Current Events and Philanthropy / Philanthropy and the State

Charity’s No Stranger to Political Advocacy

Editors’ NoteAndrew Purkis concludes this week’s focus on governmental reform of charities within the UK, as part of HistPhil’s forum on philanthropy and the state. The other two pieces on this subtopic were authored by Rhodri Davies and Peter Grant.

England has a proud history of non-party political campaigning for charitable causes, with roots deep in the development of our democratic society. However, today, some decry charity campaigning. A Board Member of the Charity Commission for England and Wales and a UK Minister for Civil Society, for example, both recently told charities to “stick to their knitting,” or rather, to uncontentious practical work. Their criticisms of charity—and thus, of charity’s proper role in the UK– demonstrate a huge deficit of historical understanding.

That is the theme of a Lecture I gave at London’s Cass Business School on 2 September 2015 and of an article in the September edition of the UK’s Charity Finance magazine. Here is a summary of those remarks.

There is a current undercurrent of hostility to charity campaigning, particularly on the right of politics in the UK. It also has been demonstrated in legislation to restrict such activity in periods before elections; in a recent Government move to forbid the use of Government grants for any kind of influencing activity; and more generally, in official Government language that pits “good causes” and “good works” against influencing and advocacy, as if they were antagonists. Rather, these long have been complementary terms in the UK.

The pivotal event of the history of campaigning for charitable causes in England was the great agitation to abolish the British slave trade, accomplished in 1807, and then slavery itself, in 1833 – just after the Great Reform Bill (the first legislation to concede a bigger franchise in order to forestall the perceived danger of revolution). The extension of the franchise and the development of campaigning for a great moral and religious cause went hand-in-hand. Not surprisingly, the eventual success of these campaigns reinforced the idea that great moral advances could and must be secured by entering the arena of politics and parliament. Then as now, practical projects alone could not address systematic evils. So the abolitionists provided the template for countless campaigns in the years that followed, up to and including our own age. Some were agitations for political justice (eg the franchise for more men and women), some for economic justice (eg for the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws that kept food prices high) but many were for social justice and what would now be defined as charitable causes: religious freedoms, the rights of children and of marginalised and vulnerable people, temperance, conservation, animal welfare, human rights, better education, environmental improvement and many others.

The campaigning techniques brought together in a new way by the abolitionists were a mixture of old and new. They included a network of local committees up and down the country with a national office to spear-head and coordinate the campaign (modelled on the Quakers among others). Another key feature was a non-party political approach. Prime Minister William Pitt and his Whig enemy Charles James Fox were both brought on board to support abolition. The campaign was above party politics, as charity campaigning remains today. It also brought together both religiously-motivated people and secular radicals, as the charity sector still does.

Because the campaign had to take on formidable vested interests with deep pockets, the abolitionists had to undertake meticulous, reliable, independent evidence-gathering and research. The quality of their evidence had to be impregnable. They also had to pioneer brilliant use of the media and user friendly communications for different audiences. Another relatively new technique – borrowing from America – was the consumer boycott of West Indian sugar. And the international outlook and reach of abolitionist leaders reflected the fact that, already in the early nineteenth century, it was clear that key moral and social causes were global in character, and could not be addressed solely within one country.

Insider lobbying of parliament and elite politicians was a time honoured enterprise, but the canny combination of this with vigorous external campaigning was new: a combination that has stood the charity sector in good stead ever since.

The abolitionist repertoire also drew on ancient traditions. One was the prolific use of mass petitions. The petition was a key instrument from the time of 13th century king Edward 1st onwards, to present evidence to, and seek justice from, the powers that be. Another was the use of legal test cases to establish legal protections and publicise evils, such as the kidnapping of runaway slaves in England in order to force them to return to slavery in the West Indies. The campaign also drew on an evolving belief in human rights, derived from ancient Christian popular beliefs about the equal preciousness of every person in the eyes of God; from Parliament’s struggles to define liberties against the ambitions of the King, for example in the Civil War of the 1640s; as well as from the Enlightenment and the revolutions of America and France.

And significantly, at the level of charitable campaigning, the gender divide was broken: women became actively involved in the agitation against slavery. 500,000 women signed one petition to the young Queen Victoria.

These techniques brought together by the abolitionists were predicated on hard won freedoms of expression and association, and of the press; on a Parliament and political system opening up step by step to a wider section of the population; on an independent judiciary and developed system of equity and common law; and on the greater connectedness of society as roads, coaches and later railways shortened journey times and more people were gathered in large towns and cities. These proved to be irreversible advances. Once the new repertoire of campaigning techniques had delivered such a vast and improbable triumph, the die was cast for the promotion of a multitude of other charitable causes in the political arena.

Studying both the agitations against slavery and subsequent charitable campaigns, I conclude that charities get involved in political activities for some very important reasons. For they know that excluded or marginalised people, whom many charities exist to champion, cannot obtain their rights without entering and influencing the affairs of the State. They know that sometimes the safety and security of vulnerable communities or people can only be won by the deliberate collective decisions of society, not by practical projects alone.

To which we might add, the safety and security of all of us in the age of global warming. They know that when external events threaten their beneficiaries, they sometimes have to respond by enlisting the support of the wider public, of State agencies or Parliament itself; and they know that current laws or state practices (or lack of them) are sometimes part of the problem and need changing. In particular, new laws or different regulations are often needed in order to address the causes of problems rather than just treat the symptoms.

It must be emphasised that this great history of campaigning is religious as well as secular, and features Tories as well as radicals. William Wilberforce himself (parliamentary champion of abolition) was fiercely conservative on political reform and a great supporter of Pitt’s repression of trade unions and dissent. While radicals and liberals on the Left and centre of politics were campaigning for some progressive causes, the campaigns to limit the hours of work in factories and mines and eliminate child labour were led by Tories like Richard Oastler and Lord Shaftesbury. Political activity has always been and remains a feature of charities associated with “right”, “left”, “centre” and “no” political orientation. It doesn’t belong to any one political persuasion.

Reflecting on this history, those who are hostile or cold towards charities’ influencing and campaigning activity have some questions to answer. Would they rather the slave trade and slavery continued? Would they like little boys to be climbing chimneys and working in mines? Would they rather England’s National Parks and Green Belts were covered in commercial developments, the distinction between town and country lost? Would they like women to be confined to the hearth and home? Would they rather Catholics, Non-conformists and Jews (among others) had no full civic rights? Would they rather parents had untrammelled rights to do whatever they want with their children? Would they like pet dogs to be truncheoned to death on the streets of London by police, as used to happen in the 1880s (for fear of rabies)? Would they like homosexuals to be jailed and repressed (let alone barred from marrying each other)? If not, they should get real about why charity campaigns matter.

Our history shows that the desire to build Jerusalem is hard-wired into people of every generation; and that, to that end, non-party political activity has been an essential part of promoting charitable causes. Those who believe charities should stick to their knitting have completely lost sight of our shared history as a democratic society trying to do what is right.

-Andrew Purkis

Andrew Purkis has been Chair and Chief Executive of prominent UK charities and remains a Board Member of the international charity ActionAid. He has also been special advisor to the Archbishop of Canterbury and a Member of both the Charity Commission and the Parole Board for England and Wales. He has a Doctorate in History from Oxford and blogs in his personal capacity. He lives in London.

Please Note: A full version of Andrew Purkis’s Lecture is available on his website The direct link is here. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewPurkis.


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