Civil Society, Politics

Holyrood, charities and culture war

Photo of piper outside Scottish Parliament

On 6 May Scotland will elect a new parliament. But you’re forgiven for not noticing, given the lack of visible campaigning caused by the current COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve seen just one TV debate; and had a bundle of leaflets drop to the floor with my post (seven in one day!).

But do the five parties represented at Holyrood have anything to say to the third sector in this election?

The answer is clearly yes; and there is a fair amount of agreement. Indeed, at a hustings event held on 8 April organised by SCVO, the party leaders all said that multi-year funding is needed to provide stability and allow the sector to plan ahead with greater certainty.

This is significant; and no doubt will be welcomed by everyone in Scotland’s third sector. But it comes at a time when some charities face continued criticism from politicians based down in Westminster.

Indeed, a number of high profile organisations have drawn fire from MPs for taking positions on issues such as anti-racism and slavery.

Twenty conservative MPs complained to the Charities Commission (England and Wales) about the Runnymede Trust for criticising the Sewell Report, with one MP asking the government to stop the “worthless work…of organisations that are promulgating weird woke ideas…”

Earlier, in March, the Charity Commission ruled that it had no grounds for regulatory action against the National Trust. This follows criticism of some research commissioned last year by the Trust into its links with colonialism. They were one of 25 organisations summoned to meet the culture secretary Oliver Dowden to discuss how they represent British History.

Earlier still, back in November 2020, the now former chair of the Charity Commission, Baroness Stowell, herself a tory peer, warned the sector that “whoever is tempted to use charities as another front on which to wage broader political struggles should be careful.”

And last year twelve Tory MPs called on the Charity Commission to investigate a Barnardo’s blog article discussing white privilege.

Of course, MPs are entitled to raise questions about whether charities are following the rules. But in my view, it does seem driven more by political indignation than by reason. By trying to silence charity voices, these MPs are crossing the line.

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