Charities up in alms

George Osborne's tax changes have been criticised for threatening charity in this country - if only, laments Paul Demarty

It is usually a pleasure and a delight to see government ministers squirm - especially those of the (ahem) calibre of George Osborne.

Yet the latest howls of outrage, accusations of rank incompetence and demands for a u-turn leave a somewhat sour taste in the mouth - certainly when compared with the savoury charms of ‘pastygate’. The relevant matter, of course, is the chancellor’s stated intention to restrict the amount of money one can write off one’s taxes by donating it to charity. All manner of vested interests - from funding-starved arts groups to elite universities, to major charities of all kinds - are climbing over each other to stick the knife in.

The charities themselves are concerned, supposedly, that Osborne’s rhetoric about tax avoidance will ring out as an attack on charitable giving itself. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge claim that their elite status relies to a large extent on charitable donations from wealthy alumni - much the same complaint is made by the likes of the National Theatre.

Most of these complaints have some truth to them. It genuinely is the case that elite universities are funded to a considerable extent by financial support from alumni - and generally those alumni who have done best out of their degree. As for arts organisations, they have already found themselves far more reliant on donations, thanks to arts council budget cuts.

What a carve-up

So the government has hinted at backtracking - all the great and the good of the political class have been in full fulmination mode as to the virtues of charity, and David Cameron has ‘clarified’ that the policy was designed to target the slightly dubious practice of the rich donating money to ‘foreign’ charities that were, in effect, scams to avoid tax.

To demonstrate how this works - and equally to puncture the sniffy chauvinism about dodgy ‘foreign’ charities - where better to turn than David Cameron’s own hallowed circle? The second most recent individual (by my count, although it really is getting difficult to keep track) to be ejected from Cameron’s clique of advisors and corrupt chums in abject disgrace was Emma Harrison, head honcho of public sector ‘workfare’ company A4e until she was forced to resign from that as well (she remains the primary shareholder).

A4e hit the buffers at the worst imaginable time - at the height of the scandal over the government’s workfare policies. All manner of fraudulent practices and obscene remuneration (courtesy of the taxpayer, of course) are alleged. One scam in particular is worth noting - Harrison and her cronies set up a charity, with A4e employees and alumni for trustees. In the first instance, this allowed exploitation of the tax bill; in the second, the charity functioned effectively to cajole others in the voluntary sector into (presumably disadvantageous) deals with A4e. Trebles all round!

At any rate, whether charity cons are to be found in foreign lands or under Cameron’s nose, there is general agreement that these scams are aberrations. This is, in fact, untrue - A4e’s charitable enterprise is simply a peculiarly vulgar example of how charity, in the main, works. Charity is as much about doing business as it is about the begging bowl.

If a wealthy capitalist gets a yen to be a patron of the arts, he might donate a million or two to the National Theatre (whose artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, has been up in arms about Osborne’s proposal). Nobody who has any experience in theatre will imagine this to be the end of it. There will be free drinks, great tickets and the all-round royal treatment. This ‘donation’ is in fact a purchase, and it keeps all kinds of arts organisations afloat where public money is unavailable.

Likewise with the academy. Those who do not imagine ‘charitable’ donations buy anything from universities should remember the London School of Economics and its utterly craven attitude to the Gaddafi family. Such direct purchases of influence do not obtain quite so obviously at Oxbridge, thanks to the diffusing effect of the collegiate system, but nonetheless the institutions as a whole are bought by the establishment, and continue to be the favoured environment for the next generation of the political, business and media elite to pupate.

The charitable mind

When one arrives at charities proper - organisations of the Oxfam sort - the picture becomes a little more complicated. A far greater part of the income of such organisations comes from the pockets of ‘ordinary folk’. The public image of such charities, certainly, is not about the multi-million pound philanthropic endowment, but the two quid a month that will provide water to a village in the wilds of Mozambique (or whatever).

There is a certain truth in the banal statement that the willingness of people to part with cash that they might actually need for a ‘good cause’ is worthy of celebration. It is a distorted outlet for solidarity - confirmed by empirical studies that show that, discounting the most impoverished, people are more generous the poorer they are, and the better acquainted with hardship.

What does charity make of this fine sentiment? In a word: it makes it abstract. Firstly, one must note the utterly bewildering array of such bodies on offer. Take cancer charities - is one to give money to research or palliative care? Then, say one chooses research - is it to be focused on breast, bowel or bone cancer, or leukaemia, or cancer in children, or cancer in teenagers, or ...?

A given individual may have a particular reason for picking a particular route through this absurd maze - a dad who died from a prostate tumour, or a child who died of leukaemia. The net effect is that all these innumerable problems reach an abstract equivalence - one is quite as good a cause as another, and where one puts one’s £2 a month depends ultimately on the force of whim. (Even a charity like Christian Aid is desperate to scotch the idea that it is ‘for Christians’, or - worse - does missionary work of any kind. It will accept the donations of Satanists quite as readily as Presbyterians.)

Over these whims, charities fight like starving stray dogs. Despite his not undeserved reputation as an ideologist for philanthropy, Charles Dickens sent up this undignified scramble magnificently in Our mutual friend: “Fifty-seven churches to be erected with half-crowns, forty-two parsonage houses to be repaired with shillings, seven-and-twenty organs to be built with halfpence, twelve hundred children to be brought up on postage stamps.”

To this, we may add a phenomenon unknown in Dickens’ day, but utterly unavoidable in ours - the photogenic young men and women accosting people in the street with clipboards, leaflets and all the sales techniques of the dodgy timeshare peddler. They are supposedly called ‘street fundraisers’, but most people prefer ‘charity muggers’ or ‘chuggers’. And by the time it is filtered through chuggerdom, not only has the elemental social solidarity of the charity donor been spread molecule-thin across the homogenous planar space of every charity in existence; it has been rendered into a function of conversational exhaustion and the guilt-trips of the salesman’s chatter. Charity is a tax on one’s conscience; and the chugger is as hated as any actual tax collector ever was.

Secondly: charity is made abstract by the separation of the donor from the work that is done with the money. This is, first of all, achieved by the rather impersonal manner in which charitable donations are made (gimmicks such as sponsoring a child notwithstanding). But, more insidiously, the shadow of the big-time philanthropist falls on the picture here.

If Bill Gates throws a billion dollars at a problem, he expects a great deal of say in where that money goes; but that has the effect of setting the overall priorities (and, crucially, limits) of the charity’s activity. It is not difficult to imagine front-line volunteers in some famine and war-stricken corner of sub-Saharan Africa coming to wonder if capitalism is all that up to scratch. Their organisation cannot do so, if it wishes to keep the money rolling in.

The cliché about charities putting a sticking plaster over a severed artery is very true - and this is because there are structural limits, imposed by their economic life, to thinking in any way seriously about the problems they address.

People walk into this ideological trap quite willingly. The reason is simple enough. Once, I and a comrade were accosted by a chugger (in this case for Amnesty International) in Greenwich. My comrade declared herself a communist, and opposed to charity. The chugger claimed to agree ­- he had been active in the Communist Party of India (Marxist), but considered it, not unreasonably, too right-wing. But there were people rotting in fetid jail cells now, awaiting the thumbscrews and the electrodes. Charities were not perfect, he argued, but someone had to do something before the revolution rolled around.

A charitable left

The point of revolutionary politics is in fact to dissolve this kind of thinking. The revolutionary sees the million and one varieties of suffering not as a homogenous mass of ‘good causes’, but as a raw material to distil into a directed and conscious programme for change.

More broadly, the workers’ movement has historically had a troubled relationship to charity. We need only mention the Salvation Army, whose early attempts to provide religiously loaded relief for the impoverished was met with open hostility from working class people; violent clashes were common.

Today’s left, however, is depressingly reminiscent of the chugger. Every sinew is strained to build the next demonstration, to stop fascists from descending on such and such a town this weekend ... Something has to be done, now! In truth, however, the misery highlighted by the chugger, and the hot-button issues of leftwing pseudo-activity alike, will remain unresolved until we come up with a strategy to overthrow capitalism.

George Osborne’s attack on charitable tax breaks is utterly cynical, and so he will have no difficulty dropping it forthwith. Nobody, surely, can credit this man with any real concern over mass tax avoidance. The hysterical outcry against him is based on the risible premise that his policy will destroy charity in this country; the problem, rather, is that it won’t.

Charitable ideology - and its concomitants, the ‘deserving poor’ and so forth - will not be killed by fiscal policy. Only solidarity can loosen its deadening grip; the self-inflicted hopelessness of the far left, alas, makes that a rather distant prospect at the moment.