Opinion: Britain's deep-rooted concept of charity

Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief

In his landmark study The Gift Relationship, Richard Titmuss said of blood donors: "In not asking for or expecting any payment, these donors signified their belief in the willingness of others to act altruistically in the future, and to make a gift freely available should they have a need for it." He goes on to say that this is not altruism, but serial reciprocity, a characteristic of voluntary action.

What are we to make of the donations to the various tsunami appeals?

As I write, the DEC announces the closure of its appeal (good on it) with more than £300m donated, though other appeals continue. Do all these donors expect that in time of need - terrorism, flooding, civil catastrophe - other people whom we shall never meet, whose names we shall never know, will be prepared to help us? I believe we do, though we have only the vaguest idea of the circumstances in which that help will be forthcoming.

That vague idea is charity.

It's apt this tsunami appeal should have happened in the year of the volunteer, and that it has turned out to be a much bigger declaration of belief in charity than any official label. In the UK every year is the year of the volunteer - despite the repeated obituaries for charitable action - but it is demonstrated through causes and means of giving that fit the times.

The idea that we have a communal duty to the weak and vulnerable is embodied in the Statute of Charitable Uses of 1601, which codified existing social mores. Opinion has swung back and forth over the intervening centuries, but we still have a shared but unspoken idea of what is the business of the state and therefore funded by taxation, what is the responsibility of the individual and the family, and what is charitable or voluntary.

One reason the debate over the Charities Bill has been so difficult is that we are trying to give voice to concepts we don't normally articulate - they are woven so deeply into the texture of British society we don't often have to.

One way in which we express this is in elections: voting patterns demonstrate what we expect of taxation and therefore the part played by government in combination with us and others. And in the past 60 years, not much has changed, despite Thatcher's denial of the existence of community and the incursions of Blair's Government into markets. This is not a frontier society in which, if we don't do it for ourselves, no one else will; nor is it one in which the markets restrict and coerce every decision ... yet.

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