Report on the Inaugural John Pearce Memorial Lecture and launch of the Social Enterprise Collection (Scotland), or reflections on a quiet revolution

On Monday night GCU hosted the Inaugural John Pearce Memorial Lecture and launched the Social Enterprise Collection (Scotland). The Lecture, ‘Community and Social Enterprise -Then and Now’ delivered by Willy Roe CBE (Chair, British Council Scotland) was both a personal reflection on the striking vision of John Pearce and a comment the challenges and opportunities facing the sector today.

John Pearce and his donation to the Social Enterprise Collection (Scotland)

John Pearce and his donation to the Social Enterprise Collection (Scotland)

I don’t have space here to do justice to Roe’s tour de force of the past four decades, but have picked out three highlights that stood out for me as the CommonHealth programmes historian in residence!


One of the first points Roe made was that John Pearce was a man of extraordinary energy, who combined community development work with positions on numerous committees, research and writing. Roe admired the clarity of vision that was evident in all aspects of Pearce’s work. Having worked with his personal papers over the last few months, I have to agree his consistency and determination shine through. Pearce’s consistency however, should not be confused with dogmatism, he was willing to work alongside people from a variety of backgrounds and adapt his practice to changing times. An overview of the work of Community Business Scotland of which Pearce was a founder member (est 1981), provided in one of the introductory speeches to the lecture and delivered by Alan Kay, gave insight in to this breadth of work. John’s desire to donate his papers and grey literature to the GCU archive and special collection upon his retirement is another reminder of John’s vision and foresight. He understood that in order to move forward sometimes we need to look back. University archivist Carole McCallum described how meeting John in 2011 started the journey of what has become the Social Enterprise Collection (Scotland). She talked passionately about how their conversations inspired her commitment and vision for the Collection to become a hub for Social Enterprise research; the importance of which we are only just beginning to realise and develop.

Scotland in the 1970s

Talking to colleagues after the lecture Roe’s picture of Scotland in the 1970s had been an important reminder –to those who remember it- and insight -to those who do not- into Scotland’s recent past. As a historian I’m familiar with the history of depopulation in the Highlands and Islands, deindustrialisation and the resulting degeneration of the urban fabric of Scotland that took place between the 1970s and 1990s. What Roe brought to life was the similarly important upheaval in the public sector marked by the establishment of Regional Councils in the 1970s. Roe made the important point that there have been various precursors to community business, but the specific environment of the 1970s that allowed it to take hold. Dissatisfaction with both state and markets brought to bear the energy for community democracy and social change that sparked the interest in the community business movement; are we experiencing similar restlessness today?

A quiet revolution

Roe described the work of social enterprise over the last four decades as a quiet revolution. In numerical terms the comparisons between then and now are impressive. Contemporary analysis by Alan McGregor and colleagues at TERU identified around twenty community businesses operating in the summer of 1982 in lowland urban Scotland. By late 1986 this number had risen to an estimated sixty seven businesses, with around half of these in the Strathclyde Region. The recently published Social Enterprise in Scotland: Census 2015 identified 5,199 social enterprises operating around the country. How did we get from there to here? The dialogue between the past and the present is a productive one to uncover when questioning how social enterprise should proceed in the future. Capturing the story of this quiet revolution is what I hope to do in my current research.

It seems appropriate to end this week’s post with a quote from John Pearce. The text below has been taken from his 1993 publication At the Heart of the Community Economy and describes how he saw the community business movement:

‘It is a grassroots movement of local people asking the question “what can we do?” and deciding that it is preferable to take action on their own account rather than wait for “someone else” to come and do it for them; it is local communities seeking to obtain power over their situation and their prospects’