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"Under the radar beam" - British charities


Prague couple

A few months ago we learned that every one of the NGOs cited by David Miliband as a supporter of the Lisbon Treaty had received EU money.

We don't fault the charities for taking the money and putting it to good use, but we can't take their comments about the treaty and the EU seriously because no charity would ever comment negatively about a donor. And we are surprised they took the money. Historically, British charities have not been political, though powerful and political figures have contributed to them. As Roger Scruton explains -

I had, during my studies, admired the English law of charity - a unique creation of the common law and equity, which protects property put aside for charitable uses both from maladministration and from taxation by the state, and which makes a distinction between charitable and political activity.

Charity heals communities, whereas politics divides them. Such, at least, was the English view, and three centuries of case law had given it concreteness.

Communist countries such as Czechoslovakia in the 1980s treated charities quite differently. In short, they didn't allow any -

In Communist thinking, there was no such thing as an apolitical meeting, an autonomous institution, or a corporate person other than the party and the state. . . Society had been conscripted to the ruling purpose, which was the extension and perpetuation of Communist power.

To help Czech and Slovak academics oppressed by the Communists, Scruton and his friends started the Jan Hus Educational Foundation. They asked for help from German and French colleagues -

. . .but the Germans and French had to ask permission from the state to set up a charity - "permission which was so long in coming in the German case that the project had to be abandoned. Only with the official seal of approval could our French colleagues form an association for the relief of the Czechs and Slovaks; and once the seal was granted it was to the government that they looked for funds. We, however, needed permission from no one, and raised our funds from private donors. We witnessed, in this, the contrasting social consequences of a law built upwards from the individual case, and a law built downwards from the decrees of central power.

Once again, something good in British life was grounded in individuals freely choosing to work together.

And this cooperative endeavour transformed them -

Just as we collectively formed the character of our trust, so did the trust reform the character of each of us. . .We led each other on, gave each other purpose and were accountable to each other for what we did on the trust's behalf. (Quotes from Scruton's England, An Elegy)

If we exclude housing associations, independent schools, and government-controlled charities such as the NHS, there are 169,000 registered charities in the United Kingdom. This figure does not include "the thousands of small community-based groups that are under the radar beam of regulators". They "constitute the vast majority of the voluntary sector population and much of the growth since the 1990s."

Under the radar. Transformative for those who give and those who receive. That is civil society.