Octavia Hill

Why do people radical in youth often become blinkered and right-wing in their older age, often throwing out the humanity and compassion that they felt when younger? We feel after a decade or two of adult life that we have the answers, we resort to our own big ideas, which readily turn into prejudices. Youthful ideals get left behind. Withdrawing into more private worlds, identifying with family rather than the wider world, we lose touch with the wider world, and with it our wider sense of compassion.

That’s how for years I’ve looked at the world, and how I’ve interpreted the political divide. It’s not so simple of course. One big idea of our time, now well-established in the centre ground of politics, is that entitlements and the culture that they encourage do more harm than good. True compassion lies in encouraging self-reliance. But taking benefits away can be a cold and cruel process, bereft of compassion. 

Two approaches, present and past, illustrate the dilemma. The second, Victorian, example doesn’t provide a solution, but it does point a way forward.                                                                     

Ian Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms have much of common sense about them. The country is living beyond its means, and we expect too much from the state, too little from ourselves. But whichever report I read, whichever reform is discussed, I ask myself – where’s the compassion? How does this reform relate to the everyday realities of people’s lives. You’re in a corner, unemployed, employable in theory, but you’ve tried everything you can think of, maybe you’re depressed, not knowing what to do next, and some bright spark employed by the government tells them you could be working and your benefits are going to be cut. Maybe you’ll be shaken into action, but maybe that sense of hopelessness will just take a deeper hold. 

Going back 150 years, there’s an article about a wonderful lady, Octavia Hill, co-founder of the National Trust, in the current National Trust magazine, arguably an unlikely place (as it is these days, not as it was founded) to find a social conscience.  She set up housing projects in London, back in the mid 1850s, backed by private investment, with housing managers who engaged directly the poor, tackling worklessness and homelessness. She was against government involvement, council housing, free school meals. Everything should be paid for, but no-one exploited. It was a great Victorian charitable enterprise, and that sense of charitable involvement is something that the state’s engagement with our welfare can take away. 

There are some remarkable social entrepreneurs in our own time, and we need more.

So  the same goal, but two different routes. One top down, the government pushing you deep into a hole in the hope that you will somehow feel empowered to climb out, and the other actively empowering you. Charity shouldn’t and can’t take over from the state, but they can be much more in balance. If there are more opportunities for hands-on charitable endeavour, will more people take them up?


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