Out of Brexit pandemonium comes a chance to find real social purpose

The post-Brexit immigration debate presents an opportunity for business to put its 'social purpose' rhetoric into practice, says Golin's Nick Bishop.

Business leaders need to learn from the mistakes of Brexit, says Nick Bishop
Business leaders need to learn from the mistakes of Brexit, says Nick Bishop

The British public’s vote for pandemonium in June (how better to describe this country’s current state of affairs?) has given us few winners, but there may be one saving grace.

Amid the madness, we have seen a crack open for freedom of movement. Until 8 June, the consensus was that post-Brexit Britain would be shaped by a wish to close the borders at all costs; everything else would be secondary. However, the hung parliament has made the future of immigration less certain, which has, in turn, emboldened the opposition. It is not just pro-‘remain’ politicians making a noise. Business has at last found its voice on immigration and taken it upon itself to move the needle in favour of economic reason.

But the fallout from Brexit has proved that an appeal to reason alone will have little impact. There was no shortage of conclusive evidence from economists that open borders are good for business, but when the time came to vote, the majority of the British public was unpersuaded. Instead, it was viewed as self-interested hype from an out-of-touch London elite – big business included. The vote was guided by a sense of emotional patriotism – "We want our country back!" – and their feeling that the UK’s power centre did not have their interests at heart.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, ‘social purpose’ has become the mantra for global organisations eager to redeem their image and demonstrate their value to society.

The immigration debate presents an ideal opportunity for big business to put this thinking into practice and move beyond the rational rhetoric that has always alienated them. It is by appealing to people’s emotions and making a strong case for immigration, on the grounds of inclusion and community, that their arguments will resonate.

That is not to condone hyperbole in the style of Vince Cable, who warned that closing the UK’s borders would result in a "Berlin wall" being established between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There is a fine line between appealing to people’s emotions and outright sensationalism, but there is also no denying charged arguments like this cut through to their intended audience. It is also impossible to ignore the impact of closed borders on the UK’s access to talent.

In the communications industry, agencies have put in a concerted effort to recruit the best talent from around the world and make our industry generally more inclusive. Yes, this approach ultimately serves to help agencies deliver better work and grow their business, but it is the argument for inclusiveness that hits closer to home for employees.

The public has heard the economic imperatives for maintaining a free flow of talent between the EU and UK. These have been made, assessed and, largely, set aside. Business leaders now need to learn from the mistakes of Brexit and marry their economic interests to a universally beneficial social purpose. This is the key to fighting for a more modern, inclusive and prosperous UK.

Nick Bishop is head of corporate communications at Golin

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