March 27, 2017 : Craig Wilson

Indyref and Brexit: do charities have a duty to pick a side?

A burden of responsibility for Scotland’s third sector

Scotland’s charities are rarely backwards at coming forward. Policy decisions on issues such as mental health, homelessness and the environment have all been shaped by the arguments and evidence presented by Scotland’s voluntary sector. At the same time the public views charities with a great deal of trust, and considers the sector, varied as it is, to be expert in its field. This trust and respect has been hard won and fully earned.

All of this puts charities in an interesting place which is both enviable (in the sense that an elevated position offers greater opportunities to be heard) and burdensome (in the sense that great responsibility and subtlety must be exercised). As such, when it comes to many of the big issues of the day (yes, I mean referenda) charities often develop cold feet.

Can we afford to tiptoe around issues we know will have massive repercussions for communities and individuals?

I completely understand why this is the case. Referenda are hugely contentious issues which animate passions on both entrenched sides. Pitching up with a view can poison your name, damage your brand, lower your stock and reduce your credibility. Why on earth should a charity take the risk? Well, perhaps because they have a duty to do so.

I can’t be alone in thinking that (let’s call them) liberal-minded people are always on the back foot; simply reacting to each and every right-wing body blow to freedoms, solidarity, multi-nationalism, human rights and social protections.

Whether it be Brexit, UKIP or Trump, the forces of decency always seem to be attempting to salvage what they can from a sinking ship. while bemoaning the loss of the thing once cherished.

With that in mind, do charities have a duty to weigh in to these situations? Can we afford to simply keep tiptoeing around issues which we know will have massive repercussions for the communities and individuals the third sector seeks to empower – or should we use our position of influence to steer the result towards (what we consider to be) the safest waters?

As the bell is sounded on another round of constitutional sparring, are we able to pinpoint the risks and opportunities that present themselves? Are some of such crucial importance that we simply have to say something? For example, do we think that an independent Scotland would be such an economic basket-case that communities would suffer catastrophic levels of poverty? Or do we think that the repatriation of human rights legislation to the UK poses an unthinkable risk to the freedoms and protections many of the most vulnerable in our society depend upon?

Of course, I’m not suggesting that charities should mount gung-ho campaigns in favour of any one side. Indeed, the third sector should continue to lead discussions on what kind of country we want to be and seek to influence public debate by forensically analysing the arguments for and against any one contention. SCVO will not be alone in having a debate about how we engage with the debate. However, with so much at stake, is now perhaps the time to be less coy when it comes to offering our view on the future shape our country will take – one way or the other?

Important: Opinions expressed by bloggers are their own and don't represent those of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

by Craig Wilson