Time to take a side: civil society’s collective voice must be heard

Graphic of UK flag tearing through an EU flag

Like it or not, Brexit is coming, but at what cost? If the government hardliners get their way, we face the prospect of the very hardest type of Brexit; yet there appears to be very few charity voices taking a stand against this extreme position. According to a report in Third Sector, the NCVO has refused to back a statement endorsed by their counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland calling for the UK to stay in the single market and customs union.

In the article, NCVO say that there “may be other ways” of proceeding and therefore “we don’t want to commit to those specific solutions at this stage”. But there is no suggestion of what these other ways might be.

With Brexit day drawing ever closer, it seems wrong that England’s national voluntary sector organisation should still be sitting on the fence. NCVO have already pointed out that after Brexit, charities will need to do more with less. So why no position over the type of Brexit on offer?

After all, we didn’t get to vote on a hard Brexit. There was never any consideration of hard or soft options in the referendum. There was no small print on the ballot paper, no description of the type of Brexit we will follow or what it would cost. Yes it was an historic vote, but in 2016, Brexit was the will of just 51% of the people. Far from being an overwhelming, resounding vote in favour of leaving the European Union, some 16 million people voted to remain. What we have, following the referendum, is a deeply divided country.

What’s more, despite all the “Brexit means Brexit” mantra from Theresa May, there was no sudden surge of support for a hard Brexit stance at last year’s general election. Indeed, far from consolidating the government position, losing her parliamentary majority should have been a warning to the prime minister.

But apparently it wasn’t. The government is still taking the winner-takes-all route to a hard Brexit, even though its own (leaked) research tells us that all the leave options would be bad for the economy, with no deal being the most damaging of all.

Civil society needs to take a side. After all, Brexit will affect funding, beneficiaries and communities.

Yes taking sides is political, but it is not party political. There is already a coalition of charities and trade unions against the power grab by government contained in the Repeal Bill. And there is already a broad political consensus against a hard Brexit, uniting back-bench Labour, a slice of Conservative opinion, the Greens, Lib Dem’s, SNP and Plaid Cymru. Add in campaign groups such as Another Europe is Possible, and the consensus against a hard Brexit is broad and growing. Now the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action and the Wales Council for Voluntary Action have added their support.

So isn’t it time that NCVO and influential charities came off of the fence? Shouldn’t there be a single collective voice in civil society, actively campaigning to stop a hard Brexit?

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