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February 14, 2006

An arresting work - if OUP didn't insist on over-pricing its books: Christianity and Social Service in Modern Britain: The Disinherited Spirit - Frank Prochaska

Posted by Jeremy Black

Christianity and Social Service in Modern Britain: The Disinherited Spirit
by Frank Prochaska
Pp. ix+216. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006
Hardback, 35

Jeremy Black - Professor of History at the University of Exeter - reviews Christianity and Social Service in Modern Britain: The Disinherited Spirit by Frank Prochaska.

The role of the state remains central to political debate in Britain. Indeed, it has become more insistent in recent years not only because, whatever the rhetoric to the contrary, there has been a marked extension of governmental pretensions and, indeed, surveillance of civil society during the Blair administrations, but also because the European Union provides a new level of governmental pretension.

Furthermore, in the 1990s and 2000s, there were increased, through very different, signs of global governance, not least in the shape of human rights jurisdiction, environmental regulatory aspirations, and conflict predicated on humanitarian interventionism. These pretensions and activities sat uncomfortably alongside the extent to which the last century offered profound challenges not only to optimistic accounts of the scope of change and the perfectibility of man, but also to ideas of the appropriateness and potency of state-centred programmes for change.

Alongside the powerful signs of resilience of religion and ethnicity as forms of identity and forces for action, all of these led to a querying of the parabolic, teleological account of change, and renewed interest in more pessimistic theories, including cyclical ones. Furthermore, a more cautious assessment of the capability of states and the prospects for beneficial change encourages interest in past problems and solutions, and takes us back past ideologies of facile optimism to the compromises and complexities of power and authority in the past. In particular, the extent to which roles and responsibilities were shared within flexible systems of governance that provided opportunities to respond to local issues, interests and problems, was related to the existence of a range of identities from local to national.

Frank Prochaska's book contributes to the relevant scholarship and would be very welcome were it not for the price.

For historical reasons, Oxford and Cambridge University Presses enjoy particularly favourable tax regimes, but they do not respond by pricing most of their books at appropriate prices. In the case of this book, the page size is modest and the typeface (pleasantly) generous, but the net result is not many words for the pound sterling. Learning might be beyond price, but I could suggest many books that offer more for the money. More generally, there is something badly wrong with the two famous university presses, and reviewers need to address such issues. To outsiders, the presses can appear like bloated bureaucracies that rely unduly on their reputation at a time when other presses, including newer and smaller ones, offer much more. Prochaska himself has published with Yale University Press, which tends to produce better books, and at better value, than Oxford and Cambridge.

Based essentially on printed material, rather than detailed archival sources, Prochaska's new book is a very welcome interpretive study that focuses on Christian charity and uses this to probe the changing nature of Christian society and British political culture. The extent to which this was moulded by the associational nature of an essentially Protestant Britain emerges clearly in an account of a vital nineteenth-century voluntarism and its fate in the twentieth century at the hands in particular of the state, socialism and secularism.

After a perceptive background chapter, that recreates the world of nineteenth-century charity, Prochaska ably presents his case by considering social basics in the shape of ably-paced and well-written chapters on schooling, visiting, mothering and nursing, before turning, in the sixth chapter, to address the political dimension. As he argues, the shift from voluntary, to state, social provision was important for religion, and Prochaska skilfully probes the relationship between Christianity and democracy (p. 150):

Christian institutions were conducive to the growth of grass-roots democracy, but democracy in its representative form proved less conducive to Christianity it is notable that high levels of welfare and low levels of religious adherence go together across much of Europe.
The Church itself contributed to this malaise, in Prochaska's phrase:
the bishops blew out the candles to see better in the dark.
However, the blame is more correctly focused in his book on the attitudes of the welfare state, not least the dirigiste paternalism that has helped produce the shambles of parts of the modern public sector; although the nature of contemporary civil society as a whole also bears much of the responsibility.

Prochaska criticises Thatcher for failing to give more support for charitable donations and for carrying forward the very collectivist agenda she disavowed, and argues that it was not until, in the 1990s, charity came to be elided with notions of civil society and community service, that it became more palatable to former critics, such as Gordon Brown who, in 1988, decreed charity as:

a sad and seedy competition for public pity.
Instead, as Prochaska points out (p. 176):
Socialism as a substitute religion proved a chimera.
His book is an arresting one for those concerned with public policy today, although that is not his subject. He makes clear the strength of an associational society, but is appropriately cautious about considering the extent to which it can be re-created, not least given the nature of contemporary religious culture. In Exeter, the churches share out the mission of providing a nightly soup-kitchen for the homeless, irrespective of the religious commitment of the latter. The churches can only do so much, but, as an non-believer, I am much impressed by their efforts. David Cameron is correct to draw attention to the issue. Whether confessionally-based systems of social care and education are sensible, given sectarian tendencies, not least in parts of Northern Ireland as well as British Islam, is a reasonable question, but reliance on the state alone is no solution.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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"...overpricing it's [sic] books" aaaarrrggh!

Posted by: pedant at February 16, 2006 02:59 PM

Now corrected - thanks for pointing this out and sorry for our lapse.
Social Affairs Unit

Posted by: Social Affairs Unit at February 17, 2006 10:41 AM
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