David Donnison (1926 – 2018)
First Chair of the Social Policy Association, 1967-1971
First President of the Social Policy Association, 1991 -1996
David Donnison who died in April at the age of 92 was the first Chair of the then Social Administration Association (from 1987 the Social Policy Association). Its establishment was a very deliberate attempt to build up and sustain a growing subject. David was ideally suited to launch it with his strong, inclusive commitment to broad-based social policy and practice and his belief that the subject should make a difference – in his own words, ‘research, teaching and participation in public affairs (the three always developed together)’. His outstanding contribution was marked by his being made first SPA President in 1991.
The Scotsman and Guardian obituaries on the SPA website provide some detail on his active life with posts in Manchester, Toronto, LSE, the Centre for Environmental Studies, the Supplementary Benefits Commission and Glasgow. David covered more areas of social policy than anyone I know – personal social services, education, housing and community planning, social security, poverty and inequality and community advocacy. Many contributions were both high quality and pioneering, combining rigorous detail with context and revealing the underlying values behind policy choices. ‘To study “housing” is to explore a cross-section of a whole society and its affairs’, as he did in The Government of Housing (1967). Dipping into many again now, I have been struck by their significant relevance to today’s debates, and the anchorage they still offer for PhDs, particularly in the questions they pose.
David was a great listener and discussant with gently presented advice often opening up key questions. A consummate social policy analyst himself, his challenge to all of us to develop policy initiatives with those who would be affected by the changes was there in his earliest work but became more vigorously articulated in his later writings as well as applied in his own work in Glasgow. ‘I believe that gross and persistent inequalities … destroy Britain’s capacity for civilised human relationships, for tolerant democracy and for self-respecting productive work’. That was in 1982 in The Politics of Poverty, a memoir of his venture into shaping practice and making policy as Chair of the Supplementary Benefits Commission, then responsible for most means-tested benefits. He continued to stress this and the damage of poverty whenever he was given the opportunity – and often, very politely but insistently, when he wasn’t.
Anyone wondering about life outside the academy should take encouragement from the range of David’s interests and activities. He windsurfed the Scottish lochs, kayaked off Easdale, the tiny island off Oban where he and Kay spent many months each year, and regularly swam in the Western Baths across the road from his flat. He played concertina with a group in Motherwell until his death. He produced his own colonial family history and edited Kay’s writings and poetry after her death. He drew, painted and wrote poetry. He admitted to running six discussion groups from his flat – typically adding ‘all I do is just put the chairs round and ensure there is enough coffee’. One, Die-a-log, set up with seven friends to discuss issues relating to death, now has eight groups round the country, and David’s collaboration with them, Living Our Dying, will be published.
David was completely indifferent to privilege himself and welcoming to everyone, irrespective of their status or background: many confirmed this at his funeral. He will be missed.
Adrian Sinfield (SPA Chair 1986 -1989, and President 1996-2001)
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