Senscot Seminar

Senscot Seminar
by Geof Cox
October 2011

I live just south of the Scottish border, but despite this, and frequent visits to Edinburgh for family reasons, I rarely work in Scotland.  It was therefore a rare treat to be asked to speak at the recent Senscot Conference/AGM.

Scotland is of course in the process of renegotiating its relationship with it’s larger neighbour, England.  One irony in this process is that it asserts its difference by frequently referring to what England is thinking and doing, rather than starting with its own clean sheet of paper.  In the social enterprise world a distinctively Scottish perspective is emerging, but this is I fear to some extent driven by reaction to the perceived English tendency to sup too readily with the devil of big business – or perhaps the twin devils of a greedy private sector and overbearing public sector.

It’s hard for an Englishman – even one who lives 300 miles closer to Edinburgh than London – not to be caught up in this negotiation.  I felt some of the participants in the Senscot Conference/AGM were surprised that I presented a somewhat critical view of their approach to social enterprise, not from the usual English perspective, but – in a country where the vast majority of people consistently vote for left-of-centre politics – from a perspective somewhere to the left of their own.

I believe that the truth about social enterprise is so compelling, and timely, that we simply don’t need to worry too much about what either the private sector or the public sector think – much less what the ‘Zone 1’ social enterprise people are thinking down south.  Moreover, I believe the vain attempt to precisely define a distinct social enterprise ‘sector’ in Scotland (or anywhere else) is complicit with those who would fence social enterprise into a harmless corral, where it can chew on its own inward-looking controversies, while the rest of the world gets on with business models based on greed and exploitation.

The left critique of this ‘little social enterprise sector’ position sees social enterprise not as a side show mitigating some of the worst effects of market failure, but as modelling a whole new way of organising human affairs – one that accepts market mechanisms but only as a means of improving life for all, and that is constrained not just by ethical behaviour, but by having as its raison d’etre actually delivering specific social benefits.

In this view, social enterprise is best seen not as a ‘sector’ at all – as if it were analogous to ‘textiles’ or something – but a broad social movement like environmentalism, that can encompass individuals and organisations – and yes, any kind of business organisation – as long as it genuinely subscribes to the fundamental aims of the movement: to minimise negative environmental impacts – or in our case to maximise social impact and ethical behaviour.

And in this view what really matters is getting this basic message across to the general public – not with a set of complicated and fundamentally incommunicable technical criteria about ‘asset locks’ or whatever, or a badge that might someday help us sell more – but by communicating the clear and simple and powerful idea that you can use business models and methods not just to make money, but to achieve social benefits for all.  That you can do business to do good.

Where Scottish social enterprise really surprised me, however, was in the willingness to talk about ethics that followed my speech.  Do you know I can’t remember a discussion at any social enterprise conference in England ever that focussed on business ethics?  This really brought home to me that Scotland is in many ways a very different cultural environment – and one that doesn’t just vote left-of-centre, but lives and breathes a different kind of engagement with the world.

Which thought brings me to the remarkable folks at Senscot – and it’s co-founder Laurence Demarco.  Laurence and I agree on the context: both politically and on the ‘post-industrial-revolution’ that is now stacking some cards in our favour – and indeed he shares my concern over the danger of focussing on legal structure detail rather than getting across the big idea of social enterprise as a new way of organising human affairs – but he is still attached to the project of drawing a clear line between social enterprise and other business, however ethical it may be.  Personally, I can live with fuzzy edges as long as the direction is true – but wherever this debate leads in Scotland, my recent visit did assure me that you have a pretty good lookout charting the path ahead.