Brexit isn’t the only B word we need to talk about

I was recently invited to a panel discussion about Brexit and what it means for the charity sector. After accepting the gig, I recoiled: why on earth would I agree to speak on a topic where half of the audience is guaranteed to hate what I say? For a fleeting moment I had sympathy for some of our politicians (only fleeting, mind).

Whatever your views on the subject, Br-exhaustion syndrome is probably universal – even for policy types like me. How will it affect the people and causes charities serve? There is so much we still don’t know – and huge uncertainty remains.

Nevertheless, some things are clearer than say, a year ago. There have been more developments on the future of EU funding (but still loads of uncertainty) and actually 80% of the withdrawal agreement is already agreed in draft (the stickiest bits, around Ireland in particular, remain).

The thing is, it was always going to be this mess. Brexit is, as one EU politician said, ‘like unscrambling the egg out of the omelette’. Nobody is going to get everything they want out of the future arrangements, and it’s likely that everybody will be disappointed in some way.

There will be disruption and change, whatever the outcome is. The current parliamentary tumult, negotiating between conflicting and impassioned views about Brexit, is just as much a part of our democracy as any referendum – moreso perhaps. As is negotiating in good faith with a democratic entity we’ve been constitutionally a part of for over 40 years.

It’s possible we’ll get a deal, or crash out next March, or Parliament could vote down the agreement, the government could collapse, and then all bets are off. We could even wind up staying in, after a ‘people’s vote’, or we’ll get out anyway after one. Or the whole thing will just be extended for a period of months or even years.

Forecasting Brexit seems to be a mug’s game, but personally, I think the thing to be positive about is that the UK and the EU have similar fundamental aims; neither side wants a disruptive and messy ‘no-deal’. Despite the scary brinksman/womanship and rhetoric, this is cause for some optimism.

But let’s not forget some other B words to consider. Like:

Bluster and Bullshit

As we get into crunch time with the negotiations, the silly insults and diplomatic drama are amplified by media hype and politicians of all stripes seizing on any bit of ‘data’ to push their agendas. But remember that showing shock, emotion and feigned outrage is a typical tactic in any negotiation. It might seem abnormal, but really, it’s quite normal.

Brexit is an extreme example, but this is how big deals usually go with the EU – seemingly nothing happens (when actually lots is happening behind the scenes), then there is a ‘crisis’, and that energy is used to break through an impasse, agree a plan of action, devise a road map. So, the heat is going to continue to be dialled up (and down again), but in the end there just may be more delay.


We in the sector need to beware the intellectual and emotional bubbles we’re in too. Remainer-leaning policy folk in London-based charities aren’t representative of the country or even the charity sector overall, yet we account for lots of the sector’s ‘voice’ – at least nationally.

For example, none of the people on the panel I spoke at (including me) were even modest leavers, and we all struggled to find positives about Brexit. Escaping one’s own confirmation bias is very difficult – especially when lots of the data and forecasting seems to make your case (but this is the nature of confirmation bias – you look for and give more validity to evidence that supports your view!).

There are increasing calls for a greater sector voice on Brexit. That’s a good thing and let’s have the debate – but we can’t assume that voice will or should be unified about Brexit and possible future options. Views and priorities will be different for different charities doing different stuff in different areas. Ultimately for charities, policy positions have to be based around charitable mission not the political persuasions of individual leaders and influencers.

Bravery for Beneficiaries

Brexit can seem overwhelming or like a looming disaster that we’re powerless to control. Alternatively, you might think it’s a liberating opportunity and the dawn of a bright new era. Either way, we can’t predict the future. We must have faith that whatever happens, we will get through it. Those of us in charities and others in the social sector can’t lose our heads.

Our leadership is needed. We can campaign for change, gather evidence and make arguments, try to raise our issues up the agenda, and keep striving for solutions – including, legitimately, pushing for a different or no Brexit, or some widely shared criteria or principles.

Saying that, on the evidence I’ve seen, Brexit isn’t even a top concern for most charity leaders! They’re far more worried about issues like fundraising, regulation, safeguarding, dealing with funding crises, and the chaos in local authorities and local health services. When asked ‘what keeps you awake at night’ only something like 13% of the delegates at the conference I spoke at said ‘Brexit’. Perhaps this will change, or perhaps the charity sector will just be more indirectly affected – it’s hard to see how many charities are exposed to, say cross-border supply chains, in the way many businesses of all shapes and sizes are.

Whether you think charities should be campaigning to stay in the EU or for a people’s vote, or you think we should leave in March with no deal, charities simply cannot afford to just hunker down or retreat. We have to engage with people and act, whatever that means – whether it’s campaigning, planning, mobilising volunteers, or connecting people and communities.

We’ve got to be BRAVE.

Briefing points

Important research on Brexit and its potential impact on charities is coming out all the time – let’s use it!