As my colleagues Matthew Hilton, James McKay, Nick Crowson and Jean-Francois Mouhet have observed, the rise of the single-issue, mass membership NGO, represented a fundamental shift in how mass democratic politics was conducted in the late twentieth century Britain. This was, according to them, linked to questions of trust.
Although measuring the history of political and social trust is a tricky business, they conclude that ‘while trust in politicians and journalists has declined, trust in NGOs, charities and voluntary organizations has actually increased’.
Certainly, within various statistical attempts to quantify the level of support directed towards different ‘institutions’ during the late twentieth and early twenty-first century it is clear that charities score relatively highly.
Arguably, NGOs and charities have become the platforms through which democratic engagement take place, around which our notions of citizenship manifest and where political participation takes place, however ‘apolitical’ charities might seem.
Where concerns about the protection of the environment, the maintenance of just and equitable rules of trade, or the protection of human rights, to give just some examples, have become too complicated and technical to be articulated within the traditional programmes of political parties, the rise of the NGO and the trust directed towards charities makes sense.
Moreover, the association of charities and NGOs with such complex issues, which often transcend the parameters of the nation state, has often required the establishment of relationships between the sector and various supranational bodies, such as the EU. Because of this, it is safe to assume such organizations would have something interesting to say on the upcoming referendum.
Given charities and NGOs credentials as markers of the public’s democratic interests, the sense that we are all somewhat tired of a familiar roster of familiar politicians making familiar arguments in conversations with familiar broadcasters and the clamour for voices from outside the specific campaign teams, it seems reasonable to ask where their voices are in the debates about the up-coming European Referendum?
The charitable sector is, of course, incredibly diverse and there are, presumably, many different reactions to the proposed referendum within it. Even so the National Council for Voluntary Organizations states that ‘the EU is underpinned by a commitment to equality, fairness, solidarity and social justice, values that are highly congruent with those of the voluntary sector’ and, as such, the sector might offer ‘something different to mainstream debates which have focussed on markets and migration’.
Some charities have been more robust than others. In the environmental sector, Friends of the Earth has offered clear statements of support for continued membership but the Wildlife Trust and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England have little to say despite a working knowledge of the advantages and disadvantages of EU protective legislation on environmental concerns.
There are some peculiarities here. CAFOD was happy to offer a position on the AV Referendum, as was the Child Poverty Action Group, yet they appear to have litte to say on the European referendum. Amnesty International offered guidance on the Scottish Referendum, but has no statement on Brexit. Obviously, the European Referendum speaks to certain charities more than others, but it seems the voices of the sector are not forthcoming.
Yet, one doesn’t have to look too far to understand the lack of engagement. Mass membership organizations, in particular, risk losing membership by commenting on what have become an increasingly divisive set of issues. Moreover, the media seems more than content to continue grilling the same politicians, fetishing fissures within our political parties or positioning themselves, however dubious their credential might be, as the vox populi on referendum matters.
But perhaps more significant is a longer-standing history of attempting to curtail the ‘political activity’ of the voluntary sector.
It is easy to see why the Charity Commission’s Guidance on the European Referendum has been controversial within the sector. Organizations have questioned the clarity of its instructions and their potential to stymie discussion.
The Commission’s guidance published in March stated: ‘In exceptional cases charities may consider that the outcome of a referendum is likely to directly affect, positively or negatively, the delivery of their charitable objects. Where the impact on the work of the charity is very indirect or uncertain, the trustees will find it difficult to justify campaigning for a particular outcome’.
While charities are permitted to engage on issues which are ‘relevant to its charitable purposes’, trustees are urged to be cautious because of potential reputational risks and the requirement to represent beneficiaries regardless of the outcome of the vote.
Taking a position on the grounds of loss of funding is not considered a sufficient justification for supporting continued membership. The result, as the National Council for Voluntary Organizations points out, is that ‘few charities would be able to justify campaigning in favour of Britain in, or leaving, the EU’.
Unlike charities that are beholden to both the verdicts of members as well as trustees interpretation of the Commission’s rules, think tanks and critics within the media have had the freedom to accuse the sector of behaving like ‘sock puppets’ to the European Commission, apparent stooges to the EU project, warning of the danger of groups acting beyond the interests of their memberships.
Contrastingly, charities have no straightforward capacity to advance alternative narratives about their engagement with the EU under the conditions of the regulations set by the Charity Commission.
Of course, certain NGOs and charities have been beneficiaries of Britain’s increased European integration in the latter half of the twentieth century.
This is most obviously the case in the humanitarian sector where the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) is a major funder of the humanitarian sector and has acted as a long-standing partner of organizations including CAFOD, Christian Aid, Oxfam and Save the Children.
The case of Oxfam is striking. Only last year, Oxfam joined forces with the EU on a campaign called ‘EU Saves Lives’ to provide humanitarian aid to those forced to flee their home. This was the latest in a long series of understandable partnerships given the EU’s committments to tackling poverty and exclusion.
Yet, just over a year later Oxfam’s position on membership states, ‘As an organisation which exists to tackle poverty, Oxfam does not have a position on whether Britain should be a member of the European Union. It is up to the British people to decide’.
On the one hand, the financial support given to a broad range of NGOs and charities by the European Union – estimated by the ‘Stronger In’ Campaign to be worth £200 million – might, to critics, delegitimizes any commentary offered by the sector.
On the other, organizations with working relationships with institutions associated with Europe – typically on the types of issues which transcend the parameters of the nation state – have voices which might productively feed into the discussion by offering tangible experiences of what membership means.
The point here is that if the public’s enthusiasm for charities and NGOs makes sense, allowing negotiation of the complexities of multiple political, economic, social and cultural issues, then endeavours to curtail such organization’s engagement with the referendum seems a missed opportunity.
Despite a campaign where citizenship, democracy and trust are frequently evoked, the manifestations of that citizenship, the visible forums for our democratic participation, and voices we have got used to trusting are not bable to participate as fully as they might.
Of course this is not just a problem specific to the referendum. It is part of a broader and more longstanding history of the sector which, as many the emerging historical case-studies of NGOs suggest, frequently finds itself debating what types of organization get to speak ‘politically’, what engaging in ‘politics’ means, and how this is controlled.
Even our universities – which are charities and are as such covered by the parameters of the Charities Act – are not permitted to adopt clear, institutional positions on Brexit and, instead, seek to offer platforms for debating the subject.
Healthy debate should, of course, be an essential part of any University’s goals. But these are also public institutions with outward-facing missions and notwithstanding the interventions of various Vice-Chancellors and different academic communities, including historians on both sides of discussions, HEIs might offer clearer commentaries for students, staff and communities as public institutions.
If nothing else, one would hope these seats of learning might contribute a more appealing flavour to the discussion than a conversation taking place on ‘gents tents’. Who knows, might it even count as impact?
For all of the supposed democratic appeal of the refere endum this is a discussion where the public require information as much as political posturing, and the longer history of depoliticizing the voices of those that have experience and have acquired expertise hinders our capacity to engage as democratic citizens on an ostensibly democratic process.
If nothing else, why not let us have the opportunity to reflect on the contributions from those we trust instead of those we do not? Or perhaps more importantly, given the paucity of new points of debate emerging in the build up to 23 June, letting the charities speak could – at the very least – diversify the debate offering different voices reflecting the myriad and complexity of issues on which a potential Brexit will impact.
 M. Hilton, J. McKay, N. Crowson & J. Mouhet, The Politics of Expertise (Oxford, 2013), p. 183
 Here I echo the argument of my colleague Matthew Hilton. See M. Hilton, ‘Politics is Ordinary’, p. 234.
 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/eureferendum/12184133/EU-referendum-Britains-biggest-environmental-charities-using-public-cash-to-call-for-In-vote.html; Christopher Snowdon, Euro Puppets: The European Commission’s Remaking of Civil Society: Institute of Economic Affairs Discussion Paper, No 45 (IEA, 2013).
 Sarah Stroup, Borders among activists: International NGOs in the United States, Britain and France (Cornell, 2012), p. 53