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The hearty shake of the filthy hand - Russell Brand holding a skull and looking thoughtful
Last updated April 2015

The hearty shake of the filthy hand

Dominic Fox considers the differences between Russell Brand and a bench of Bishops

In what may be the understatement of the year, the Bishop of Norwich, the Right Reverend Graham James, has said that “bishops of the Church of England don’t quite have the sex appeal of Russell Brand”. He was commenting on Brand’s view that voting is a waste of time. To counter this cynical comment by one of the country’s leading role models, the bishops have issued their own bookie-wook.

It’s actually a letter, more in the tradition of St Paul than celebrity memoir, urging congregations to vote on 7th May. The House of Bishops says it does not endorse any political party but encourages debate on issues such as nuclear defence and the economy. It speaks of Britain's "almost moribund political culture" and unsurprisingly has caused a stir.

It goes on, “there is a deep contradiction in the attitudes of a society which celebrates equality in principle yet treats some people, especially the poor and vulnerable, as unwanted, unvalued and unnoticed. When those who rely on social security are all described in terms that imply they are undeserving, dependent and ought to be self-sufficient, the language deters others from offering informal support that in turn could relieve the welfare budget.

"The ideals that the Big Society stood for should not be consigned to the political dustbin," the letter adds, rather embarrassingly for David Cameron and possibly the charity sector, both of whom seem to have quietly buried the concept. The bishops want him to revive the idea and its values of encouraging greater personal responsibility and community activism in shaping society and running public services.

Gratifyingly, there was something for everyone here. Under the headline: “Thatcherism is finished – declares Church of England”, the Daily Telegraph launched another of its covert attacks on the Prime Minister and his woolly liberal ideas. “In a highly political pre-election intervention which has angered Conservatives and prompted a response from David Cameron, the Church’s most senior clerics said the free-market ideas embodied by Margaret Thatcher were ‘fragmenting’ society and ‘entrenching’ inequality between rich and poor”.

Lord Tebbit piled in. “I fear they forget that the Good Samaritan didn’t walk down to the DHSS and say 'there’s a chap lying in the gutter, somebody ought to do something about it' and then go on home, he went and picked the poor devil up and took him to the inn and said to the innkeeper ‘I will pay the bill’.”

Politicians used to do high-mindedness better in the old days I think; Disraeli said “society has a soul as well as a body.”

The bishops certainly hit the headlines and made a robust defence of their intervention under media and political pressure. By contrast the voluntary sector remains largely unheard on these issues. Sir Roger Singleton, chair of the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector opined: "Under successive governments, the voluntary sector has increasingly been seen as a contractual arm of the state, without an independent mission or voice, interchangeable with the private sector. We are also starting to see a defensive attitude toward the campaigning voice of charities from some leading politicians."

The panel’s latest report says that government and civil servants must "hear our concerns, respond to the recommendations we have made in this report and move toward a ‘new settlement’ with the voluntary sector, based on respect for the independent value it generates in society and an understanding of how to work with it more effectively". Among its main recommendations for governments are: the establishment of formal mechanisms for dialogue and collaboration between government and the sector; a reform of commissioning and procurement, including the removal of gagging clauses from public contracts; and the repeal of the lobbying act and changes to judicial review.

Another recent report, this one from left leaning pressure group Independent Action, gloomily states the belief that the sector’s critical voice has been silenced and that there is now a noticeable absence of advocacy and campaigning that opposes excesses, abuses and injustices and holds powerful interests to account. They say that “open dissent, even mild informed criticism is now widely seen by local and national State agencies as unacceptable.”

So it is clear there could be a lively debate to be had about issues that concern charities and their beneficiaries. The thought strikes that as the election campaign moves from the phoney war stage to all-out heavy bombardment, that our solutions can appear rather formulaic. Our reputation for passion and speaking truth to power has become muffled as we struggle with the 24-hour news cycle. Whether the new lobbying act is responsible or, more likely, the drawbridge went up in Whitehall so long ago that there is no appetite to engage, we shall see.

Spare a thought for those out electioneering in the coming months. Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury and Viscount Cranborne, a contemporary of Disraeli and three times Prime Minister, described it as a form of torture: “screwed up smiles and laboured courtesy, the mock geniality, the hearty shake of the filthy hand, the chuckling reply that must be made to the coarse joke.” No wonder Russell Brand doesn’t much like the idea.

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