On George Osborne and Missing the Point

Last week, George Osborne said to the Institute of Directors that business must:

get out there and put the business argument. Because there are plenty of pressure groups, plenty of trade unions and plenty of charities and the like, that will put the counter view.

This, understandably, made a lot of people in the voluntary sector rather cross. Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of NCVO, said that people ‘should be celebrating not denigrating the relationship between business and charity’. David McAuley, Chief Executive of the Trussel Trust, said that he was ‘proud of the fruitful partnerships that exist between [the Trussel Trust] and high profile names in the business sector’. Nick Bryer, head of UK campaigns and policy at Oxfam stated that ‘We don’t recognise the divide he draws between the concerns of businesses and charities’.

I agree with all of this; clearly good work is already being done between the private and voluntary sectors, and I question some of the arguments around distinction of different sectors. I’ve written about both issues before. But I think these complaints rather miss the point.

To me, Osborne’s comment is based on the belief in a particular political ideology, and his affront at it being challenged. This is made clear by another bit of his speech:

That issue [of a country for the free market] felt like it had been resolved when the Berlin Wall fell … Politicians like Tony Blair from the left felt like they had understood that free markets create the taxes to fund public services. That argument has gone.

Aside from being slightly detached from reality (I’m not sure that my understanding of ‘the left’ and Osborne’s is quite the same), this is important because the suggestion is that unions and charities are ‘putting the counter view’, and that this is detrimental to the country. What needs to be recognised, and what needs to be challenged, is that this is another piece of rhetoric in a long, long line that attacks charities’ right to campaign and challenge. As others have said before me, from the Lobbying Act to the veritable pun-mine of Brooks Newmark,  it has felt like the voluntary sector’s independence and voice is being attacked. This particular speech is no different.

Nicholas Deakin criticised this anti-political sentiment this week, complaining that ‘campaigning is legitimate only when it fits the official agenda: not when it challenges the assumptions behind it’. If we believe that campaigning is a key role for the voluntary sector, and that its voice is an important one, then we must continue to call out those who seek to restrict it.


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