John Tizard: Brexit - the sector can't pass on the other side

We can't let this change happen without opening our mouths about the negative effects

John Tizard
John Tizard

This could be a momentous week in parliament at a critical time for the future of our country.

The 2016 referendum was nearly three years ago, but the debate, false claims, misinformation and anxiety continue ferociously. Even now there is no certainty that the UK will actually leave the EU, and if it does leave there is no agreement on what the basis of the departure and the long-term relationship with the EU will be.

Crashing out of the EU without a deal on 29 March would be disastrous. The Government’s own assessment and emergency planning indicate this. There are very likely to be shortages of food and medicine, parts of the country could become gigantic lorry parks, UK citizens will lose rights to travel, study and live in 27 partner countries and citizens from other member states will face uncertainty in the UK. The economic forecasts are bleak. Austerity would be deeper. There is talk of social unrest and even temporary martial law.

Some forms of withdrawal agreement would be less damaging than no deal, but most economic analysis forecasts that any form of Brexit would have negative consequences, leading to a weaker and smaller economy than there would have been had we continued our EU membership.

Brexit can be politically divisive and some political interventions have made it toxic.

The discourse around Brexit and the alternatives has been clouded by xenophobia, false statements, fear and, all too often, a paucity of objectivity. The country deserves better. Some politicians and others are seeking a calm and reasoned conversation. The voluntary and community sector should be part of this conversation.

Of course, the VCS at national and local level will wish to avoid partisan politics, but surely it should speak up on and to the communities in which it is embedded and which it serves?

The VCS is proud of its track record of challenging injustice, inequality, racism and the marginalisation of communities. Traditionally it challenges these symptoms and their causes. This is as important today as it ever was.

I understand why many sector organisations and leaders have been hesitant to enter the Brexit debate. They are aware of the harshness of the political debate and the hostility of much of the media. There may well be divisions of view in their own organisations, and among stakeholders and beneficiaries. But it is highly questionable that this led to a self-imposed silence or for the sector to express concerns only about the impact on the sector itself from, for example, the loss of EU funding.

I believe that many in the VCS are in a strong position, without being partisan, to argue that whatever the final decision by government and parliament it must not be one that results in a further weakened economy, greater inequality, more and deeper austerity and an even more divided society. The benchmark should be the status quo, even though this is very much not good enough. We need improvement, not worse conditions.

Specifically, the sector should be arguing that the social divisions, inequality, cuts to social security and public services, and the growing feeling by many communities that they have been "left behind", must be addressed. This will require systematic and structural change, including shifts in political as well as economic power. All  communities have a right for their voices to be heard, to benefit from equality of opportunity, to live in decent housing and to have access to excellent public services. Above all, they must have control over their own lives.

Significantly radical reform and change are long overdue. The sector is entitled and well positioned to make this case on behalf of communities and from a vast evidence base. So let the sector promote reform in the EU and the UK, as well as providing voice to communities, while addressing social ruptures and ensuring social unrest is prevented and, if necessary, mitigated.

Whatever the outcome of Brexit, there is an urgent need for a major reform programme to reset the social and economic environment based on the values of solidarity, democracy, social justice and equality. Historically, such change has in no small part come about because of social action, community campaigning and the fearless voice of the VCS, charities and other civil society bodies.

I believe that the VCS should campaign for this change with vigour and resolve; and if the sector is willing to do so, surely it cannot just pass Brexit on the other side. Time is running short, so I hope that the sector will rise to its responsibilities.

John Tizard (@johntizard) is an independent strategic adviser and commentator, and chair of Navca

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