Magazine article The Spectator

Bullying for Charity

Magazine article The Spectator

Bullying for Charity

Article excerpt

Here are three pastimes the government has either banned, is about to ban, or talks about banning some time in the future: hunting with dogs, smoking in pubs and drinking alcohol on public transport. What have they got in common? First, each is enjoyed by the sort of people New Labour instinctively dislikes. Second, each activity has suffered an even greater misfortune: it has ended up on the hit list of one of Britain's biggest charities.

This is generally a bad sign. In fact, in recent years, it has tended to spell disaster.

The ban on hunting, rapidly emerging as the nastiest and most pointless law in modern history, was cheered on to the statute book by the RSPCA. Opposition to smoking entered the Labour manifesto after the cause was taken up by Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation. Even Downing Street's preposterous flag-raising about boozing on trains came as the result of lobbying from Alcohol Concern, which is only worried such a ban might not go far enough.

Last week there were signs of trouble to come for fans of Bonfire Night. The Animal Welfare Fireworks Coalition, a group set up by the Blue Cross and Guide Dogs for the Blind with the support of the dreaded RSPCA, called for the government to regulate fireworks in order to limit their volume to 95 decibels. This is seen as a staging post on the road towards an outright ban, which is supported by some Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs.

The charity industry has become an author of intolerance. If Tony Blair has created a nanny state, then charities are surely its bossy mother-in-law: noisy, opinionated and intolerant of anyone impertinent enough to disagree with their world-view. In the old days, Labour formulated policy over beer and sandwiches with trade union leaders.

Nowadays, they talk about banning things over tea and biscuits with charity workers.

This cannot be healthy. Charity used to be about practical projects: feeding soup to the homeless, building orphanages and so on. Now the booming industry is devoted to political power-broking. It shows a worrying interest in making things illegal. Yet a charity has no democratic mandate; its employees, with swanky job titles like 'head of campaigns' or 'government liaison officer', have never been elected. They have no remit to interfere with profoundly important matters such as our civil liberties.

It is not even as if every charity ought to be getting involved in politics. Let us consider for a moment Cancer Research UK. As its name suggests, this is a research charity whose raison d'être, according to the official aims registered with the Charity Commission, is medical investigations aimed at finding a cure for cancer. Yet the charity's priority is an illiberal campaign to outlaw smoking. That, at least, is the view of its chief executive, Professor Alex Markham, who rates a smoking ban as his major aim for the coming year (the second priority being another political hot potato: reform of the government's drug-licensing quango, Nice).

Or what about the NSPCC? Every year it returns to a tiresome campaign, supported by many MPs, to ban parents from smacking their children, with sinister advertising slogans like 'Stop parents getting away with murder'. The charity's official remit is to 'prevent the public and private wrongs of children and the corruption of their morals'.

Does this really excuse a pointless and nosy vendetta against middle-class parents?

Of course, many charities will argue that lobbying is part of their job, that they are there to change society. Some, particularly overseas aid organisations, have a case (though it does grate to see Oxfam acting as quite such a regular cheerleader for the Blair government). …

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