The East End is dotted with missions, or ‘settlements’, charitable institutions established by Victorian philanthropists to assuage their Christian guilt by attempting to raise the physical and spiritual conditions of the poor (the photo at the top of this page is part of its legacy – housing built by the East End Dwellings Company). The best known is Toynbee Hall, which sometimes serves as a refuge for disgraced politicians, but there’s also Oxford House and Eton Manor, both endowed by wealthy colleges to provide ‘internships’ for their more socially conscious students. My granddad was a pupil of Lord Shaftesbury’s Ragged School in Limehouse where he was provided with cocoa, buns and trips to Epping Forest. He never forgot the bitter-sweet taste of kindness from strangers laced with the stigma of assigned moral inferiority.
All of this would stand as an interesting moment in the history of social policy and the transition from discretionary to statutory entitlement, but sadly, the missionaries are creeping back. In fact, they never entirely went away, but the steady erosion of the Welfare State and its replacement with Blair’s ‘Third Way’ and Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ have given new moral and financial encouragement to the misnomered ‘voluntary’ sector. From where I write I’m a stone’s throw from a hotbed of insidious urban missionism. If you’ve only read or heard of one piece of social policy research it’s probably ‘Family and Kinship in East London’ (1957) about the migration of East End families to the outer suburbs and the resulting disintegration of ‘traditional’ working class communities. The book spawned a research body and morphed into a ‘think tank’ which played a key part in developing the ideological justification for the New Labour project and continues to be a hothouse for New Labour politicians, but is also involved with various projects that recapture the spirit of the late 19th century, including an expectation that some people work for nothing i.e. young interns desperate for a foothold in the jobs market.. Another example of the mission renaissance is the rise of housing associations (or whatever we’re calling them this week), the pretenders to council housing and bodies infused with paternalistic attitudes and practices, but whose chief executives frequently demonstrate their commitment to ‘the community’ by taking home six-figure salaries. Last week I went to the launch of an off-shoot of my trade union which is quite rightly trying to encourage membership amongst the unemployed and get involved in local, non-workplace campaigns, but I have a worry that this initiative is modeled on the US tradition of ‘organisers’ who parachute into local areas and tell people what to do.
Some indigenous groups used to get so pissed off with missionaries that they slaughtered them. In normal circumstances, this is going a bit far, but I can understand the resentment and anger that builds up in the face of those whose smiles conceal colonising intent. Maybe it’s trite to say it, but my granddad, who lived to see the creation of comprehensive public services based on reciprocal contributions, would be very sad to see a new generation of giving with one hand, while taking with two.