Scotland’s social enterprises seem to have it made

This year brought a new name for the annual Social Enterprise UK conference – the Social Enterprise Exchange – and a new venue – Glasgow.

The conference was hosted in partnership with Social Enterprise Scotland, and it appeared as if around half the delegates were from north of the border. As a result, the whole thing seemed to have a slightly different vibe from previous years, as well as different faces.There were no Westminster ministers attending, SEUK chief exec Peter Holbrook said during his opening address, and it was a lot warmer than last year’s freezing event at the O2 in London. Delegates seemed pretty pleased about both of those facts.

Meanwhile Laurie Russell, chair of SES, asked the audience’s native Scots to applaud their English and international guests. They duly did, which took me a bit by surprise, because despite many visits, I’ve never previously had a round of applause in Glasgow for being English. I don’t expect another one any time soon.

Scotland, we were told by Russell, is probably the best place in the world to be a social enterprise. After lunch, the first minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, underlined that by delivering a knowledgeable and entertaining speech on, basically, why he personally likes the sector an awful lot. There was a general sense that the social entrepreneurs of Scotland were pretty happy with their politicians. “Our problem isn’t our government,” one told me. “It’s the DWP and its stupid ideas.”

And that was as polite as anyone got about the Work Programme, one of the conference’s most frequent topics of conversation, which looks to be about as popular in Scotland as the poll tax. The policies coming out of Westminster, in fact, seem pretty poorly viewed on both sides of the border. The Social Value Act got a good review. The jury was out on Big Society Capital. But other than that, there was a general feeling that the government had tried some things, didn’t really get what was needed, and had now lost much of its initial enthusiasm for the sector.

One delegate suggested the government had imposed a cap on Gift Aid in the Budget last week “because the sector was complaining so much about the health bill, and they wanted to focus its attention on complaining about something else.” I don’t actually think that’s the case – I think it’s a knee-jerk reaction to a tax dodge which has little to do with charities – but the reaction indicates the low esteem in which the coalition is held.

In contrast, Salmond was applauded as he told everyone he wanted to “continue to provide the most supportive environment in the world for social enterprise”, and announced a programme to attract more international social enterprises. I suspect that a few people south of the border may be eyeing those international organisations enviously in the next couple of years.