Progressive centralism or the Conservatism of Cameron?

Rosamund McCarthy considers the impact of state funding on charities

David Cameron's doctrine of compassionate Conservatism is becoming clearer by the day: vibrant, locally based charities will reduce the need for top-down state action; philanthropy will provide more of the answers. But is it realistic in a recession to place more trust in philanthropy? Aren't charity fundraisers already stretched to the limit in a highly competitive environment?

Corporate giving is a tiny fraction of overall donations, even in affluent times. The poorest are the most generous. But is there an alternative to philanthropy? Yes - a far better solution would be to harvest the billions of corporate money hidden from HM Revenue & Customs in offshore tax havens. Only the state, funded by progressive taxation, can ensure equitable access to services. It was the state, not charities, that improved the lives of millions with top- down solutions on health and education. And it is the state, not charities, that could, and should, regulate the market and protect citizens agai nst speculation and greed.

But charities - and broader civil society - do play a crucial role. They are the active ingredients, the yeast in the bread, without which the state would become indigestible, leaving us with a horrible stomach ache. Charities constitute a lever that helps to make government smarter and more efficient, a buffer against the state's increasing tendency to centralise and erode our civil liberties. Indeed, the freedom of charities to innovate and take risks, without having to create replicable services, softens the state's rigidity and is an essential part of our liberty.

The Conservatives fear charities' creeping dependence on the state, as if charities funded by central government inevitably morph into the state, or as if state funding is incompatible with dynamic, enterprising efficiency. Neither is true. The ability of charities to engage in social enterprise and to campaign, and the role of the Charity Commission as an independent regulator, are all part of the yeast that makes the bread rise. Charity is no less 'caritas' whether the funder is the state or private philanthropy. Of course, some charities will kowtow to funders, but a surprising number don't. To save the state from itself, the funding of charities should not be cut. Compassionate conservatism or progressive statism: take your pick.

Rosamund McCarthy is a partner in law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite and writes in a personal capacity

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