Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Giving it all away

Personally, I'm delighted that Sir Tom Hunter has decided to donate a billion quid to charity - though I'd rather he did it without having to announce it in the press.

It conjures up notions of the old Victorian philanthropy and patronage with wealthy gentlemen supporting the favourite charities of their wives and mistresses - the 19th century chattering classes.

Of course, it's entirely up to Sir Tom which charities benefit and where the money is spent - and it seems the bulk of it is going to be spent in Africa. Nothing unusual there either - the Victorians were just as likely to help African charities as any other, but at a time when the gap between the wealthy and the poor in Britain is at it's greatest ever it would have been nice if Sir Tom had considered his home country as beneficiary.

When you travel around Britain, many of it's greatest monuments to our heritage and culture have been built not by government, not by business, but by private individuals who used their wealth for the benefit of this nation. Many of our towns - particularly in the north of England - were built up by wealthy businessmen to provide homes and facilities for their employees.

Often it was done consciously - a deliberate attempt to improve the lives of the less fortunate. Sometimes it was pure coincidence that an effort to improve productivity and boost profits should have a side-effect of making the lives of many poor people considerably better - but either way it worked.

Many of our greatest hospitals were founded by individuals as charitable institutions. The Royal Free Hospital, founded by William Marsden is one obvious example - but there are (or were) hundreds of these hospitals up and down the country, small local hospitals set up by local people, using their own funds for the benefit of their own community. It's one of the crimes of the century that hospitals built by local communities using their own money, raised through their own efforts have been grabbed by the state and then closed down and sold off.

A billion pounds is a goodly sum, but it won't go that far in the modern day and age. If I were Sir Tom, I'd stop trying to save the world and start with something a little closer to home.

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