AS David Cameron returned to government, political commentators were almost unanimous in the view that the most notable policy or event with which he was associated was Brexit. That seems to me to be a rather privileged view.

Without underestimating the very damaging and divisive nature of Brexit, for people on a low income, or with a chronic illness or disability, the former Prime Minister’s most significant legacy will always, surely, be austerity. It was his government which in 2010 began the process of starving public services and local authorities of funds, and chipping away at the incomes of the very poorest and most disadvantaged people. Eventually, this was linked to a fall in life expectancy for the most deprived people and 330,000 excess deaths.  In human terms, that seems far more significant than Brexit.

To disguise the naked brutality of austerity, it was given a cloak of humanity and respectability through the ‘Big Society’ concept. This was promoted as a means by which the inflexible and impersonal state could withdraw from some of its traditional activities, to be replaced by more agile and caring charities. Sadly, the goodness and non-political nature of many people involved in charities meant that they trusted the warm words, and did not question the motivation.

I got a glimpse of this when, prior to the General Election in 2010, I interviewed an extremely selfless woman whose charity work was humbling – and was dismayed to hear her enthuse about the Big Society. This heroic and trusting woman had no interest in politics, but genuinely believed that if the Conservatives won, the Big Society meant that she would be able to work in partnership with them to improve lives in her community. Thirteen years later, the hardship and suffering in that community has increased dramatically.

Perhaps many charities went down that path – were attracted by the idea of the Big Society, but then found they were being used to provide cover for a brand of politics which is simply savage towards the most disadvantaged people.

So it was a terrible irony that on the day David Cameron walked back into Downing Street, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) published ‘an open letter to the chancellor on vital funding for public services delivered by charities’. They wrote: “we are urging you to address the continued underfunding of contracts and grants. This underfunding is putting many charities at crisis point, and communities at risk of losing essential services. This is not a small-scale problem. Charities deliver £16.8 billion worth of services on behalf of government.”

They continued: “The government has relied on charities to deliver these vital services for many years without giving them the necessary resources to do this. Most charities’ grants and contracts do not cover the true cost of delivery…The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has conducted new research on the scale of this issue, and the results are alarming. Seventy-three per cent of charities say they cannot meet the current demand for the public services they deliver with the funding they receive.”

And this of course, is not to mention the explosion in food banks, hygiene banks, baby banks, and all the other charitable initiatives which have sprung up as a compassionate response to the destitution and poverty caused by welfare reforms and the slashing of social security. Charities are picking up the pieces as a deliberately shrunken state abdicates its responsibilities. As Sabine Goodwin of the Independent Food Aid Network writes,  food banks fear that this winter they will be overwhelmed by the level of need they face. “Food banks cannot sustain this level of poverty for much longer.”

As an unelected David Cameron returned to government, the trademark concept which helped him win his first election victory was being, yet again, exposed as a hollow and cruel con. Whilst in the media discourse David Cameron may be most closely associated with Brexit, it is his impact on the lives of the least privileged which arguably has been most profound and most destructive.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020).  Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden