Charity Commission chair intervenes in ‘culture war’ debate
Charities must “be careful” not stray into party politics or culture wars, the outgoing chair of the Charity Commission has warned in a Mail on Sunday comment piece.
Tina Stowell, who has headed up the charities regulator since 2018, wrote: “There’s more than one way to help those in need, but if you want to improve lives and strengthen communities through charity, you need to leave party politics and the culture wars out of it… all can campaign in support of the causes they exist to fight for (or against) – as long as they don’t stray into party politics by doing so.
“The law is clear on that – and the job of the Charity Commission is to ensure that charities stick to it.”
The comments come amid a heated debate about the role of public and charitable sector organisations in addressing divisive issues such as contested history, a topic that was indirectly referenced in Stowell’s piece, which continued: “What we’ve seen in the past few years is the growth of new divisions which don’t neatly respect party lines.
“Issues like Brexit; the exercise and limits of free speech; the root causes of inequality; or how best to tell the story of British history. They are all defining politics at home and around the world.
“These disputes and others like them are often linked and it is those with the strongest views either way who tend to dominate the discussion, even though they may be outnumbered by those who have no firm opinions.
“For charities to survive and thrive in this environment, particularly after this most difficult of years, it is even more important that they demonstrate sensitivity and respect for everyone. For people who are on both sides of some of these arguments and on none.
“Whoever is tempted to use charities as another front on which to wage broader political struggles should be careful.”
Stowell said charities across the UK will “need all the support they can get to recover from the pandemic”, and added: “Now would be the worst possible moment to jeopardise that goodwill by getting drawn into the culture wars, on any side of the argument.”
The intervention by the Charity Commission chair has provoked anger in the charitable sector; Rhodri Davies, head of policy at the Charities Aid Foundation, tweeted: “Charities aren't ‘getting involved in culture wars’ – they're being deliberately dragged into them by articles like this.”
It will also cause concern in the wider cultural heritage sector, where there is growing unease about external interference in its editorial independence.
It comes weeks after the National Trust was rebuked in Parliament for its report on slavery and colonialism at its properties; more than 60 MPs have now joined a Common Sense Group to influence the government’s policy agenda on the so-called “culture war”, and have led criticism of a number of other culture sector developments, such as the National Maritime Museum’s re-evaluation of its Nelson statue.
Sharon Heal, the director of the Museums Association (MA), said: “The MA is clear that matters of curatorial and editorial judgement should not be subject to interference from outside bodies. Our Code of Ethics for Museums states that all those who work in and with museums should ‘ensure editorial integrity in programming and interpretation’ and ‘resist attempts to influence interpretation or content by particular interest groups, including lenders, donors and funders’.
“Many museums and heritage organisations are working closely with their communities to deepen and broaden our understanding of collections and buildings and that includes revealing and interpreting sensitive and troubling aspects of Britain’s past. Museums can provide the context needed in order for us all to explore and understand the past and its impact on society today.”
Stowell, a former Conservative MP who is now a member of the House of Lords, is due to step down as chair of the Charity Commission early next year. Her relationship with the sector has been strained since she took on the role; the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee declined to endorse her appointment because it was seen as a political choice.
A recent letter from 10 charities coordinated by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations highlighted concerns about the “the lack of transparency and accountability in previous appointment processes, and the increasing party politicisation of the Charity Commission chair role”, and called for neutrality to be prioritised in the recruitment process for the next chair.
A huge number of party political think tanks have charitable status or are funded by charities, for example the IPPR, Demos, the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Adam Smith Institute and they benefit financially from the tax reliefs that such status brings . Are they going to have to stay out of party politics as well? Of course not. As political parties rove around the political scene moving from topic to topic like animals following the rains in the savannah, the idea that museums and cultural organisations should avoid issues that are ‘party political’ is a nonsense as what is party political changes all the time. A museum’s task is to provide a forum and opportunities for discussion, exploration, learning, and hopefully the agreeing and sharing of solutions, or at least a recognition that everyone getting entrenched in their silos will achieve nothing or even worse. Culture is about opening up debates, not shutting them down.
I think some topics are more controversial than others. Have you ever seen an exhibition about veganism or animal rights for example? It’s often cited as one of the things that funders will not consider.
Everyone in Museums is political in one way or another, whether in their choice of displaying topical issues, or in their silence.
Do not get drawn into the ‘this side’, ‘that side’, ‘right side’, ‘wrong side’ of history debate. It is a nonsense that is distracting us from what we should be doing which is to critically engage much more in how our museums came into being, the social and political ideals they stood for, including legitimising the British Imperial Project and exploiting people and cultures to impose order on objects and collections in their own image. The best place you can possibly think about starting is to do some historical research into the origins of your museum and its predecessors. It will soon show you how institutionalised racism, for example, is a direct legacy of colonialism, alongside the vast philanthropy generated from oppressive practices that enabled many of our museums and libraries to come into existence.
I would question whether that is true for many local museums; the picture is rather complicated with a mix of influencing factors such as the enlightenment idea of learning about and understanding the world around you from evidence, a love of the local or an enthusiasm for a particular subject. Many local museums rather than being based on a universalist idea are based on the specific and the vernacular. In Wrexham, a local historian campaigned for a local museum because he saw the town and district’s heritage being lost in the absence of such an institution. Being a Victorian he may have had some ideas that people nowadays do not support, but they were not the motivation behind his view that the town needed a museum. There are hundreds if not thousands of museums that fit this model. The big nationals and Victorian regionals are the exceptions not the rule.