History is complicated – and charities have never been an 'antidote to politics'

Last year a National Trust report into slavery and colonialism caused a furore, and claims that charities should stay out of politics – but, as Rebecca Cooney finds out, that has never been an option

Black Lives Matter protesters throw the statue of philanthropist and slave trader Edward Colston into the Avon in June 2020. Photo by Giulia Spadafora/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Black Lives Matter protesters throw the statue of philanthropist and slave trader Edward Colston into the Avon in June 2020. Photo by Giulia Spadafora/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The National Trust looks after more than 500 historic properties across the UK. It estimates that about 93 of them have links to the British Empire and the transatlantic slave trade. 

This is a statement of fact. It is also, in the broadest sense, a political statement – and, according to some, one that is unacceptably controversial for a charity to make. 

The National Trust report on the links between colonialism and the properties and artefacts in its collection was commissioned in September 2019. By the time it was published the following year, the landscape had shifted: with the murder of George Floyd in the US giving rise to global protests over pervasive and systemic racism, and the violent treatment of marginalised groups. In the UK, the statue of the slave trader and philanthropist Edward Colston was torn from its plinth in the centre of Bristol by Black Lives Matter protesters and dumped in the Avon, fuelling an impassioned debate about the legacy of the empire, and the nation’s collective view of its own history. 

National Trust director-general Hilary McGrady recently said in an interview that the timing of the heritage organisation’s report caused it to be conflated with the international BLM movement when it was published in September last year; a coincidence, some might argue, that was exacerbated by some of the responses the report received. 

Baroness Stowell, then-chair of the Charity Commission, suggested publicly that the regulator was looking into the National Trust, and that in publishing the report it had somehow strayed from its charitable objectives and the expectations of its members. Writing in the Telegraph, columnist Simon Heffer opined that the charity was “offering a potted version of Leftist history that is either sanitised or propagandistic”. 

In February, the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, summoned 25 of the UK’s biggest heritage bodies and charities to a summit that resulted in a working group to draw up guidelines on how such organisations should talk about British history.

The following month, the commission concluded its compliance case into the National Trust and conceded that the charity had done nothing wrong, and had in fact consulted 2,000 of its members before releasing the report.

For many, however, the damage had been done. The national newspapers decried the “wokery” of charities, and casual observers would have been left with the impression that the National Trust had, at the very least, skirted the boundaries of what was permitted under charity law, and that charities as a whole were playing a dangerous game. 

Political vs party political

The National Trust report was not part of a campaign, but the reaction to its publication, which framed the report as unacceptably political, raises difficult questions about campaigning as an area in which charities often need to engage explicitly with politics.

Charity campaigns timelineLegally, charities are permitted to engage in political campaigning and discourse as long as it is in furtherance of their charitable objects, is not the sole object of the organisation, and is not party political. This is backed up by the Charity Commission’s own guidance, CC9, which says: “Campaigning and political activity can be legitimate and valuable activities for charities to undertake.”

It is possible to view the National Trust furore as just the latest symptom of a growing hostility toward charities and their ability to speak out in the political arena; following restrictions put in place by the lobbying act, the so-called gagging clauses used in an attempt to prohibit charities in receipt of government funding from lobbying government, and the reform of the judicial review system.

A piece by Stowell in the Mail on Sunday newspaper last November warned charities that they must not engage in “culture wars” – a broad definition of what might be considered risky territory. 

She acknowledged that the law prohibited charities from becoming involved in party politics specifically, but wrote: “What we’ve seen in the past few years is the growth of new divisions which don’t neatly respect party lines.” Stowell also warned those who might be “tempted to use charities as another front on which to wage broader political struggles” to “be careful”, adding that “many people seek out charities as an antidote to politics”.

Chloe Hardy, director of policy and communications at the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, which supports charity campaigners, believes that such comments have created a “dangerous greyness” in public discourse, which frames anything seen as political as off-limits for charities and, ultimately, the general public.

“Whether consciously or unconsciously, commentators have begun conflating political activity with party political activity,” she says. “That leaves us with the notion that democratic debate should only be allowed by elected politicians, and I don’t think anyone would want that to be the case.”

Rhodri Davies, head of policy at the Charities Aid Foundation, says one of the most irritating elements of the “weaponisation of history” demonstrated by the National Trust debate is the implication that charity involvement in politics is an unwelcome new development – but this is simply not the case. 

“It’s almost exactly the opposite,” he says. “If you look at the history of [UK] charity and voluntary organisations, the role they’ve played in campaigning and advocacy and giving voice to marginalised groups and communities has been just as important as, if not more important than, their service provision role. It does a disservice to the history to suggest otherwise.”

The current rules – that charities may participate in political campaigning as long as it is not party political and is in keeping with their charitable objectives – are actually something of  “a fudge that we’ve ended up with for odd historical reasons”, he says.

In a 1917 ruling in the House of Lords over a disputed will, one of the peers, Lord Parker, noted in his summation that “a trust for political purposes has never been deemed valid”. This was “a slightly odd assertion”, Davies says, because it was the first time such a claim had been made.

“If you look before that, the Victorian organisations that we’d think of as charities were doing political work all over the place,” he says. “People like George Cadbury, of chocolate fame, was a philanthropist and was in parliament and owned a newspaper, and he didn’t really see any distinction between those things. That was true for most philanthropists.”

Even Edward Colston himself, memorialised in statue form in 1895 for his philanthropy, did not allow anyone who disagreed with his political and religious views to benefit from his charitable largesse. 

Yet Lord Parker’s statement was written into case law, and became the starting point for how we view the interaction between charities and politics today.

The strange ruling has been built on by 100 years of subsequent case law, “so we can’t just turn the clock back, decide the ruling was wrong and ignore it,” Davies points out.

“But it raises the important point that, when we assume there is a strong theoretical basis for not allowing charities to have really overt political purposes, we should probably test that assumption,” he says.

And despite that ruling, charities have been continuously involved in the political life of the nation for the past 100 years. 

“Whenever you look at any of the big milestones that people might think of as social progress, there will have been divisions around all of them, and yet you can find charities involved from the outset in almost every single one,” Davies says. 

History is complicated: For all the major campaigns where charities were involved on the right side of history, there were just as many people involved in voluntary activity on the other side, argues Rhodri Davies 

The ‘non-divisive’ charity myth 

As long as charities have been involved in campaigning, there has been pushback against it.  

Andrew Purkis, a former Charity Commission board member, points out that in the 1980s, some Conservative MPs complained about charities supporting the anti-apartheid movement, “using a notion of the ‘pure and non-divisive’ charity”. 

“There is nothing new about this antagonism to charities going beyond this limited stereotype of what charities should be, and that they should keep out of politics,” he says. 

“But there has been a sharpening and broadening of it, because of various things – the culture wars phenomenon and the fact that the section of the Tory party that is now in the ascendant are pro-Brexit, free-market idealogues, who are rather more inclined to disrespect institutions and have never liked what charities are trying to do.”

Former Conservative charities minister Rob Wilson rejects the idea that there is currently a more difficult environment for charities wanting to engage in politics.

Nonetheless, he says: “There is a sensitivity that has grown up on the right that charities have been getting away with saying things without sufficient pushback – they’ve made claims about all sorts of things, some of
which are supported by evidence, some of which aren’t.”

Wilson argues charities exercising freedom of speech should expect the same freedom to be exercised by their critics. And, for him, there is no doubt that “the leadership of the sector leans to the left” – although he adds that he doesn’t think the sector as a whole does.

John Picton, lecturer in law and charities at the University of Liverpool, suggests that part of the problem is that the sector was closely associated with both the former Labour government, which invested in the sector financially, and then the Cameron government and its notion of the Big Society.

“The current government actually has a lot of hostility to both of them,” he says.

Picton points out that the commission guidance governing campaigning is very much a product of the Labour government era’s supportive attitude. 

“If you read the CC9 guidance, it’s actually very permissive,” he says. “The case law is much more restrictive, but what that document does is ensure that the commission won’t bring compliance cases against charities – so in that way, it’s more important than the law or what judges have said.”

He says another factor could be what is seen as “a revolving door between the Labour Party and the top of the sector” – pointing to former Labour leadership hopeful David Miliband, who left politics to run the International Rescue Committee, as a prime example. 

But Davies disagrees. “There does need to be some sort of pushback on the notion that the charity sector is a left-wing fifth column of some sort, or is a hotbed of people who are Labour sympathisers or used to work for Labour,” he says. “A handful of small, prominent examples get rolled out to support that idea, but the sector is as diverse as the population that supports it and makes up its workforce.

“The idea that all these organisations could all be some kind of homogeneous mass that can be pigeonholed in that way is quite dangerous and something that needs to be challenged.”

Self-fulfilling prophecies

Baroness Stowell’s criticism of the sector relied, in part, on a claim to be speaking on behalf of the British public. But is there a silent majority of the British people, clasping their hands to their mouths in horror at the notion of charities sharing their views with the world? 

Charity campaigners aren’t convinced. SMK conducts an annual survey of campaigners and activists from charities and voluntary groups around the UK; its latest research, published in January, found that 63 per cent of respondents said politicians had become more negative to campaigning in 2020 (up from 45 per cent in 2019), and 49 per cent said the media had taken a more negative attitude toward campaigning (up from 41 per cent in 2019). 

But the public themselves? Campaigners, at least, are finding them increasingly sympathetic, with 54 per cent saying the public was more positive about campaigning, up from 48 per cent in 2019. 

Activists and campaigners take part in a rally in Parliament Square in January 2020, organised by Safe Passage charity, urging peers in the House of Lords to back Lord Dubs Amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill, which allowed for unaccompanied refugee children to be reunited with their relatives in Britain. WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images

There is a danger that comments suggesting that members of the public disapprove of charity campaigning could become self-fulfilling prophecies – after all, how many people outside the sector understand the rules on campaigning? If a politician or the chair of the Charity Commission appears in the media giving the message that charities have overstepped the mark, many would be likely to believe them. 

Hardy says: “There’s probably a big job to do over the long term helping the public under­stand the role of charities in wider civil society, and that includes responding to immediate needs, [such as] food and shelter for people who need them, and the longer-term duty to stop the need happening in the first place.”

One phenomenon with which many fundraisers are familiar is that, when asked about charities as a whole, many members of the public express distrust and dislike – but in the next sentence will express the opposite opinion about a particular charity or cause close to their heart, apparently without seeing any contradiction. Hardy says this dynamic may also play out around campaigning. 

“It’s not unusual for something as large and sprawling as the charity sector, not to mention civil society, to have a collective problem despite individual excellence,” she says. 

But it’s also difficult for anyone to claim to speak for public opinion, given the diversity of the public itself, as Davies points out.

“Charities could argue they are a reflection of at least a portion of public opinion because they can point to their thousands of supporters – those supporters are the public and they express opinions though joining a charity,” he says. 

Davies also argues that the criticism that charities aren’t reflecting public opinion conflates the notion of agreeing with a charity with the overall trust people have in charities as a sector. 

“I can trust an organisation I don’t agree with if I think it’s representing information fairly and doing it for the right reasons,” he says. 

“I don’t know where this idea comes from that the point of charities is to please all of the people all of the time. 

“When you look at the campaigning role of charities historically, [for] all the major campaigns where charities were involved on the right side of history, there were just as many people involved in voluntary activity on the other side – there was a philanthropic element to the anti-suffrage movement, for example. 

“So to zoom forward to the present day and say ‘if you’re making an argument and some people disagree with you then you’ve got it wrong’ is a misinterpretation of how it works. The whole point of charity, in some ways, is to allow pluralism of views about society and for people to explore them and push for them.”

Final stand 

Picton says it is noticeable that only certain issues seem to lead to complaints of behaving politically. The campaign to provide food for children who would normally have free school meals during lockdown was expressly political, since it was aimed at persuading the government to reverse a policy – but charities weren’t censured for being involved.

The issues seem to arise around the “culture war” topics of national identity, Black Lives Matter and the UK’s history of empire, he says – and he fears the criticism might have had its desired impact. 

“Unfortunately I think it’s quite an effective way to change the behaviour of the sector, even though the National Trust was found to have done nothing wrong,” he says. “No one in the heritage sector will do what the National Trust did now unless they wanted to create a fight with the government. It will have a chilling effect, which is probably on purpose.” 

But Davies argues, for many organisations, attempting to diffuse potential criticism may not be an option. Charities have not only a right, but a responsibility to engage in the political sphere, he says, and “in many cases, if they didn’t speak up they would be negligent in their duty to the people they serve”.

So, faced with this level of hostility, what can the sector do to continue its long tradition of political campaigning?

The international development umbrella body Bond is in the process of compiling a report looking at campaigning during the pandemic, and success stories that have reset the relationship between charities and decision-makers. 

Rosemary Forest, one of the report’s authors, says the campaigns that have leapt out at her are those which are positive, future-focused and work across parties with All Party Parliamentary Groups and Select Committees, often seeking out champions from within Conservative ranks. 

They have also worked across sectors – with anti-poverty campaigners reaching out to health organisations and unions to galvanise additional support. 

Bringing the media into a campaign, such as allowing a newspaper to run its own campaign alongside the charity, can also work well, Forest says – as can involving the public by encouraging them to find creative ways to contribute to the campaign at home. 

“It’s also important to recognise that we’re all people working to make other people’s lives better – including politicians,” she says.

In some ways, she says, the pandemic has made it easier for people to recognise that everyone is struggling and facing challenges, so “what’s come through is a little bit more of the humility that we’re all working within the same system.” 

Purkis agrees. There are no simple answers, he says, but charities need to appreciate that, just as the sector and the public are not monoliths, neither is the Conservative Party.

“We want a better meeting of minds, if possible – a lot of MPs actually come across the work of charities week-by-week in their constituencies and they know the importance of it,” he says.

In addition, he says, making alliances in areas where government policy does coincide with charities’ aims, for example around many environmental issues, can make space for a wider dialogue and understanding.

Hardy suggests that one of the reasons the current animosity between government and campaigners feels so strong is because the debate it sparks often plays out on social media: “In such a public way, in such a live way and in soundbites – it’s difficult to bring complex analysis to this.” 

But, she says: “Given the communications environment we live in right now, maybe that’s just what needs to happen – which is why charities might also need to be more vocal about what they do and be bold about this, explaining why it’s important.”

Hardy is keen to stress how vital this is. 

“Our democracy depends on a lot more than what happens in parliament and politics cannot be left to politicians – they are important to our process, but so is public debate,” she says. 

“A healthy democracy needs room to grow, to explore new ideas, to take account of new circumstances, which need new responses. It can’t do that only through elected representa­tives, it has to do it by understanding what people are experiencing out there. 

“Without charity and civil society campaigning, we’re in trouble.”

Police officers surround the statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square during a demonstration, March 2021. Dave Rushen/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

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