Eighty years old but nothing like the Queen

David Donnison is one of the great figures of British social policy. Last month, the urban studies department of Glasgow University, where he is emeritus professor, hosted a reception and lecture by David to mark his 80th birthday.

He started by talking about his return from the navy in 1945 soon after Labour’s sweeping victory at the polls. Standing in the packed corridor of a train at Reading Station, he came across two bowler-hatted gents who announced they wanted the first class section. A sailor shouted after them, “First class? When this war’s over there’ll be no more bloody classes.”

He was wrong. Inequality is greater than ever. First class travel remains as a symbol. Those who regard themselves as superior still use their (or their employer’s) money to seat themselves in better carriages than those who are less well off.

What has gone wrong? Donnison does not bother to go over the well-trodden paths of Thatcher’s capitalism and Blair’s third way. He identifies other factors. First, the undermining of local government. He points out that councils had often been radical innovators which promoted public hospitals, clean water, gas and electricity supplies, good rented housing, and foster care. Now government has weakened them, stripping them of their powers and cash in favour of centralised quangos.

Second, the decline of the exhausting but exhaustive royal commissions. Their expert members studied all the evidence, cross-examined hundreds of witnesses, and then toured the country to explain their  recommendations.

Third, the royal commissions were replaced by politically committed think tanks and quick fix advisers to government. Their proposals for the poll tax, the Child Support Agency, the “prison works” programmes, would have been torn to shreds by the commissions.

Fourth, the growing influence of wellmeaning but flawed pressure groups for  ethnic minorities, disabled people, the impoverished etc. He says, they “fought for a fairer share of the good things an unequal society offered. They did not challenge inequality itself.”

Yet Donnison remains optimistic. He is enthusiastic about locally run groups in disadvantaged areas which, although mainly ignored by statutory bodies, display a sense of collectivity, mutuality and commitment – qualities which are largely absent in party politics.

David’s wife Kay Carmichael has also reached 80. In the early 1970s, she gave much of her time to non-graduate students in Glasgow training to be residential staff. She also moved for a while into a council flat and lived at social security levels so that she could understand a bit more about what it is like to be poor.

Social worker, lecturer, author, one of the moving spirits behind the great Social Work (Scotland) Act of 1968, Kay could have joined the London establishment. But she has insisted on remaining in Glasgow.

Likewise, David Donnison, in his retirement years, could have had lucrative consultancies or chaired prestigious agencies. Instead he is a volunteer advocate with the Lomond and Argyll Advocacy Service which serves people with learning and other difficulties. He points out that volunteers and former clients are on its committee so it is an “egalitarian” type of service. It is a long way from the equal society but with no major political party  interested in radical redistribution of wealth, Donnison looks to a bottom-up approach.

The lecture by David was attended by academics, social workers, community workers and regeneration staff. It was typical of him that there were also people from the advocacy service, community activists and neighbours.

David and Kay have reached 80 at the same time as the Queen. I, and many others, find them the better example and inspiration.

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