Greece is the Word… for Refugees

In March 2017 Tom spent a week in Athens including four days teaching English and providing conversation practice, as a volunteer, to refugees based in the squatter community. Here’s what he found…

They say the camera never lies. Everything I’ve seen and heard on TV about the plight of Middle East refugees was borne out by four days working in Athens recently, with migrants in the squatter communities around the city’s historic university and anarchist quarter.

Former office blocks, schools and abandoned government buildings provide around 6 hubs in this community, mostly squats, taken over with various degrees of permission. They’re within a square mile of dense, mature city, home now to migrants who have risked their lives, savings and sanity to escape war, fear and personal oppression.

Inscribed ‘Dedicated to the poor and homeless of the world’: Athens street art

There’s D who, five years ago, at 18, started university in Syria, a Christian who was excused conscription because he was studying pharmacy. A year later the derogation was reversed but rather than sign up for Assad’s army he transferred to Beirut to study where, a few months later, he heard that his parents and two siblings back home had been killed. He finished his degree and a few weeks ago invested his savings in the traffickers to take him to the west. After a couple of false turns (deliberately, to extract more money?) he found himself in Greece, with nowhere to go, no money left and no way forward; just a pharmacy degree, excellent English and a blend of hope and acquiescence.

K had been a nurse in Iraq for over 20 years. This family man was proud of his Kurdish health service but the day he came home to find his village razed to the ground, by ISIS, he knew it was time to flee. He rounded up his wife and child and within days they were transported, at great cost and by mysterious men, to the Greek Islands and hence to Athens. Three weeks ago the wife and child had bought their way to Germany on a bus. ‘I don’t know how the traffickers did it,’ he said, but they took all the money he had and he could see no way to be reunited with his family.

M, an Afghan, had also been on the islands: ‘Our boat set off at night for the mainland and was intercepted by police,’ he said. ‘It was dark, we were scared: then we cheered! This was the Greek police, not the Turks. We’d made it!’ M had walked from Afghanistan to the Turkish coast (‘Actually, I occasionally did a few miles by taxi’) to avoid most of the traffickers’ costs. Another boy told me he was one of 90 on a 9 metre inflatable boat which had been sinking with a puncture when they were caught. ‘I’m from Afghanistan, of course I can’t swim’.

Few of the refugees are able to work but some are in the informal economy – ‘there’s always demand for a barber!’ smiled a Pakistani man. ‘I admit, I’m an economic migrant’, confessed an Algerian baker, impressed that I knew his home town of Oran, as he settled down to sleep on a sofa. It was 3pm: bedless, he would be on the streets all night, once the drop-in centre closed.

Then there was N, a man of passive disposition, huge dignity and an educated smile: a former policy adviser. Married to a politician who’d gone before him and reached a camp in Europe proper, internal Kurdish politics had driven him and his two delightful children – the daughter, an aspiring microbiologist with perfect English – to leave it all behind. And go where? He would not have chosen Greece, where the economy can barely support its own people let alone tens of thousands of penniless visitors. Nor would he have chosen Britain: ‘Brexit?’ he said: ‘You’re crazy. Oh, what will happen to Ireland now?’ We met in a busy make-do community centre where everything was free, even the cafeteria. It was popular with refugees for its language classes in English, German and Farsi, advice bureaux, yoga, library and creche. These were all managed by young northern European and American volunteers, almost all white, mostly women, abounding in piercings, tattoos and dreadlocks – plus the occasional English public school background.

Welcome to the anarchist community: ‘We don’t work with the NGOs’, a young woman stressed to me on day one. This was apparently the only condition I had to swear to uphold before being let in to offer English conversation to the day visitors. Not working with NGOs (or governments, naturally) meant that what benefits were available in the camps outside the city – such as regular, small cash payments – were not provided here.

The squat where we gave English classes to giggling pre-teen Afghan girls was home to dozens of families, from every Middle East country and beyond. I gave our star pupil – a girl of 11 – a globe the size of a grapefruit. She loved it, fascinated: ‘That’s Greece? Really? And England – so small!’

The building had been attacked by fascist fire-bombers a few weeks earlier, fortunately without injury. Scorch marks on the outer wall were worn like a proud badge. ‘Locals accept us’, I was told, ‘they bring us gifts. They’re almost as poor as we are.’ The previously generous state pension in Greece was recently halved; acceptance isn’t the same as celebration. Gifts too came from abroad: on one day a convoy of 26 anarchist vans and lorries arrived from France, Belgium and Spain, with clothes, bedding and food. The street was like a scene from Mad Max, without the guns. Was this the right way to do things, I thought: what had the convoy cost? What if, instead of practical things, they’d sent money? A Euro in Greece goes further than a Euro in France. More to the point, if the refugees had money, even the same pittance as they’d get as of right in the camps outside the city, they might not only choose with dignity what to eat or wear but they’d be contributing to the hog-tied Greek economy, making together perhaps a significant contribution to the businesses that were so struggling around them, yet so separate from them.

Like the refugees, the anarchists were themselves an international band, set apart from the mainstream of their own societies, deliberately, preferring to avoid contact with authority. There were local traditions to uphold: it was in this area that the riots of 1973 undermined the junta and triggered democracy. The reputation of the locality for its street art pre-dates the refugee crisis: ’graffiti’ isn’t a Greek word for no reason.

Stepping out of ‘the system’ is risky. Few of the refugees I met had yet become hardened or cynical. Yet whatever hope they had left was theoretical, just about triumphing over experience. For how much longer? Whatever they were fleeing from had changed their lives forever before they even left and, where the trigger for departure was war, was changing them still – and not for the better. Yet these were people who had once had ambition, plans, families. They still have smiles, however rueful, even the ability to laugh. One joked ‘Put me in your suitcase, take me to London!’

These were the lucky ones: they’d got away, in most cases because they could afford to – back then. Every one of the adults and many of those younger understood the politics behind their situation and the reality of their slim prospects.

They were people with families who had done what they felt was best. They appreciated a degree of rules and order, unlike their polite and generous hosts. Whilst the risks they were taking in the manner of their migration were always odds-against success, this was better than the near certainty of humiliation, degradation and possible murder at home.

22 March 2017: a day I’ll remember

The killing of a policeman in Parliament took place just yards away from me…

Yesterday (22 March) was such a remarkable day: I was about 20 yards from where the policeman was killed, just minutes before the attack happened.

It started with me chairing an event for Fair for You in the Terrace Pavilion, overlooking the Thames, at which a remarkable woman called Lisa told our guests what a difference we, as an ethical loan social enterprise, had made to her family’s life. I offered her and Chris, a new supporter of FFY who’d come from Cheltenham for the event, a tour of Parliament, always a nostalgic moment for me. We visited the Terrace and in Portcullis House, at 2.30, Lisa suddenly screamed ‘There’s my MP!’ so I grabbed Seema Malhotra to come and say a quick hello! Seema was on her way to vote and the guy with her, Don Brind, was, moments later, an eye witness of what happened.

We left Portcullis House and crossed New Palace Yard to enter Westminster Hall, where I used the privilege of the ex-MP to show my guests the chapel in the crypt – including the cupboard where suffragette Emily Wilding Davison spent census night in 1911. I had once arranged for High Peak’s Kinder Children’s Choir to sing in the crypt, a rare and wonderful moment in that spectacularly beautiful room. With us in the crypt yesterday were David Amess, a Conservative MP, and his four guests from the Maldives including a government minister and the deputy ambassador.

As Lisa, Chris and I were leaving the crypt, passing the memorial book for my friend Jo Cox, there was a commotion as two very scared women ran into the crypt from a private, side entrance. I recognised one as Gemma Doyle, another former MP whom I know from when she worked for the Labour Party. Her colleague had seen the man wielding the knife.

We remained in the crypt for two hours (possibly longer than anyone since Emily?) venturing out just once to be told by a police officer to stay where we were (at least he knew we were there!). The ten of us followed events on Twitter and David spoke to his staff on the phone – they’d seen the incident from their office window. We had no idea of the scale of either the crime or the lockdown response. At one point a security officer came down to take the young woman’s details as a witness; he was close to tears.

MPs, staff and public are held in Westminster Hall during the Parliament lock-down

We were eventually corralled out to join a crowd in Westminster Hall and, half an hour later, 1,000 of us were led by armed police to Westminster Abbey where we were held for a further three hours. MPs, peers, staff, journalists and visitors; no frustration, no panic… very stoical English! At last we had access to loos and something slightly resembling tea. And biscuits. Chatted to Tom Watson, Maurice Glasman, Caroline Flint, many others.

Eventually (9pm) we were released: to a media horde who pounced on me – so I did the proper thing, with a dozen lights and cameras, mostly foreign journalists – followed by my second chat with BBC’s Nick Robinson in a week! A quick chat with my old boss, a visibly shaken Hilary Benn, then Chris and I paid for Lisa to have a taxi back to Hounslow. We collected our coats from Parliament (by now reopened for that very purpose) where I shared a hug with Yvette Cooper.

It was only later – post-adrenergic shock – that I started to realise what I had been through – and, more to the point, what might have been. I was proud of Fair for You, my friends, and the institution of which I was once – and perhaps always will be – a part.

History repeats itself! Signs of the Times

Congratulations to Dawn Butler MP for being the first MP to ask a Parliamentary Question in Sign
Language (BSL) in the House of Commons. I was delighted to be asked to comment on Radio 4’s Today programme the next day (here I am at 1 hour 40 minutes in). But my good friend Dawn wasn’t the first to use BSL in the House!

I’d done so in a half hour debate on Deaf Awareness training late at night back in April 1998. I signed the last paragraph as I spoke, whilst up in the Strangers Gallery a BSL interpreter translated for the benefit of 20 Deaf people who had come for the occasion. My speech, interpreted later by John Lea, was later made into a VHS video (pictured) and distributed. This was before the days of social media!

I had a later debate, in April 2000, about BSL itself; and from 1998-2003 I sat as a trustee (my first time on a major national charity board) for the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (now Action on Hearing Loss). I’m still a patron of the National Association of Deafened People and in the period before I went to Parliament, 1993-97, I worked as a consultant on deaf people’s access to mainstream services.

Even I wasn’t the first to use BSL in the House of Commons, though I was the first on TV: (later Sir) Malcolm Bruce used BSL briefly in the 1980s, though as this was before television came to the Commons there’s no record.

Dawn’s intervention – made at peak time of the Parliamentary day! – created a sensation amongst Deaf people on Twitter, another Sign of the times. And it deserved to, because my campaign was for legal recognition of BSL, which happened in 2003. Hers was to go beyond that, to try to establish a right for Deaf people to be able to use BSL when accessing key services such as health, law, etc. To his credit, Leader of the House David Liddington in his reply did reply that the Department for Education was about to announce that fluency in BSL would be accepted as an equivalent qualification to fluent spoken English in apprenticeships. Which is a great step forward.

Well done, Dawn!

6 Reasons why Hammond is Right on NICs

In the 2017 Budget Chancellor Philip Hammond raised National Insurance payments for some self employed people…

…and then a week later withdrew the policy. However, I still support it, as do the Resolution Foundation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the CBI, the Financial Times…

The Chancellor has a problem that would be no different for Labour. The recent massive increase in self employment is bad news for the economy because it’s been about exploitation, not entrepreneurialism. As a result of big companies either insisting on self-employment in the ‘gig’ economy or even de-employing people (see UCATT’s recent report on this) some people’s rights are being restricted. But that’s not what Hammond’s change to NIC is all about.

Here are six reasons why the Tories were RIGHT to raise NIC for some self employed people and deserve Labour support:

– the big switch to (often bogus) self employment has cost government many millions in lost tax income because the Treasury no longer receives employer’s NIC (or higher employee’s NIC) from them

– last year the self employed got an automatic right to a state pension without being asked to contribute any more towards it

– most self employed people in the gig economy won’t be affected by the rise in NIC because their net earnings are under £16k

– a self employed person with a declared income of £16k probably has a real income of at least £20k because they can offset expenses against tax (which PAYE employees can’t)

– at 11% the self employed will still pay less NIC than employees (12%) (though yes, they have fewer entitlements) and they aren’t required to do auto-enrolment on pensions

– when Labour needed more money for the NHS we brought in a NIC rise with no controversy at all!

Self employment is very complex. It used to represent convenience for the artisan, opportunity for the entrepreneur, release for the hobbyist – no longer. Big business has benefitted from growing self employment because they reduce their NIC payments by outsourcing. Those obliged to go independent have seen their NI contributions fall even where headline pay is unchanged. Modern self employment raises huge challenges around benefits, training, career development and social mobility.

The Budget wasn’t about the rights of self employed people nor the abuse of the status, though they’re important. And nor (London colleagues please note) does any part of the tax system acknowledge London weighting. A review is looking at all these issues and I trust Matthew Taylor to consider them properly, not just in fiscal terms.

Labour’s challenge to the Budget should be about living standards, corporate taxation and Brexit impact. In particular, when the revised National Living Wage came in, only in 2016, it established that minimum wage legislation should raise the lowest paid up to the official poverty level by 2020 – this commitment was dropped in the 2017 Budget. The relatively minor adjustment on NICs is not where we should focus.

For the record, I’ve been self employed both as an individual and as a company.

The fact that the decision is a manifesto breach is incidental, a problem for the Tories, not for Labour; leaving the EU Single Market would be a bigger manifesto breach! It was a daft commitment but it’s what governments do. If Hammond argued ‘changed circumstances’ he’d be right. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies says, the NIC change is about tax justice.

Accountability and impact investing

An anonymous blog on the Nesta web site (25 Jan 2017) caused Tom some concern – here is his published comment. The original article is here.

This is a worrying article – not because of its content but because of its lack of rigour. First, it isn’t true that trust in charities is ‘going downhill’. A recent blog by NFP Synergy explains why one recent poll (unfortunately commissioned by the Charity Commission) was out of step with their own research. They concede that trust in charities can be volatile – even though it’s higher than that of most other public institutions (and a lot higher than financial institutions).

Second, there’s no crisis on senior pay in charities (unless you read the Daily Mail) though there is an odd reluctance by charities to explain why they pay what they do for posts which are demanding, responsible, big – and much lower paid than equivalents in other sectors.

But I won’t let these Aunt Sallies distract me.

Impact investors are either essentially charitable people who realise that impact investing is a more efficient use of resources; or they are essentially investors who want to achieve social as well as financial returns. Neither group is as naive as your anonymous blogger appears to believe!

Yes, there needs to be accountability and there needs to be strategy in impact investing. Yes, impact investing can be more impactful than charity work (and I’ve had a lifetime in charities). But it isn’t a choice between the two.

There are lots of good reasons for doing what this piece advocates – but they don’t include the main reason advanced here!

American business community rallies against Trump ‘fatwa’

Forget ‘Why those 7 countries?’ or ‘How can a country built by the sweat of immigrants do this?’: the Trump fatwa against refugees in general and Muslims in particular has seriously offended the American business community – and for all the right reasons.

On the first working day after the President signed the order, the hundreds of thousands who took to the world’s streets were joined in spirit by the corporate realm. Google and Apple complained that the (irrational and hysterical) ban was not in the interests of companies that fished in global talent pools, whilst Microsoft spoke up for its 76 employees who could be stopped from travelling or returning to the US. Ford, whose CEO was fresh from an Oval Office meeting, condemned the measure as ‘against our values’ and Starbucks announced plans to retaliate by recruiting 10,000 migrant baristas worldwide over the next 5 years. Mark Zuckerburg of Facebook spoke for many:

‘We [USA] are a nation of immigrants, and we all benefit when the best and brightest from around the world can live, work and contribute here’.

JP Morgan Chase, Netflix, Nike, Blackberry and the proprietors of both Twitter and the New York Times were quick to denounce the President’s action, as did many others. They included Goldman Sachs, whose alumni make up a significant portion of the Trump team, and Blackrock, the world’s largest private investor, whose CEO had been in line for a top job had President Clinton been at the helm today. The stock markets stuttered in response as businesses, half of them created by immigrants or their children, queued up to comment.

This issue goes further than what’s good for business. When Mark Benioff of Salesforce took to Twitter to quote scripture in opposition to the ban he was well outside the normal comfort zone of the corporate world. However, it’s clear that, in this era of constant scrutiny by Instagram and Twitter, and the softer values of the upcoming Millennial generation, businesses who claim to operate by sound values actually need to demonstrate this every once in a while. In that sense, the immigrant ban is opportune. It allows them to stand together, avoiding the risk of being picked off by sniper fire (to use an unfortunate analogy). Their stance is a statement of values with which the majority of Americans can identify (remember that Trump lost the popular vote) and, of course, companies that had become used to hiring the best talent from wherever in the world they could find it certainly didn’t want to lose that right.

And it wasn’t just in America, either: In Britain the Institute of Directors and the British Chambers of Commerce both joined the chorus. The CEO of Anglo-Dutch Unilever, Paul Polman said on Twitter that the

‘Inherent worth and dignity of every world citizen [is] being challenged in US at the moment’.

With those words he spoke for us all, not only for migrants and justice but for decency, fair play and common sense. These are the values of the best of business.

Book review: Nick Raynsford

Tom reviews ‘Substance not Spin’ for Order, Order, the magazine of former Members of Parliament:

img_0082If you’re looking for a ‘kiss and tell’ story of indiscretions from the heart of government, look elsewhere. In ‘Substance not Spin’ Nick Raynsford has produced a serious and essential guide to how to do government – and how not – a must read for every future minister. It’s the 21st century complement, perhaps, to Gerald Kaufman’s seminal tome.

The book is a good read too, with an easy style and an eye for detail which never palls; housing, planning and infrastructure are Nick’s passions (no surprise there) and through these issues he draws lessons for all involved in government. At times he rides the waves of success but too often, not least in his own estimation, the failures too. He dissects with scalpel-like precision the reasons why ambitions fail to materialise in Government.

Those ambitions were key to Labour’s progress over the last 20 years, not least our frustrated aims to build homes, either for rent or sale; to keep housing benefit under control; to deliver major infrastructure programmes on time and on budget (too many examples of this here) – and even to track smaller projects from conception to delivery. Having nine ministers responsible for housing policy over 13 years was a recipe for disaster; whilst no one ever decided that housing was a low priority for Labour our actions, unfortunately, speak louder.

Dare I mention HIPS or the reorganisation of fire and rescue? There’s a whole chapter named ‘Wasted opportunities’.

Yet there were successes too: we have a Mayor for London because of decisions taken on Nick’s watch, and the pleasure he gets from describing the rebirth of the once-failed Hackney council is tangible. He was engaged in the latter as a charity activist in the housing world, through various government roles to being a post-ministerial London backbencher.

Nick was never loud: I’ve known him 25 years and he is ever polite, engaged, intelligent and passionate – in a very English way. He worries about getting things done and if we can learn from his book about riding the competing currents of politics we will be better equipped to get things done in future – if Labour ever gets the chance.

My only niggle with an otherwise excellent piece of work is with the editor, not the author: Brentford, my present home, is not in Essex (p176) – that’s Brentwood!

Measuring Social Impact

Tom wrote the following for the CBI Good Business web site, published 1 November 2016. The article was inspired by a day conference organised by the British Standards Institute on whether there should be a British Standard on impact measurement:

A debate rages about the measurement of social impact. Charities need to demonstrate impact to funders, commissioners, donors, media and government, whilst businesses who value their social and environmental responsibility are being asked: ‘just how responsible are you?’

All organisations impact upon others. It’s rational to expect that social and environmental claims should reflect an organisation as a whole. Although big corporates will rush to demonstrate their positive impact through corporate social responsibility (CSR) activity, community engagement and philanthropy, just one oil spill, prosecution or product recall can change perceptions.

The heat of the current debate is not whether but how impact measurement is made. How do you compare reducing carbon footprints with creating apprenticeships? Or time spent listening to children read with pro bono legal advice? Can a common system of impact measurement cope with all of these activities?

People are striving to say ‘yes’. One way is to monetise impacts – what are they actually worth?  When a company donates an employee’s time to a charity should we count the hours at the actual salary rate, the cost to the company or a commercial rate? Or an independently calculated agreed sum? This is a common question within CSR circles, but is an hour really an impact measure? No, it’s an input.

What’s an apprenticeship worth? A company creates two identical apprenticeships with a net investment of £10,000 each; one goes to a long term unemployed ex-offender, one to a bright school leaver. The true social impacts, including lifetime savings to the state as a result of that individual gaining skills and employment, are vastly different.

Here’s a parallel: GDP is a recognised, long established and monetised assessment of a country’s worth that tells you nothing about the values, culture and degree of liberty that its people enjoy.

Clearly, simple impact measurements are less meaningful than complex ones; and calculations which become tiresome, long-winded and costly are both unattractive to organisations and open to challenge. Even more to the point: smaller organisations, charities or businesses, are less likely to have the skills necessary to make the objective and detailed comparisons that universally comparable impact measurement demands.

To achieve its goals an organisation must know what changes its activities make happen. Change and impact can be both quantitative and qualitative, sometimes impossible to monetise meaningfully. However, enhanced employee engagement, generated by a company with a purpose beyond the purely commercial, can be measured over time and is a prize worth having.

There’s a danger that standardised impact assessments will strike many as ‘not for us’; smaller players might use a low cost, ‘rough and ready’ assessment like Measuring the Good whilst others complain that a growing impact measurement industry offers unproven value for money.

So internal impact measurement is vital to achieving social and environmental goals. External impact assessment can be standardised but only to a degree, not least because different stakeholders make contrasting demands. Truly objective, universal standards that retain utility are problematic; and measures which accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative miss the point.

A Meaningful Profession: ICRS

On 15th September 2016 Tom was a platform participant at the first major debate sponsored by ICRS (Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability), hosted by the RSA and chaired by the RSA’s director Matthew Taylor, in the presence of over 100 CRS/CSR professionals.


L-R: Claudine Blamey (ICRS), Lee Elliott Major (Sutton Trust), Beth Knight (EY), Matthew Taylor (RSA), Tom, Mariano Maratino (Indeed)

The debate was on the future of the CRS profession; at present the vast majority of people who work in CRS and CSR are graduates based in London and the South East. In Tom’s comments he pointed out that (at 62 years old) he was one of only 6 per cent of his generation to go to University whereas today the goal is for half of all 30-year olds to have a university standard (NVQ4) education. The panel agreed that there was a need for more apprenticeships and non-graduate opportunities, too.

Below are the thoughts that Tom put together when considering his remarks.

In an age of austerity, society and business have to engage better together. Why? As statutory government services are cut and charity incomes flatline a gap in community capacity has emerged, threatening the way we help the most vulnerable people, promote good health, celebrate cultures and support community cohesion. Businesses that take a broader view of how to protect the interests of their employees reap the benefits: greater employee engagement, more opportunities for innovation and partnership working and genuinely earned reputational gains are on offer.

At the same time a switch in business from shorter term to longer term thinking and planning can, for example, turn environmental challenges into opportunities. This then, is the business case: there is growing evidence that the Company Citizen is better placed to achieve sustainability in the triple bottom line – yes, including profit – than is the more predatory model so often but unhelpfully defined as the archetypal business.

160915-icrs-rsaIf an engagement programme can include using the surplus skills of business to, say, increase the capacity of the voluntary sector, better equipping them for survival and growth under their own terms, then a double whammy is achieved. No more will senior corporate executives have to admit that they have ‘no idea’ what life is like for people living within a mile of their plush HQ.

To deliver these goals and values, especially around employee engagement, a company needs a mission, a values-led philosophy, a sense of purpose broader than filling spreadsheets or making widgets. The spark to ignite this may come from Corporate Responsibility professionals, often found in the Human Resources department, a growing band of natural partnership workers, capacity builders and outward lookers. Promoting graduate qualifications is, of course, welcome; but it isn’t the only way forward.

Every manager should be a corporate responsibility worker, every company decision subjected to social impact assessment, every worker a champion for their community, fostered by the family of the Company Citizen. No more will ‘green teams’ of dedicated employee volunteers, encouraged by managers to use their voice for the environment, conclude ‘But we’re changing nothing’. We should boast not of hours volunteered but of change made.

Something is missing here. 99 per cent of businesses and half of private sector employees are excluded from this scenario: the SME sector. Whilst we define SMEs as having fewer than 250 employees in truth the median is in the 6-10 category. They have no HR departments and as for Corporate Responsibility their response is often ‘We’re not Corporates, this isn’t for us’. Yet they’re the closest to those voluntary services on the ground, the lifeblood of the community in which Company Citizens live.

By bringing SMEs together in local networks to share resources, perhaps alongside their larger cousins, capacity issues can be addressed and meaningful engagement generated to the advantage of all: society, employees and companies themselves. It can be done; the barrier to it happening is the wrong sort of thinking, hiding the path to win:win opportunities.

Brexit means MORE need for Responsible Business

(This article appears on the CBI Great Business Debate web site)

EU BrexitOver coming years, at least until Britain has established a new global role following the ‘Brexit’ referendum, the spotlight of public scrutiny will fall on business more than ever before. Its ‘licence to operate’ will have to be more obviously earned, whilst thoughts that business was somehow above the tawdry world of (small ‘p’) politics will have to be reassessed. Brexit is changing everything.

Big business was clear about where it stood on Europe: international trade requires maximum market access with minimum trade barriers so access to the single market was the obvious compromise. Smaller companies were more equivocal and less loud but not overwhelmingly pro-Brexit.

Yet business failed to convince enough people that their profits and voters’ jobs shared a common cause in ‘Remain’; polls show that business leaders’ opinions have no more credibility than those of politicians or red top journalists. Overseas investors in the North East wrote to employees, begging them to back ‘Remain’ in areas which subsequently returned large Brexit majorities.

And whilst the City, the FTSE community and big business generally were seen as pro-Europe the leafy home counties – where the captains of those very industries live – voted ‘out’. Did they not believe their own rhetoric?

There’s more.

Two groups emerged as pariahs during the referendum campaign: immigrants and, less predictably, ‘experts’. Anyone who knew what they were talking about was, bizarrely, not to be trusted. Leaders of multinational corporations suffered three-fold: they associated with Johnny Foreigner, they were experts and their interests were perceived as alien because of their size, distance and lack of a uniquely British focus.

Business was blamed for recruiting foreign labour at the expense of native British, with some employers cynically only advertising vacancies abroad or in another language, such as Polish. Since the referendum Muslims have borne the brunt of an unleashed tide of racism; Eastern Europeans, even families who arrived as refugees before the EU existed, have found themselves abused for the first time. Employers must work hard to prevent such neanderthal attitudes poisoning the workplace.

A sense of powerlessness, alienation from the establishment, contributed to the Brexit vote: inflated top salaries, growing levels of working poverty and multinationals’ optional approach to taxation all represent just that. Business must address these issues.

Our country must rebuild. Most intellectual leaders are still stunned by the unexpected and irrational nature of the June 23rd decision. Leading politicians have jumped ship rather than take responsibility for the decision they advocated: business must not do the same. Business has to find a new identity, less distant, a more human approach to the bottom line, one that promotes inclusivity not just in the workforce but alongside others in local communities.

This story is not over: social and economic conditions could get worse before they get better. Certainty and stability are gone, for how long?

The phrase ‘better together’ has never been more true; even if together we are to turn our backs on the biggest single market in the world and on 40 years of social and environmental progress. Business must be part of ‘together’ without being arrogant or lofty; our future depends on the Company Citizen stepping up to the mark.

(Picture from Stuart Miles)