There was a great furore recently when the RSPB called the Prime Minister and other ministers liars. This followed Michael Gove the Housing and Communities Minister’s announcement about removing restrictions on new housing in relation to nutrient neutrality and the associated pollution of rivers and streams. This went against previous commitments to retain such protections.
Charities’ limits of activism
Although the personal insult was retracted with an apology, the chattering classes, including some politicians and parts of the media, indignantly demanded that charities should stop meddling in politics. Their demands only served to demonstrate ignorance as to the way many charities operate, and what their legal position is. Simply put, charities are, and always have been, involved in political processes, but they are not allowed to be partisan. In other words they cannot indulge in party politics. Confusion can arise because campaigning organisations, whether charitable or not, are often referred to as non-governmental organisations, or NGOs. As an example, during an election a charitable NGO can encourage people to question and judge candidates by their stance on particular issues, but cannot, unlike a non-charitable NGO, encourage voting for a particular party.
An example of a permissible non-partisan approach is the Nature 2030 coalition of more than 70 environmental charities which is raising a petition and campaigning for various actions to be taken to end the decline of nature. The first thing you see on its website is this statement: “Support our call to see restoring nature by 2030 in all party election manifestos”.
In the nature conservation sector it is absolutely necessary to take part in debates about policies, regulations and funding, in so far as these things impact upon the natural world. This engagement takes many forms, including campaigning for reform, lobbying for more funding in the sector, offering advice, and organising petitions. It takes place at every level: international, national, local, and even parish council. Every sector does this, including business (although of course businesses are not charities) the arts, social services and the environment.
On occasion, as independent third parties, charities can say things which civil servants and local authority officers in the sector cannot say in public. The charities can, so to speak, fire bullets loaded by the officials. It could be said that it would be dereliction of their duty if they remained silent when the things they are set up to promote, conserve or defend, are at risk from proposed or existing public policies, politicians’ ignorance, or active hostility from decision-makers.
Bringing science and data to the political table
Charities tend to approach difficult issues through the prism of the changes needed to bring about improvements and solutions to perceived problems. Their arguments are likely to be based on science, concern for the future and, in the case of nature, advocacy for creatures and ecosystems which cannot speak for themselves. This is in contrast to business, and often community, interests where the focus is more likely to be on economic, cultural and practical issues and maintaining the status quo. Current tensions in relation to rewilding and upland sheep grazing are a case in point.
These contrasting approaches to political issues ensure that our decision-makers are exposed to all points of view, rather than the narrow perspectives of the most shouty stakeholders. Campaigning charities is a mechanism which has evolved over many years, providing the resources needed to ensure that public debate is not dominated solely by vested interests.
Influencing governments not selecting them
The Cambridge Dictionary defines politics as: “The activities of the government, members of law-making organisations, or people who try to influence the way a country is governed”. This is the crux of the matter. It is wholly appropriate for charities like the RSPB to try and influence the way we are governed, what is not acceptable is for them to try to influence who governs us. The nay-sayers need to grasp this fundamental point. In the case of the proposals on nutrient neutrality their energies might be better deployed joining in the condemnation of the proposed action.