Caron Bradshaw: we need to lift our eyes from the Brexit paperwork

They say a week in politics is a long time but I’m beginning to believe, in the current climate, this should be shortened to ‘a day’.

During our CFG annual fundraising dinner, I reflected on the two years since the referendum. Back in 2016 I said that I didn’t think I had lived through a year that had troubled me more. Looking back it’s as though history saw that as a challenge, rolled up its metaphoric sleeves and said ‘hold my beer!’

Whether it’s Trump pulling out of the Paris Climate deal, shocking natural or man-made disasters or the recent election victory of the far right in Brazil – life has been volatile and highly worrying. And that’s without even mentioning B word.

Brexit has changed everything.

CFG has said that as it currently stands, Brexit will be bad for charity and bad for our beneficiaries. It looks like the sector is on course to suffer all the downsides and enjoy none of the up. We have gone further and said a no deal scenario could be catastrophic for our sector.

Fear and hardship have been capitalised upon and exploited, supposedly to give a voice to the voiceless, the forgotten and the disenfranchised. But in the last two years, it’s hard to see how things have improved in any sense for these groups. Do they feel any more listened to now than they did two years ago? I think not.

Over the last week or so, things have been changing on nearly a daily basis and we watch politicians from all sides of the Brexit debate wrangle for position. What appears clear right now is that the shades of grey and nuance are disappearing and we are left with three polarised options: accept the deal on the table (which appears to satisfy no-one completely), crash out or stay in.

It may have been mentioned in passing and the intention may have been to scare those on the opposing sides into voting for the deal in preference to the alternatives, but Theresa May raised the notion that after two years of debate, negotiation and noise we could end up remaining in the EU after all.

What happens next is difficult to predict and open to further change. My best guess is that May will survive any moves on a ‘no confidence’ vote and the deal will be voted down (narrowly). Thereafter, whether we crash out, stay in, have an election or a people’s vote, I really haven’t a clue. But what I do know is that the sector has a role to play that shouldn’t be entirely focussed on the outcome of the debate.

We know one thing for certain: the 2016 referendum highlighted a divide within the UK. Communities feel left behind, scared for the future and isolated. These communities feel voiceless and disenfranchised. Whatever the economic fallout of whatever happens next, we will have learnt nothing if we do not stop and ask what we should do to address this need that has been so completely overshadowed by argument and counter argument on Brexit.

I attended our special interest group for finance people in grant making organisations recently (which we run with ACF) at which a presentation was given on data by 360 Giving. One particular chart stuck in my mind, produced by the Young Foundation. It overlays the Brexit vote with disadvantage and charitable activity. What I took from that was where need is not being met (and charities are not active) the people voted for change. We ignore that at our peril.

In the budget, the end to austerity was trumpeted, but those most likely to benefit from that, appear to be higher up ‘the food chain’. Of course there were good things in it for those less well off; taking people out of paying tax and increasing the national living wage for example.

However, if the end to austerity does not mean improvements, targeting positive intervention, including supporting social change organisations, for those who feel left behind things won’t get better.

Communities are crying out for change. Charities and other social change organisations should be actively seeking them out and setting about co-creating answers to the questions being asked of society. The Civil Society Futures inquiry, led by Julia Unwin, issued its final report on 19th November. In it, the inquiry argues that ‘re-energised, civil society could be at the heart of the changes we need in our society as whole: reviving our dented democracy, rebuilding our social fabric and enabling us to address the great challenges of climate change and environmental degradation’ but that we won’t be able to do this without changing ourselves.

One way in which I think we can positively change is to lift our eyes from the Brexit paperwork that is on the table and focus on our opportunities to serve society as, I believe, we are best placed to.

I hope that in two years’ time I can celebrate the acts of our sector and the ways in which we have changed ourselves and society for the better; whatever the next days, weeks or months may bring.

Caron Bradshaw is the chief executive of Charity Finance Group

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