What next for ‘Comman Weal’?

What next for ‘Comman Weal’?
The Jimmy Reid Foundation

It has been a promising start to a project to outline the details of a better Scotland. But now it is for others to shape the path forward.

Well, to say that the reaction to our discussion paper on the idea of a ‘Common Weal’ vision for Scotland has generated a lot of interest is an understatement. Since it featured in the Sunday Herald at the weekend we’ve had an awful lot of people getting in touch to ask how they can get involved. It’s been very encouraging.

The discussion paper wasn’t ever intended for publication. It was in fact little more than notes of a developing agenda that we’d been using to start some conversations. We’d used it to structure some discussions and it was really only after we put it all down in one place that we realised we were getting towards the spine of a coherent way to see social and economic transformation in Scotland. So we started sharing it with people just to see what they thought and many of them shared it further. So when the Sunday Herald became aware and asked for a copy we sent it over.

It was never intended to be a full Foundation report, but we had started to develop it further. At first the paper was titled ‘A Nordic Transition’ and was about what Scotland would have to do if it wanted to become ‘more Nordic’. But many of the comments we got were along the lines of ‘but there’s lots of good stuff to learn from other places and there are some things about the Nordic countries we might not want to follow’. So we started to think about describing a distinctively Scottish version. And to give it some coherence and shape we thought it would be helpful to have a name. So we shared it with a small group of writers and language experts who thought ‘Common Weal’ was a suitable title, capturing a meaning and a Scottish identity that seemed to fit quite well.

This all emerges out of work we have done or are soon to publish – on public procurement, local democracy, tax, poverty and economic development. Which means that we are already working on a series of reports which will build on this. That, however, is more circumstance than design. What we would like to get across perhaps more than anything else is that this is not a political model or strategy which is ‘owned’ by anyone. If we’re successful in getting this on the agenda, us at the Reid Foundation should be waking up to read about ‘Common Weal’ ideas from others we haven’t heard of yet. It is that sort of wide, deep and diverse thinking that we’ve lacked in Scotland. The last thing anyone needs is a proprietorial approach to moving this forward.

And then there is the perpetually thorny issue of Scotland’s polarised politics and the constitutional question. Unsurprisingly, this work has been interpreted as part of the independence movement. It is of course absolutely true that the work has largely developed because of a lot of analytical and policy work people have been doing since the prospect of an independence debate opened up the horizon of what we can talk about in Scotland. It is also true that quite a few contributors are independence supporters. However, that is not really how we’re seeing this – certainly not just now. We are using the opportunity of the independence debate to ask one simple question; if we had no barriers to implementing a policy agenda to create a better Scotland, what would it look like? From there it is for people (if they support it) to explain how they think it can be best achieved. So there are some things that could be done now with the existing powers (on local democracy, on procurement as an economic development tool), there are more things that might be possible with further devolution and there are some things that would require the full powers of independence. It is for people to explain how to use the powers they support to make this happen. And if Scotland votes No, this vision doesn’t just disappear.

There are a few aspects of this agenda we should see as central. For example, we must keep fighting the assumption that more tax equals poorer people. We need to show how more tax makes people better off, and how the aim shouldn’t be to use tax to fix the inequality problems of an unbalanced and under-performing economy. We also need to make a very strong case directly to the indigenous SME sector. It has just been too easy in the past for the left to be painted as ‘not interested in the economy or businesses’. The democracy element is crucial – it is not enough to reform the economy but have the processes of government as ‘captured’ as they are now. The same is true of initiatives like an investment bank – it is not having one that counts but having one that works. It is surprisingly easy to take a strong vision like this and turn it into a sequence of decisions which are subverted towards the existing, failing approach.

But beyond that, it is time for the widest possible debate. We want to hear:

What mechanisms do people want to take this work forward? – online forums, conferences, seminars…

What should we add to this agenda (we’ve already had people proposing additional content in a number of areas including land reform, education and  the arts)?

What do people think about the name? We were still at the early discussion stage when this came out and we haven’t consulted widely on how to name this.

Who should we bring on board? What individuals and organisations should we reach out to?

How do people think we make this story one that reaches outside the confines of policy debate? How do we enthuse the wider population

But hopefully, if nothing else, the crazy, sterile debate on Scotland’s future will be transformed by this. We have found ourselves caught up in a debate in which one side says ‘what we have is as good as it gets’ and the other side says ‘but if we get our way we’ll replicate an almost identical version so you don’t have to worry’. Enough. What we have is absolutely not the best we can hope for and if we’re going to build something else new it most certainly shouldn’t be this.

And so, over to you.