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2023 in Common Weal

Craig Dalzell

Introduction

Common Weal has never been accused of not doing enough work and 2023 has completely failed to be an exception in a trend running back almost a decade now. We are one of Scotland’s most prolific think tanks and continue to build our reputation as standing at the forefront of cross- and non- party policy development in any number of policy areas. I continue to be extremely proud of our work and how much we’ve done to shape and to influence the Scottish political world.

This year has seen our policy library continue to build and to grow. We published 18 separate policy papers, consultation responses or briefing notes this year – well over one a month – plus around half a dozen responses to consultations that have been published elsewhere. We have one new book. The weekly Policy Podcast continues to draw a substantial audience to listen to a guest discussing Scottish political affairs, policy news or radical new ideas. Our weekly newsletter and the monthly Recreates magazine curated by our own Kaitlin Dryburgh continue to keep you informed on the topics that I and my brilliant colleagues have been paying attention to. And, of course, we’ve not been handcuffed to our desks for the entire year as we’ve been out and about all over Scotland (and beyond! – Robin was in Brussels and Berlin the other week) to spread the news of what we’ve been doing.

But with everything that has happened, I wouldn’t blame you if you’ve missed a few things along the way. So as Head of Policy & Research it falls to me to give you a not-so-quick rundown of the year that has passed in the world of Common Weal.

ScotWind: One Year One

2023 started in much the same vein as 2022 did with an expose of the Scottish Government’s botched auction of Scotland’s offshore wind resources in the ScotWind project. I took the anniversary of the initial announcement to examine announcements made in the time since – particularly to show that the promises of “supply chain benefits” resulting from the investments would largely flow out of Scotland, with two thirds of the investment money going somewhere other than Scotland. I also looked at the fees raised in comparable auctions around the world to show that the £750 million raised for the Scottish purse by ScotWind pales in comparison to the £16.4 billion that could have been raised had Scotland seen the kind of bidding up that happened in places like New York. Maybe next year will include yet another update – I’ve certainly been keeping my eye on developments as they unfold.

Scotland Against PPP

February saw the publication of one of our series of papers in the SAPPP campaign we’ve been involved in alongside Jubilee Scotland. I’m sure everyone is familiar with the concept that the various Public Private Partnership schemes (all with three letter abbreviations like PFI, NPD and MIM) have been poor value for money for Scotland and have resulted in poor quality public buildings but our report showed that much of the money that our Scottish Government and Local Authorities were handing over for those crap buildings is ending up being sent into or through tax havens – either because the companies that developed the building are based in those havens or because they sold their share in the building to someone who is. It’s clear that Scotland needs to do more to keep public assets in Scottish public hands or we’ll continue to see those assets decay while the profits flow overseas. We’re very sad to hear that Jubilee Scotland will wind up their operations at the end of this year but the impact they’ve had on this campaign and their broader campaigns on ethical borrowing and debt have been invaluable. Common Weal will do our best to continue their legacy into 2024 and beyond. From myself personally, thank you to everyone who got us to here.

Wellbeing Economy

The Scottish political world was rocked in March with the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon. The leadership challenge was an interesting time for Common Weal as while we didn’t take a direct part in that contest nor did we endorse any of the candidates, all three did – to a greater or lesser degree – adopt some of our policies as part of their pitch and all three called for greater engagement with think tanks like ours as part of the policy development process. While she did not win the contest, Kate Forbes took her pledge to do that to heart and, along with a couple of other SNP MSP backbenchers, wrote a discussion paper for us on her views of the Wellbeing Economy and what it means to them. It’s fair to say that while that paper represents a substantial step away from the extremely watered down interpretation of the Wellbeing Economy currently adopted by the Government, it could still be improved further – something that became the topic of a response paper on Wellwashing written by Common Weal Board Member, Iain Black a few months later. I’d like to see more of these discussion papers written where folk can comment on topics that are close to Common Weal without necessarily endorsing our view on it or being endorsed by us so let us know if you’d like to help with that. It is through discussions like these that we all help policy become better reasoned and more resilient, rather than it being formed in knee-jerk response to the headline of the day.

From Welfare to Charity and Ready to Fail

Our Care Reform Working Group has been one of Common Weal’s shining stars and this year has seen them flare brighter than ever. We successfully campaigned alongside the STUC, COSLA and others for the National Care Service Bill to be paused as it ran the risk of taking a care system controlled by local government and turning it into an extremely centralised system completely under the whim of a single Care Minister. We also successfully called for the Bill to be reconsidered and for the NCS to be properly co-designed with staff, care providers and those who receive care to ensure that it puts All of Us First. During these campaigns the team published a paper on how the privatisation of the social work sector has eroded its capability to provide care and one on our disappointment with the co-design process as it was implemented, along with suggestions on how to overhaul it. The NCS Bill is due back in Parliament in 2024 so you can be sure that the group will be playing a core role in trying to ensure we end up with a National Care Service as worthy of that name as we all want the NHS to be of theirs. I should also say here that the Group is always on the lookout for new members so if you want to get involved then please let us know how you can help and we’ll make that happen (and the same goes for our other Expert Working Groups in energy, health, justice and other areas)

Re-Booting the NEC With Geothermal Energy

Come August and while folk were out enjoying the summer sun, we were worried about how people would stay warm in the winter. Our next policy paper attempted to address critiques from the Scottish Government about our plans to renationalise energy in Scotland. When Wales launched their own public energy company based on our Powering Our Ambitions model, ScotGov said that they couldn’t replicate it because the Scotland Act prohibited them from doing so. We pointed out that while the Act prohibits the Scottish Government from owning a National Electricity Company, it would not prevent an Energy Company that focused on heat. This paper builds on the Heating chapter of our 2019 Common Home Plan to examine Scotland’s potential to deliver a substantial fraction of our heating demand from under our feet by tapping Scotland’s mining legacy for geothermal energy.

Direction

After many years of speculation and uncertainty – and not a little party politicking – the UK’s Supreme Court clarified the UK’s Constitution to state that the Scottish Parliament could not legislate to hold a referendum on Scottish independence without sanction from the UK Government – sanction that is unlikely to come while there’s any chance of a result they don’t like being returned. The odds of a repeat of 2014 retreated further and “other options” like using an election as a plebiscite on independence all suffered more-or-less the same problem as would have been faced if an unsanctioned referendum had been possible – what happens if the UK Government just ignored the result?

Our new book Direction (download it at the link above or buy a physical copy in our shop here) sought to break that impasse by laying out a consistent and coherent strategy based on the idea of an escalating pressure campaign. Essentially, the fight over a referendum or a plebiscite as a “democratic route” to independence is largely irrelevant (as is any kind of “legal loophole” to try to nulify the Act of Union or somesuch undemocratic route to independence). The UK Government will capitulate on independence and come to the negotiating table if and only if the political consequences of not doing so are worse. This book is a roadmap on how to make that happen.

The Turkey That Voted For Christmas (Twice)

In 2016, in the wake of the indyref and the Smith Commission, there was an attempt to renegotiate the Fiscal Framework that governs the Scottish budget (especially around how the Block Grant is calculated in the wake of newly devolved tax powers and diverging rate rates). Negotiations were dragged out in the public sphere to the benefit of democracy but to the detriment of everyone on both sides who didn’t want to see what a terrible mess they were making of it. Economist Jim Cuthbert warned of the Financial straightjacket that Scotland was being put in as to merely maintain our then current fiscal position, Scotland would have to grow its economy faster than the UK average in a country where every part of the country outside London is kept below that average by explicit design. Come 2023 and the Fiscal Framework was up for renegotiation again and this time, despite a promise of public consultation the negotiations took place behind closed doors and the first anyone outwith those rooms even heard that they had taken place was when ScotGov emerged with a signed document proclaiming that all of the negative impacts of the Framework were being carried forwards…but Scotland’s borrowing limits would now be uprated by inflation. In response, and again in conjunction with Jubilee Scotland, Jim Cuthbert wrote an analysis of the new Framework and asks why the new Scottish Government didn’t push for something better.

The Secret Bill

Our final policy paper of 2023 – just released this week – is The Secret Bill, a briefing note analysing the way that the Scottish Government is trying to decarbonise the energy we use in our homes – particularly in heating them. The current system is to offer grants and loans to homeowners for insulation, retrofits and for clean heating like air source heat pumps but apart from the cash, we’re basically being left on our own to get on with it (or, if you’re a tenant, leaving your shitty landlord to not do it but to put your rent up again anyway or to evict you if you complain about it too much). By not taking advantages of economies of scale that would come from collective solutions like street-by-street retrofits or district heat networks and by squandering climate and political goodwill by essentially blaming individuals for not retrofitting when they can’t afford it, the Government is slowing down the pace of Green transition, possible compromising it entirely and certainly adding substantial extra costs to the tune of, we estimate, almost £10,000 per house.

Consultations

A major part of our job here at Common Weal is to respond to Government consultations. They can range from the highly technical to the almost completely open “call for views” and can range from extremely detailed and well crafted to the almost contemptuous check-box exercise. Yes, it can sometimes seem as though the work on these goes unheeded but the opposite can often be the case where the public’s views on a subject can be strong enough to cause the Government to change direction – such was the case, for example, when it became clear that the Scottish public weren’t content with merely regulating the use of snare traps on Scottish grouse moors but wanted them banned completely. Yes, there have been consultations like the one on devolved tax breaks for Freeports that were more about asking us to check the Government’s spelling than about our thoughts on the tax cuts themselves but there have also been excellent consultations such as there ones on trying to expand Freedom of Information in Scotland – though that’ll be another campaign for 2024 too as the Government still isn’t minded to make those changes.

We were also involved in consultations on opposition Members’ Bills such as the aforementioned FOI Bill by Katy Clark but also on the Bill for a Commissioner for Older People headed by Colin Smyth or Mercedes Vilalba’s Bill to limit the amount of land that an individual can own in Scotland. We encourage you to have your say on consultations like these as if you don’t then the only people the Government will hear from are those with vested interests.

Other Campaign Work

I’m already way over my word limit for these columns so I’ll have to brush over a few other highlights of this year in our policy work – no doubt I’ll miss entirely more than I should but I hope those responsible don’t take that as a slight.

The work on Ageing issues in Scotland didn’t just consist of that one consultation though. My co-author on All of Our Futures, Bill Johnston, has been closely tracking developments throughout this year – noting events such as new First Minister Humza Yousaf dropping the issue of Older People from his Ministerial slate and thus appearing to deprioritise Age and Ageing as an issue he was interested in taking on (which prompted Colin Smyth’s call for an independent Commissioner, though we’d prefer to see both). Bill also noted calls for pension reform and the Scottish Government’s independent white paper that mentioned – though didn’t substantially develop – the issue of Universal Basic Income. Not just an observer in these things however, Bill was also over in Poland this year at a conference on Age-Friendly Cities at which he presented ideas from our book.

Nicola Biggerstaff has spent a good chunk of this year developing our relations with transport campaigners Get Glasgow Moving (see her articles in our newsletter for more on that) and I’m looking forward to watching that campaign unfold in the coming year.

Sadly, we did lose one member of our team this year. Our Networks Coordinator Leo Plumb was made an offer he couldn’t refuse and has moved on elsewhere in Scottish politics (Scotland being the village it is though, that doesn’t mean we won’t continue to cross paths). Thanks Leo for everything you did for us and everything you’ll go on to do for All of Us.

A personal highlight for me this year was attending the REVIVE conference on Land Reform where I was able to give a presentation on the lack of local democracy in Scotland and how the restoration of European-style municipal government is vital to making sure that land reform happens and that it sticks.

Conclusion

I hope there was something in that list that you managed to miss first time round because that means that we’re still able to spread our ideas to someone new. If this is your first time hearing about any of our work in an area you’re interested in, then let us know and please stick around to see what we do next (or get in touch to help us do it!).
I love my work here at Common Weal and while the pace is relentless (there really aren’t any other think tanks in Scotland who publish as much work as we do and none on such a broad gamut of topics) the results are undeniable. I’m so very proud of the team here and the impact we’ve all had in making Scotland a better place. With our ten year anniversary coming up next year I can only hope that we make it our biggest year yet in terms of that impact.

But this kind of campaigning is only possible thanks to you and folk like you. Unlike too many think tanks, we don’t have shadowy money-folk behind us (we’re very proud of our Who Funds You? A rating in that regard), we aren’t funded by the Government (so we can hold them to account without fear of the hand we’ve bitten being withdrawn) and we don’t have corporate sponsors (so we can hold them to account too). The vast majority of our funding comes from small donors who give us an average of £10 a month. If you’d like to help us continue everything that we do then please, please consider signing up as a donor too. With your help, we can continue our mission to create an independent Scotland that puts All of Us First.

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