Agile social enterprises are well placed to help smooth the way forward in our alien post-Brexit landscape, suggests Peter Holbrook

If we take the mainstream media’s word on Brexit, it seems we are a divided Britain. Looking about, it’s pretty difficult to disagree. Those who voted to remain are largely depressed and anxious about the future, while those who voted to leave are looking forward to the country “taking back control” and prospering.

For some people, electing to leave was a protest vote — discontentment, disillusionment, and distrust in experts and the establishment put rocket boosters under the Brexit campaign. Of course, some people voted to leave because they genuinely believe that our economy will be stronger as a result.

But the EU was an easy scapegoat for media moguls, politicians and business leaders who wanted out — a handy peg on which to hang a plethora of complex, interrelated social and economic problems. That’s not to say that the EU is beyond blame: the forcing of austerity measures on countries already in recession has been harsh to say the least, while David Cameron’s calls for reform fell on deaf ears.

Now that Theresa May’s government has begun the unenviable task of negotiating the UK’s withdrawal, I suspect those who voted to leave will find that exiting the EU does little — and possibly the opposite — of what they have been led to expect.

I doubt we can expect our neglected high streets to suddenly bustle once again, our shuttered pubs to spring back to life; for Britain to return, newly powerful, as a nation of shopkeepers — a manufacturing powerhouse with widespread job security. And there’s little hope of resolving the mythical issue of migrants taking our council homes, school places, NHS resources and jobs.

Because of course, these challenges, incorrectly posed as EU-membership threats, are actually the consequences of globalisation.

Capitalism and globalisation are built on the myth that you can have it all: ever-increasing opportunity, living standards and life expectancy, along with ever-cheaper products. Globalisation may offer people cheap TVs, but it also strips their communities of power, hope and job security.

Undemocratic and distant, the EU has too often been globalisation’s cheerleader, advocate and agent. However wrong, it is somewhat understandable that some people blame the EU for such issues as economic instability and unemployment.

Either way, where do we go from here? One thing is certain: Brexit is shrouded in uncertainties. Who knows how it will play out. Political leaders are only just beginning talks and the extraction will likely move at a snail’s pace.

Seeking new beginnings 

But amid the speculation of what the future holds, it is crucial that social enterprises are first out of the blocks to make the most of the opportunities Brexit may present.

Social enterprises, or businesses that equally prioritise profit and social benefit, can help address the range of challenges facing Britain. They are inherently equipped to solve wicked problems and fill the gaps in business and society; social enterprises are perfectly placed to offer solutions to Brexit problems we are only just beginning to comprehend.

In one creative example, the social enterprise Street League tackles youth unemployment through football. Working with 16-25 year olds who are not in employment, education and training, it provides a structured football and education ‘academy’ programme, that develops vital employability skills such as communication, teamwork and goal-setting. Bevan Healthcare CIC runs a much-needed NHS service for people who are homeless or in unstable accommodation, including asylum seekers, while social enterprises like Bounce Back, provide education and training to people in prison, helping them reintegrate into society. These are forward-looking, long-term solutions to building stronger communities.

While some funding streams will close as a result of Brexit, others could well open. There may well be new rules — and opportunities — for procurement and government grants. This could mean chances for established, emerging and brand new social enterprises to build their businesses and help more Brits.

Of course, there will be fierce competition for available funds. Social enterprises will need to build relationships with funders and funding bodies, and be clear about how they can help people and communities prosper. They will, as ever, need to provide social impact proof through measuring and reporting.

While one in seven UK-based social enterprises currently exports their goods and services, the majority trade within the UK. Brexit presents a golden chance to encourage more people to get behind British social enterprises’ products and services.

Have your say

Social Enterprise UK (SEUK), the national body and, full disclosure here, my employer too, hopes that policymakers will help the social enterprise sector successfully navigate Brexit’s turbulence as well as leverage its possibilities. To facilitate this, SEUK is conducting a survey to identify social enterprises’ Brexit views. The results will be used to help plan social enterprises’ next steps. If you work in the sector, we would appreciate your input.

While the survey results are being collated, Westminster might wish to take its lead from the Scottish government, which in its latest economic strategy committed to pursuing inclusive growth to achieve “the two mutually supportive goals of increasing competitiveness and tackling inequality”.

While Brexit holds much potential for social enterprises, initial signs show it also presents plenty of hurdles. For example, the Office for Civil Society (OCS), which was once in the Cabinet Office, has been somewhat oddly plonked in the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) in the post-referendum reshuffle. It goes without saying that, without social enterprises proactively developing relationships and a high profile within this portfolio, this positioning carries risk for the social enterprise sector’s future.

Social enterprises are businesses and need to be recognised as such, especially as the government is exploring how it can support the traditional small-to-medium enterprises in the face of Brexit. This is not a time for social enterprises and investors to be sidelined. Nor is it a time for social enterprises to be meek. Brexit presents challenges and turmoil, but it also represents an unrivalled opportunity for innovative, agile, solutions-focused social enterprises to lead the way.


Peter Holbrook is the chief executive of Social Enterprise UK, the UK’s national social enterprise membership and campaigning body

Photo: Unseen Tours 

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