being cost-effective, independent and flexible – in contrast to the bureaucratic, socialistic Leviathan of the state.

Horton claims to detect the same convictions underlying current Tory leader David Cameron’s embrace of volunteering. “Further use of the voluntary sector is a way of cutting the size of the state,” he says.

For her part, Mrs Thatcher appeared to believe that statutory services should be supplementary to those provided by volunteers, rather than vice versa, saying in 1981: “The willingness of men and women to give service is one of freedom’s greatest safeguards. It leaves men and women independent enough to meet needs as they see them, and not as the state provides.”

Volunteering was also seized upon once again as a solution to the exploding problem of unemployment. Large numbers of unemployed people were recruited by such bodies as Manpower Services to do skill-building community work.

This, in turn, sparked fears about whether the third sector was losing its voluntary aspect as various ‘incentives’ such as extra benefits were offered to unemployed people who volunteered – much as fears have been raised by the Chancellor’s recent announcement that he is considering reducing the tuition fees of students who volunteer. However, once funding was offered to help coordinate volunteering programmes, charities were quick to get involved.

Lessons of history

According to Davis Smith, the difference between past and present political interest is not qualitative but quantitative.

“What has been different over the last 10 to 15 years the extent of interest in and commitment to volunteering,” he says.

But what does history tell us about volunteering’s effectiveness as a cure to the various social ills to which it has been applied?

While warning against politicians’ tendency to present it as a panacea, Davis Smith insists it has an important contribution to make in solving such problems as youth alienation and unemployment.

“There is now a wealth of evidence now about the value of volunteering for both society and the individual,” he says.

However, while that might be music to modern politicians’ ears, Davis Smith’s warning against relying on shiny new initiatives might be less melodic.

“Politicians like big announcements but what works better is to improve the non-sexy stuff that is already there like infrastructure,” he says.

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