It is flattering that China is sending a high-ranking delegation to the UK - and to the Centre for Policy Studies - to explore how they can foster the growth of civic institutions. As a historian, I am aware of how much Britain's phenomenal growth during the 18th and 19th centuries owed to voluntary bodies as varied as charity schools and friendly societies. The men and women who unleashed the most powerful scientific, commercial and social advances the world had ever seen were educated with no help from the state; it may not be entirely a co-incidence that our eclipse as the world's greatest trading nation occurred pretty much at the same time that our schools were taken over by the state.
Of course, the friendly societies disappeared with the introduction of the welfare state. Tony Blair's 'third way' and Cameron's 'big society' could charitably be viewed as attempts to breathe a bit of life into our civic institutions. Alas, neither New Labour nor the Coalition has come up with a more useful approach than subsidising charitable organisations - subsidies which have corrupted the entire concept of civic action.
In effect, we now have a three-tier system. First, we have genuine community organisations - cricket clubs, and the WI for example - which rely upon largely or exclusively on voluntary help and draw their limited financial support from local sources. We also have independent schools, which rely primarily on paid staff but are financed directly by the beneficiaries. Secondly, we have large national charities which are run by salaried staff and rely upon private donations. These usually employ professional fund-raisers which often withhold the lion's share of money collected in their name.
Lastly we have charities which are creatures of the state - groups like 'Sport England', which would vanish without state funding. These expanded enormously under New Labour. I know one enterprising woman who formed a charity that thrived on New Deal funding. She did good work with delinquent boys, but a substantial part of her funding was consumed by the member of staff whose only job was to identify available grants and to apply for them.
Benedict Brogan argues that New Labour used its powers of patronage to ensure that state-financed charities were run by the right, or perhaps one should say the 'left', people. We now have a system of charities and NGOs - some of which have the power to make regulations and prosecute and imprison violators - which is governed by interlocking directorships of like-minded people. This is a grotesque perversion of what is meant by civic society, and it is a far cry from the original concept of voluntary work and autonomous civic action. It could more realistically be viewed as an attempt to advance a political project by using public monies to secure an electoral base with vested interests in the perpetuation of that system. It was pursued so vigorously under New Labour that it virtually bankrupted the nation and created debts that our grandchildren will be forced to pay.
We can assume that our Chinese friends are sincere in their desire to ameliorate their country's growing pains, and at the same time create a more stable society. We strongly urge that they look at the kind of civic action which made Britain a great nation. To encourage it, they perhaps should look to the United States, where the great charitable foundations grew from tax concessions granted to wealth producers. They should also learn from the mistakes that have been made in the US, which had a flourishing culture of voluntary civic action as late as 1960.
In this case, the mistakes had little to do with the state: rather, they were a product of the corporate culture that emerged in the post-war era. In The Organisation Man, journalist William S Whyte described how large corporations moved managerial personnel around the country to expressly prevent them from developing strong local roots in their communities, their churches and their schools. The corporation demanded and got total loyalty - careers depended upon it. Today's global corporations, for all their fine words about social responsibility, do exactly the same. The personnel seconded to these activities may be sincere and hard-working, but have no sense of community or shared destiny with the people they are meant to help - they live in a different world. They will never see them in church or in school, and if they see them walking down the street they may well cross to the other side.
This, as much as anything else, has contributed to the growing sense of alienation in our urban slums, be they in Cairo, Manchester or Los Angeles. There are no easy answers, as it is not easy to create the conditions under which civic society can emerge spontaneously without being corrupted by vested interests. But in the UK at least, the civic urge is still strong, as is witnessed by the enthusiastic response to the Free School programme. In China, nurturing this urge will take considerable care and wisdom. We wish them every bit of luck.