Victorian Values

05 April 2018

John Nickson, author of Giving Is Good for You, argues that that the recently enriched need to rediscover the Victorian sense of social responsibility.

Victorian values

The civil society we enjoy in Britain would not exist without the philanthropists of the past: social housing, education and universities, museums, galleries, libraries, public parks, hospitals and hospices, orchestras, the National Trust were established by philanthropists who had the foresight to invest in social capital.

Many people do not know this and that matters, particularly as our culture of giving has been much diminished. The majority of the wealthy are no longer philanthropic.

We live in a time of paradox. Humankind has never been so prosperous. However, although globalisation and technology have lifted billions out of poverty and inequality between nations has decreased, inequality within some countries has increased. Whilst capitalism has created more prosperity for more people than any other system in our history, it has generated more wealth for the few than the many during the last 30 years.

george peabody


George Peabody (1795–1869), an American merchant who is considered to be the “father of modern philanthropy”, spent most of his £13 million fortune on philanthropic works. (Corbis Images)

This might not have mattered but for the savage recession at the beginning of the century. Analysis has revealed that the income of the middle classes in America has either been stagnating or in decline since the 1970s, whilst the top 1 per cent has become much wealthier. The British experience is not so extreme, but a gap has opened up between the wealth of the majority and the few.

Some are predicting that automation will destroy millions of middle-class jobs. Moreover, despite recent economic progress, governments and individuals are still constrained by debt that will inhibit demand and growth. Whilst the British economy has been remarkably successful in creating jobs, many of these are low-paid and youth unemployment remains high at about 15 per cent.

Whilst we must beware of being too pessimistic, some philanthropists do worry about the future of civil society and liberal democracy if current trends continue towards more inequality and more social and political fragmentation. They encouraged me to write Giving Is Good for You because they are concerned that a majority of their peers are not philanthropic. They also worry about what the future holds for the young.

Are we sure that we will bequeath the civil society we enjoy to future generations? Today’s young people are less well-off than we are and are likely to live in an increasingly unequal and plutocratic world where liberal democracy no longer predominates.

andrew carnegie


Scottish–American steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) believed that the rich have a moral obligation to donate their wealth. (Getty Images)


That is speculation, but the truth is that the British state will become smaller. What happens to civil society when the state is in retreat? Will the voluntary sector be able to compensate whilst charitable giving remains stagnant despite a colossal growth in personal wealth? A recent survey suggests that only 10 per cent of those selling a business are seriously committed to philanthropy. National Philanthropy Capital, a charity think tank and consultancy, reports that almost half of top-rate taxpayers feel under no obligation to be charitable.

We must revive the spirit of enterprise and philanthropy that was endemic in Victorian times without returning to the hypocrisy, repression and poverty that blighted the nineteenth century. Victorian philanthropists were canny. They understood the link between commerce and community and saw the potential for maximising the value of their wealth in terms of social capital. They transformed our cities by philanthropic investments that benefitted both them and their communities.

That was then. The decline of community is serious. Perhaps it is time to reconsider an old-fashioned concept, the Common Good, and redefine it for the twenty-first century. More philanthropy on its own is not the solution. I believe that we can secure the future of civil society only by forging new partnerships between the state, local government, the private sector and philanthropists—all determined to invest in the creation of social capital. All that is required is leadership. Where is it?

John Nickson directed fundraising at The British Council, English National Opera, The Royal Academy of Arts and Tate. He is a charity trustee and a donor. His first book Giving Is Good for You (Biteback Publishing) was published in 2013. His second book, Examining Threats to Civil Society and the Role Philanthropy Plays in Sustaining It, will be published in the autumn of 2016.


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