On September 4, 1939, less than 24 hours after Britain and France declared war on Germany, 200 Citizens Advice Bureaux sprang up in homes and public buildings around the country.

Scotland’s first was in Glasgow where, like its counterparts across the UK, volunteers worked around the clock to help people with problems related to rationing, evacuation, lost family members, and other emergencies provoked by the trauma of war.

In the 81 years since, though the problems faced by the population have changed in nature, the bureaux have never stopped operating.

In Scotland, 60 individual bureaux now exist at the heart of diverse communities, providing vital services every day alongside like-minded organisations such as law and money advice centres.

The free advice sector is one with few frills or fanfares.

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of fundraisers and celebrations for such groups in Castlemilk in the south of Glasgow, where my late granny lived and chaired the board at Castlemilk Law Centre while being involved in various other community projects.

These events took place in unassuming halls where ordinary people gathered to enjoy home baking and drink tea out of paper cups, but they were more vibrant and warm than any corporate sponsorship event I’ve attended in the years since, because they were a pure expression of community and compassion.

Similarly, the everyday work of advising on debt, benefits, housing and rights isn’t always glamorous but it is the work which keeps communities ticking along.

Some might turn to a CAB or law centre for a one-off workplace issue or single benefits claim, while others rely on them throughout their lives.

For many, disconnected from other services by finance, infrastructure or a lack of digital literacy or access, they will be a solitary lifeline.

It’s easy to measure the sector’s success with pragmatism – millions of pounds claimed in benefits; thousands of clients advised; hundreds of volunteers trained up – and those successes are impressive.

But ideology matters too: a free, universal, campaigning service that supports our most vulnerable communities to realise their full citizenship is radical and it is invaluable.

If Scotland’s law centres and CAB branches have been quietly saving lives under the radar for decades, one city got the chance to show its appreciation last week.

When Glasgow’s free advice sector was threatened with a 60% funding cut by Glasgow City Council, Glaswegians turned out in force to defend services such as the aforementioned Castlemilk Law Centre – Scotland’s oldest – and five of the city’s CAB from closure.

The backlash saw the council announce a £4 million “transition fund” for groups and charities affected by the coronavirus pandemic. While it remains to be seen how the funds will be allocated, it appears that Glasgow’s strength of feeling has at least bought the sector some time and breathing space.

Such vital services should never have had to stare imminent closure in the face in order to have their worth recognised.

Take a look at any benefits information web page or leaflet, from any tier of government, and you’ll find a paragraph advising you to turn to your nearest CAB for advice.

While successive UK governments have dismantled the framework of collective rights, disempowering trade unions, communities and equalities groups, they have simultaneously failed to provide any meaningful support for those organisations working to help people recognise their individual ones either.

Devolution has shielded Scotland from some of this ruthlessness, but not from the widening inequality that has ripped up and down the country.

One of the answers to increased poverty, falling wages and worsening health is surely to turn to the people and services who work to tackle it every day, and to value and fund their work accordingly.

Just as it has forced a spotlight to be shone so many aspects of our society – be it working conditions, the division of domestic labour or public-sector pay – the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lockdown has also further enshrined the free advice sector as an invaluable asset to individuals and families across the country.

This week, a Policy Scotland paper found an 82% increase in Glasgow’s Universal Credit caseload between March and July.

In Parkhead CAB alone, in the deprived east of the city, the numbers of clients of working age and of those seeking help with employment issues have risen in lockdown.

With some estimates suggesting the end of furlough in October could lead to 10% unemployment across the country, the worst is yet to come.

If coronavirus has forced conversations about essential workers and unsung heroes, those toiling tirelessly in the free advice sector through one of the worst social crises in living memory surely deserve huge recognition.

Local authorities across Scotland and the UK are themselves victims of brutal funding cuts and have little choice but to make unenviable decisions every day.

There are few winners in a system which sees councils landed with increasing responsibilities but tightening budgets, and which forces natural allies in the third sector to compete with each other for scraps of short-term funding. Glasgow’s CAB and law centres might have been saved for now, but the sector shouldn’t have to exist in a constant state of uncertainty, poised to fight for its future at any moment.

Amid so much talk of “building back better”, perhaps the time has come to think about how Scotland might celebrate and safeguard these most valuable frontline services in the long term.

Far more than just the administrators of benefits advice or a friendly listening ear, places like CAB, law centres and money advice services speak to the kind of country we want to be. In a perfect one, perhaps, they wouldn’t need to exist at all.

But for as long as they do, their success, sustainability and established place at the hearts of our communities are symbols of a society that still has humanity and compassion and that sees and cares for its most vulnerable and deprived.

Losing them would mean losing a lot more indeed.