What Can Be Done?
Bellacaledonia, by Robin McAlpine
You may have seen gossip about internal politics around the Reid Foundation in the media. I never conduct private business in public and in time the truth about what has been happening will become known. In the meantime, I can only make clear that the allegation that ‘we’ are planning to set up a political party is not true and seems to have been put around by those who oppose the Common Weal project with the apparent aim of creating division. Neither I nor anyone associated with either the Foundation or Common Weal has ever suggested that we become or start a political party.
But Scotland is alive with conversation and discussion about what has been created in this independence campaign, what it becomes afterwards and what it means for how Scotland has changed as a political entity. I am adamant that this is the most hopeful moment in Scotland’s history in my lifetime and that the independence campaign has become the most exciting and important movement in Scotland for a long, long time. I believe we must use the unprecedented levels of participation, excitement, ability (all those new skills) and passion to change Scotland in ways that go beyond just ‘Yes’.
So what does that mean? The vast majority of the people I am campaigning beside and talking to are saying the same thing – that they want a fundamentally different Scotland that is bold in trying to create a more equal society which creates a better physical and social environment for everyone. Great. But how might we make that happen?
The following are just my thoughts. One of the great things about this movement is that no-one owns it or controls it and everyone gets to have thoughts and ideas which they can discuss and debate. I don’t believe there is one organisation or group that can do it on its own; I think it can only come from all of us working together I many different ways. I hope that possibly ‘Common Weal’ becomes a loose banner under which this work can be done – but it could be something else.
To really make the movement work there are a number of things I think we need to do. First, we need a decent media – not just a sympathetic media, a decent one. Most newspapers report the entire work of the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament with only one or perhaps two correspondents. And there is hardly a newspaper left in Scotland that dedicates any real resource to investigation. As a result there is simply insufficient scrutiny of Scottish public life and that is a major problem. So I do think that between us we should seek to fundraise to set up a high-quality online news service employing professional journalists to cover properly politics and current affairs in Scotland.
It is important to set agendas and to shape opinion. We have seen just how ruthlessly the media has sought to control the debate in the independence campaign. That stranglehold has to be broken and a wider news agenda set. If we can set this up right I’d like to see us exploring producing a morning radio show (a half-hour audio podcast that Common Weal types can wake up to) and an evening TV show (a teatime podcast that Common Weal types can come home to). I’d also like to explore a powerful news digest of what is happening across the UK and the world. This could create a ‘wrap-around’ news service which could give people really solid political coverage Monday to Friday but in a way which actually matches their personal opinions and views. It also drags the rest of the media towards it if it can break stories that set agendas.
We also need to find every means possible to bring new ideas to people. One of the most important ways that people now get access to new ideas is through film – anything from the minute-long viral video to the feature-length documentary and everything in between. I think we should try and set up a campaigning documentary unit to produce this material. I think it needs to sit beside a creative and arts-minded social media unit which translates policy into ideas people can be excited about. Handing out leaflets at demos may have worked in the 1970s but if we want people to absorb our ideas today, we need to communicate them in the ways people consume them today.
I think Common Weal needs a proper political research and lobbying function, an effective media relations function, a development capacity to help it build up its work with many other organisations and of course an effective policy development function. I believe we have the support to fundraise to make all of that a reality. I want us to reach people by being something they want in their lives. I want to produce a high-quality monthly print magazine which brings together the art, politics, policy and movement of Common Weal together in a lively, exciting way.
I would love to create an open and inclusive network of people across the country who want a Common Weal Scotland. It is not meant to be an ‘organisation’ to which people have to sign up and obey the rules, but a network much like the grassroots independence movement which is free to self-organise and try different things in different places to encourage more and more support for Common Weal.
And I’d love for all of this to have a home. One of the lessons of this campaign (though it is a well-known lesson of many social movements) is that a ‘sustained community’ really makes a big difference. It is the chance of having regular and accidental interactions with the many people who feel the same way as you do that really turns an idea into a movement. The best ideas very often come from ‘bumping into’ someone. But that needs a place to happen. I’d like to see a large cafe-bar or similar opened in each of our cities. They could offer a home to all the possibilities discussed above (a news service, think tank, campaigning body, documentary unit, micro-sized broadcast studio). I imagine them perhaps becoming a home to others like National Collective or a successor to Generation Yes which is focussed on targeting and engaging young voters or some small independent companies like our friends at Lateral North. And downstairs in the cafe bar (perhaps there is also a small auditorium, a small bookshop), every night will be a programme of talks and performance. It will be normal in the future for people to pop out to ‘The Common’ and expect there to be a lively night of chat and conversation ahead.
This idea of ‘hub’ has been widely recognised as a crucial model for development. And it is unlimited in potential. Wherever there is a sufficiently big community of people who care enough, they could set up a ‘Common’ too. It might only be a small cafe in a large village. But we could network it to the bigger venues and they could get streaming video of the talks and performances every night. Perhaps they might organise a discussion group after a talk, or perhaps they will just get out their guitars and finish the night singing. (They could of course just have a coffee and read a magazine instead.) Imagine if all across Scotland in towns and cities big and tiny there were a network of places where people met to discuss a better future, to immerse themselves in stimulating ideas, to be touched by cutting edge arts and culture, to talk to each other, to meet strangers, to organise, to eat good food and drink good drink, to plan and plot and scheme – and above all to enjoy it. Because it’s the joy of the movement that has been such an important part in keeping it together. We can keep it going.
I can go on like this for hours with hope-filled schemes and ambitious ideas. I know some of these are going to happen; I know some may not. I know others will have ideas better than some of these, people will have ideas different than some of these. I know there are loads of people who want to get involved and they will have their own take.
But please let us all start talking and not be afraid to think about the future. The very last thing in the world I want is to be divisive or to give the impression that me or anyone else is after control. On the contrary, I want people to join the conversation as equals.
Which brings me back to political parties. I shall say now the same thing I have said from the beginning; our aim (those of us who believe in it) should be to try and get a Common Weal government, one which will be bold and ambitious in transforming Scotland in a creative, egalitarian way. Not a ‘New Common Weal’ government that uses some of the nice words but pursues the same-old banker agenda. Not a token half-dozen seats in a Parliament that is doing something else. To make the government radical.
I have been absolutely consistent – at this point people will have different thoughts and ideas. Some think the SNP can become that party. Some think that after independence the Labour Party could be reinvented. Some believe the Greens can be built up into a much larger electoral force, some that the SSP can start to make serious in-roads again. Others think it might work best if we were to try and build up some kind of support for candidates on a cross-party basis. Some think we might go for a parliament of independents. And some think we need another political party.
Many people have talked to me about the vague idea of setting up a new political party. I always give the same response – you’d have to do it from scratch in about 18 months. It would take a lot of work and it would be difficult and you’d be doing it at the same time as trying to run an election campaign. Talking about it before the referendum is divisive and it is really difficult to know what is going to happen afterwards. The barriers and difficulties would be significant.
In my personal view the first step has to be to lobby the existing political parties – hard. The networks I suggested above might form a ‘lobbying network’ to try and influence political parties at grassroots level while the lobbying function suggested works at leadership and party manager level. Certainly the Greens (by far the most ‘Common Weal’ party in parliament just now) would need to be targeting becoming a coalition partner if this model was the one that went forward.
But it has to mean something. I believe we are now dealing with politics along two ‘axes’. One runs from left to right (or social democrat to neoliberal or whatever). The other runs from ‘open’ to ‘closed’ – parties that are participative and democratic versus parties which are wedded to a bunker mentality where managers do the ‘real business’ behind closed doors and the members of the party are there to nod appreciatively. Common Weal is all about being in the left-open quadrant and the success of changing political parties (in my option) needs to be measured against both these axes.
What I have said is that if this doesn’t happen, if the two big parties stubbornly stick to their substantially-neoliberal guns, if the Greens and SSP don’t look like making the progress, a political party will emerge (whether I personally like it or not). And if it looked like it was our best remaining chance then I might very actively support it in a personal capacity. But I’ve always believed it was a last resort. (And on a personal note, I have no desire at all for wealth or power. One of the reasons I was keen to set up the Foundation was to be able to spend more time with my young family than I could when commuting and working long hours. It didn’t work out like that and I am a bit of a compulsive worker. But elected politics is a rubbish life and I’ve never wanted it.)
So think about the future of this movement. Be bold. Be ambitious.
Now is no longer the time for a lack of nerves or a lowering of ambition. We – all of us who have knocked a door, shared a link on Facebook, talked, argued, leafleted – we are the centre of gravity of Scottish politics and we have just as much right as anyone to want to shape that future.
I don’t think anyone has failed to be amazed at the sheer volume of outstanding talent that has emerged on the Yes side. We have discovered so many people who are strong, visionary people but who didn’t want to be in a political party. We have gained so much skill and knowledge, become so clever at using social media. And we can be human and real – we can talk freely where political parties censor themselves.
You have no idea how many people have told me they want to find a way to keep going after the vote. Actually, you probably do because you’ve probably heard it a hundred times too. Great. A nation of good people ready to stay on their feet and work for a better future. In many ways that is the most inspiring sentence I’ve ever had the chance to write. I don’t want the buzz of excitement that is the hope for a new Scotland to dissipate, to end up homeless. I want to be involved in a big discussion about what we do next and I’m damned if I’ll be scared off because some people have lost their nerve or because others want to distort and caricature these possible futures and to use them to seek to divide or demoralise the movement.
So we need to win this Yes vote. We need it soooo much. We need to expend all our remaining energy to get it. We must win that vote by being united and moving forward together. But we must win it for a new future.
You wake up to the phone app that gives you your morning radio show covering the news the way you want. Your morning news service has the best political news available waiting for you on your tablet when you get up for breakfast. By lunch you get a digest of the most important things happening around the world that day. Perhaps you get a summary of the best of the day’s blogs in the mid-afternoon. Regular high-quality essays, articles and analysis are a rolling feature. When you get home your evening newscast is waiting for you. Just in time to grab tea and pop out to your local Common where you’ll take in a really interesting political talk, catch some music or a comedian and then talk until late with new friends about land reform or the citizens’ income or political lobbying or whatever catches your mind tonight. You go to bed with schemes and plans and hopes and ideas. You are ready to organise. And this is your day. Every day.
This is where I want to live. Anyone want to help build it?