What is the one lesson you remember most vividly from your youth at school? For me it was a talk given at Finchley Catholic High School by a visiting priest. As I recall he was trying to recruit young Catholics for the priesthood. Rather strangely, his pep talk probably had the completely opposite effect on me. It was the moment I knew I could never be a priest. He made a very profound statement and it troubled me deeply. He was explaining what society was. He stated "Every charity you have ever heard of is a symbol of the failure of society and every time you give to charity it is a failure of the government and the tax system". He explained further "People give to cancer charities, because governments choose to spend more on guns than cancer cures. When your mum dies of cancer, you realise society has failed her, so you put money in the tin when it is waved under your nose. It makes you feel better about the fact that the government you elected is not doing the things it should be doing".
Now I thought I'd be clever at this point. I'd read about the fact that there was a charity being set up to save old rusty steam engines. "Is this also a failure of society?". I was somewhat surprised by his answer. He replied "If enough people subscribe to save the rusty old steam engines then yes. That means people see them as a vital part of our heritage and if we forget our history, we forget who we are".
For some reason, this whole concept disturbed me. It put me off such charities as Live Aid and Comic Relief. He explained that all such initiatives are hit and miss. If you are lucky, your illness or your famine becomes a celebrity cause, whilst others are ignored. Until that point, I'd not really thought about politics, but for me at least, the logical conclusion was that I had to become a socialist and it is better to have the state provide medical services, support for the elderly and help for needy children than charities. Charities should exist to flag up a need, then the state should fix the problem. He explained that for small local isses, like a new flowerbed for the park, clearly a different set of rules may apply, but for anything involved in caring for people or feeding people, the mere existance of a charity is a symbol of state failure.
I can't remember where his talk went from there. I suspect it went on to discuss why we can't rely on the state for spirituality, but I was intrigued by his views of charity. Which brings us up to the modern day. Cameron talks about "big society" and yet cuts the amount of cash that the wealthy can give to charities without paying tax. Is Cameron planning to make up the shortfall? If charities only exist as a result of the failure of soceity and we attack their finances, are we tilting the needy over the precipice? We have a bizarre system where the wealthy can escape tax, by paying into their pet charities, to provide services which their taxes should provide. I wonder if when we paid our taxes we got a form to say what we'd like our money to be spent on, how many of the items we currently fund would get any money. I'm sure the NHS, the Police, the Fire service would all do fine. What about the allowances for politicians? What about the nuclear deterrent? What about the tax breaks for the super rich? And what of the things which we fund by charity? If you were asked if you'd rather fund reaserch into cancer? Or help for the elderly. In Barnet, we have huge bills for consultants, engaged in the One Barnet project. They've cost millions over the years and have yet to save a brass farthing of real money. They will probably never save anything, as we tot up the true costs of privatisation. Whilst this extravagence is subsidised, the elderly have lost sheltered housing wardens and Friern Barnet has lost it's library.
It seems to me that the vision of our masters is not a Big Society, it is a broken society, with ever more calls on our pockets being made by charities to fix the holes where properly funded services used to be. Some people on the right will call this progress. I call it a complete failure of government.