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But how?

Robin McAlpine

Every week in this newsletter I try to explain either why what we are doing in Scotland is wrong and isn’t working or (preferably) what better looks like and how it can be done. In response, one of our regular commenters often asks ‘fine, but how is any of this going to happen?’.

This is an important question and one that occupies my mind a lot. It’s also a really big question and not all of the answers are completely comfortable, so please don’t expect me to have sorted this all out by the end of a thousand-odd words. But given the current turmoil in our politics it seems a pertinent time to ask ‘how do we get anything good to happen in Scotland?’.

It might be helpful to start by ruling out some of the options. For example, I’m a big fan of ‘flatpack democracy’ and I know a few of the people who started this movement down in Somerset. For those who don’t know it it basically involves communities standing their own candidates to take out self-serving political party appointees and run local services themselves.

When government misfires, a lot on the left raise flatpack democracy and some similar initiatives as a possible response. But the initial flatpack people didn’t take over Somerset, they only took over Frome, one town in Somerset. And of course a comparable town in Scotland doesn’t have a town council to take over.

We can’t vote to take over health boards, there is zero democratic accountability in Scotland’s sprawling agency and quango sector, the community councils have extremely limited power and negligible budgets – there is just nothing powerful in Scotland you can take over using democratic means. It’s been designed that way by the people that run it.

I know people who’ve tried – community initiatives which have done some really bold things to bring change. But the point is they aren’t operating with power or being able to take power themselves, they are defying power and carrying on regardless.

So what about more of that? If we can’t get a hold of our institutions because they’re like public sector aristocracies, how about defiance and ‘just do it anyway’? Since indyref there has been a lot of this. In fact I’ve lost count of how many good projects I’ve been invited to see that are where they are not with help from the public sector but by outright defying it.

And yet, they’re all broke and without fail they’re all totally exhausted. Public sector Scotland can be incredibly petty. Refuse to ‘recognise our authority’ or interfere with what they see as their interests and they may well put a surprising amount of focus and effort into making your life incredibly difficult. I can think of a couple of examples where it crossed the line into harassment.

Scotland burns through community activists at an alarming rate because Scotland makes it really, really difficult to get anything done as a community activist. The achievements of Scotland’s genuinely exciting and innovative community activism sector are so much less than they should be, so much less than the effort they put in, that people end up giving up.

So what about the ‘big players’? What about the big third sector organisations which have at different times in Scotland’s history played a major role in changing society? Common Weal will soon be publishing a paper by our Care Reform Group’s Colin Turbett which details how the big care NGOs went from being campaigners to being service delivery consultants.

And that is why the NGO sector isn’t a hopeful source of change – it benefits far, far too much from the status quo. Its incomes has soared in the last decade and that has come from being complicit in the governing agenda. In a very real sense they will not bite the hand that feeds them.

So you really can’t take power from below in Scotland and those higher up who have some power are gaining financially from the power they have. They’re not driving change. Which means you’re now looking at influence from outside.

Can we push change through lobbying and campaigning? It is of course possible to shift policy a bit, but this is really getting into my core professional area and I can tell you quite a lot about the experience of me and others who have tried.

First of all, it is really quite easy to ignore campaigners in Scotland because the limitations on our media makes it quite easy for politicians to ignore a lot of things. Really effective lobbying and campaigning takes time (it’s not all about throwing paint at things). And because the NGO sector doesn’t really do it, there aren’t many properly-resourced organisations which do.

Easily out in the lead just now is the STUC which has money and influence and has been doing a really effective job in recent years. Friends of the Earth have resource and some influence and also does a good job and there are a number of smaller-but-staffed organisations which campaign on more limited, specific issues.

And of course there is Common Weal which was set up and designed specifically to create ideas and seek to influence government to introduce them. This is our entire reason for existing. What I can tell you is that neither me nor anyone else has worked out how to get real change to happen. Mostly you get ignored. Then if you are persistent enough you get patronised.

Then, if you keep pushing you get ‘make-busied’ – for example, I know one large coalition of local voluntary organisations whom I was helping with strategic advice which was simply being bounced from meeting to meeting to meeting, each one with another low-level official, each one leading to a reason to meet another (in three months time).

I told them to give up. If the Scottish Government has sent you to see four or five junior civil servants they’re not interested. It is seldom that the Scottish Government actually says no to you, they mainly just waffle and waffle until you give up. Or they say they love your stuff and are totally doing it and then use your words in all their documents – while changing nothing at all.

So you need to be clever. As an experience lobbyist I realised fairly early that we were being stonewalled. What we did was to work around government. We worked on the basis that if you could apply ‘pressure from below’ and organise ‘permission from above’, you could push them quite effectively.

What that meant (I can give away my secrets now the administration has changed…) was that you had to get people they couldn’t ignore to push them from below and people they respected and saw as powerful saying ‘yes, that’s OK, that’s a good idea’. Common Weal followed a ‘pressure and permission’ strategy from about 2016 to 2020.

The best way to get pressure from below is SNP policy. We had six or seven major Common Weal policies adopted as party policy following campaigns in the party. But those were mostly just ignored, so we worked from above as well. The best example was that we persuaded the then Council of Economic Advisers to back a Scottish National Investment Bank, as well as the party.

And we won. Except it still went awfully wrong, because the Scottish Government never really wanted to do it so they actively allowed it to be entirely subverted by the Edinburgh financial classes it was meant to challenge. Common Weal’s biggest victory is now a sorry lesson.

I can promise that there is almost no-one in the campaigning sector who does not have the same story to tell. You can campaign but chances are you won’t win, and if you do the chances are it will still somehow be subverted on the way through (usually by KPMG or their ilk). Nope, right now in Scotland, unless you have serious money or impressive connections, you can’t get things done from the outside.

So what about our politics? The SNP leadership election didn’t have a credible left, environmentalist candidate. There isn’t currently one in the SNP. The Scottish Labour Party is doing some interesting things on an individual basis (actually, the most interesting things happening in the parliament just now). But they are still the awful Keir Starmer’s party, they’re run by a centrist and they alienate pro-indy voters.

The Tories are the Tories and who knows what the Lib Dems are actually for any more. So can existing smaller parties drag things in the right direction? The Scottish Greens seem to be trying to disprove this possibility. One leader is busy faking a rent and eviction freeze which is resulting in the worst outcomes yet for renters. The other seems not to see anything she doesn’t want to privatise.

While the Scottish Greens as a party is filled with good people, it’s leaders when in government have been worse than awful. And it is very hard to see how Alba, even if it got a foothold, is going to change anything other than the debate on constitutional change. As for the ‘organised left’ – I really don’t think there is one.

And that is where we are. It is time to be honest. A lot of people were telling themselves they could live with this state of affairs for a little longer because independence was coming. We need to reevaluate that. Because it is time to face a hard, hard truth.

There is next to no way you can move the pieces which are currently on the board in Scotland to deliver anything like the change people like me (and, if you’re reading this, presumably you) want to see. We’re not going to get a Green New Deal as things stand. We’re barely going to get serious climate action at all. We’re not getting a housing revolution or a major economic reform programme.

And we’re not going to get independence either for the foreseeable future. So it really is time to be honest. If the politicians keep blocking democratic reform and keep running their NGO patronage scheme, if local authorities keep seeing communities as the enemy and if Scotland’s political parties stay as they are, Scotland is in trouble in the short and long terms.

I have literally tried everything I can think of to work with things as they are. It isn’t working – for me or for anyone else I know. Either we give up or something in Scotland has to change. So, to our regular commentator asking how is any of what I write about here going to happen, it isn’t. As things are, nothing good is going to happen.

The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can begin a serious conversation about Scotland’s future. Because things are in a dreadful mess and the mess ain’t cleaning itself up.

13 thoughts on “But how?”

    1. Robin McAlpine

      Things change rapidly in politics. I’m not ultimately pessimistic. But I fear that in recent times we’ve found too many ways to distract ourselves from what is and isn’t happening based on what we hope and want to happen soon, if only…

      I think its probably time to start to acknowledge what hasn’t worked because we need to start thinking about what DOES bring change.

      Robin

    1. Robin McAlpine

      It’s not a single thing, it’s a number of things coming together at once. There is something wrong with the culture of Holyrood – even before the constitutional debate took off it was still very rare indeed to see backbenchers at Holyrood acting independently. There have been few party rebellions on anything as parties have almost always voted as a unified block. That’s not generally a sign of a healthy democracy. And there really has been an unfortunately close relationship between Holyrood and a sprawling agency network which has created this army of bureaucracy around government – but that has happened in a lot of western democracies. Not entirely, but those are just ‘normal democracy problems’.

      What I think makes things worse in Scotland is just the low level of resources available to our media which just struggles to hold the breadth of government and political party activity properly to account. Too much in Scotland happens behind the scenes as a result. And then of course we have the in-built paralysis of the constitutional question, and realistically it is that which sets Scotland apart from other democracies just now. A broadly non-ideological issue (as in you can be right wing, left wing, centrist or completely apolitical and still support a nation’s independence) has dominated our politics but hasn’t found a way to resolve itself.

      The problem is that any one of these issues is a fundamental issue. None of them are all that unusual. It’s just that if you add them all together you get a highly partisan parliament but one which is partisan and split over a currently abstract issue without a media able to dig in to other issues – and this means the vast majority of the actual business of democracy in Scotland is obscured by other issues.

      There is nothing fundamentally wrong with Scotland. It is a set of circumstances which have come together at a turbulent time in the world – but it’s also time to be honest about it and start to ask what the solutions are.

      Robin

  1. Campbell Anderson

    Thanks Robin,

    Your article strikes me as a very honest and depressing analysis of the current faux, top down democracy that Scotland ( and the west) has. We on the campaigning left seem to be kept as much within our box as societies within dictatorships such as Russia or China. Our establishment’s control so confident that we are free to protest but are ignored and is a masterpiece of strategy on their behalf.

    Sure let’s face reality and think about a different way forward. Is it a realisation that top down democracies will always deny us influence.? We campaign for Independence and more genuinely green and socially just policies but we are denied by the system. Is the SNP the “vehicle” to Independence? and if they did take us there, would our society be any different? It is this fear which stops many Labour members and voters supporting Independence. Should we be attacking the top down approach of the SNP, Labour and seemingly also Green parties?

    I think so. They will use their stranglehold to frustrate any campaign but the one thing they ultimately cannot do without is votes. Yes the next one is not till next year but nothing is going to change in the short term anyway so this timescale allows us to build an alliance.

    I have no confidence that a new flat pack party could gain sufficient traction so what can we do? How about spreading our opposition to all top down parties, explaining our reasons on social media to try to build a mass campaign. It’s not illegal not to vote, it doesn’t cost any money or time and ultimately if enough voters were pledging not to vote, it’s the one thing the main parties cannot ignore. They will know the Tory voters will still turn out.

    I have been voting SNP and Green for decades without conviction but if we believe in radical change and accept that it’s not happening then I (we) must stop supporting the administrative dictatorship which is the status quo. Many disillusioned voters are doing this anyway so let’s organise a mass protest. It will be our equivalent of a wage, rent ( or poll tax) strike.

  2. Alfredo VOGEL

    Thank you Robin. I arrived in Scotland just before the independence referendum and voted. Since then Scotland went into a ‘change all’ frenzy and managed to change some aspects of the social and political landscape. It was done from the top down without respect or consideration of the citizens. Without stating if it was ‘good or bad’, I would say it was different: that is all! But we have reached the bottom of the cul-de-sac:
    A government party in a self inflicted tragedy spiral due to many personality cults and obsession with winning votes against the unionists but not for the benefit of the people of Scotland. The SNP could have easily taken a ‘revolutionary’ route to independence by mobilising the Yes base and provoked a secession action based on the power of the Yes movement. But the SNP went down the route you describe so well instead. No grass route movement can act if the establishment pretends to support them but in reality just stalls the movement. Scotland can only achieve “good things” if the leadership in power cooperates with the progressives and leads the movement to victory. The SNP decided to break with their base. Now it is too late to rekindle the fires from 2016!
    Leading a movement is not the same as leading the state: see Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
    In my view only a ‘free of political parties’ uprising-ready movement under a truly freedom leadership can save Scotland (but then, maybe the weather isn’t right for something like that !!)

  3. Many thanks Robin for your brutally honest appraisal of the current situation.
    We seem to be facing the death of the old tried and tested ways of bringing about progressive change.
    Although a crisis is also an opportunity, and an end is also a new beginning, it is not at all clear where we go from here.
    I would hope that your article is seen as a serious attempt to kick start a much needed debate about where we are going and how to get there and that this will be a major priority for Common Weal.

  4. florian albert

    Robin McAlpine’s article laments the fact that he – and others like him – have very little influence. This absence of influence comes from relying on others, specifically those who engage in, and win, elections, to implement his ideas.. These politicians engage in radical talk but fail to translate it into action. This has been true for decades. There are other groups, further left, who fail to make an impact in elections; think SSP, R I S E and Alba. If voters were unhappy with centrist parties like the SNP, they have had alternatives and have spurned them.

    He favours radical economic policies for which there has been a very noticeable lack of enthusiasm for several decades.
    Post-industrial Scotland includes areas which ooze wealth, along side areas of deprivation. The former are unwilling to sacrifice their comfort to help the latter.

    Those who favour left wing policies will have to strike out and convince voters. It will be a long march. It took the SNP 40 years to acquire political power; from the Hamilton by election till the 2007 Holyrood election. Short cuts have been tried and have failed.

  5. Reading through that I was hoping to find something to lift my despondency.

    🙁

    I agree mostly with Florian’s take. I’m at the stage where I’ve written off the Labour Party (2001), the LibDems (2011) and now the SNP (2023, but they’ve had the benefit of the doubt since UK GE 2017).

    In my view a completely new party is required. One that is accountable to its members and with clear internal governance and financing.

    I just want NW European social democracy and would for the most part settle for that within an independent Scotland or a fully federal UK, and I suspect that most Scots (60%+) would too.

  6. Andrew Sinclair

    Thank you Robin, for this and for your other articles. As you say, things are not good and the outlook is for worse to come – from Westminster at least. The SNP management just doesn’t have a clue of the depth of the crisis they are in. You’re other article giving them a lesson in PR was spot on. But you can lead a horse to water…… I’ve worked in crisis managment too, I’ve worked with CEOs and Directors of global companies. 1.01 in the book is to recognise that you’re in a crisis. Then you start wargaming how bad it could get……and planning how to manage your way out of it. I don’t think the SNP managment has taken the book off the shelf yet, let alone opened it.

    A question, if I may? What happens if (when?) the SNP is declared insolvent? It’s surely a realistic possibilty at the moment. I’m sure a fudge wil be pulled to ensure the Sort Money will get paid. But is that enough to keep the wheels turning? You said that change can come rapidly, can a party be in Government if it’s insolvent? I don’t think this has ever happened before. That’s how bad I think it could get for them. And they need to be wargaming how they’ll manage their way back from this – the worst of all imaginable crisis. Do they even see the risk? There’s no evidence that they do.

  7. Progress has always looked like this before it happens. Life for ordinary people looked deeply grim in the 1930s yet those events led to an irresistible demand for social justice which gave us the NHS and the welfare state.

    I believe we push things forward by campaigning across a wide range of different issues and taking the wins where we can.

    Clearly burnout is a major problem, or simply aging, so recruitment and persuasion are vital parts of what we do.

    In the last couple of weeks I got a bin moved from a spot where it wasn’t doing much down to the riverfront benches where drunks leave their beer cans. I mobilised a campaign to fight self-serving interests. I helped a lady deal with homelessness. I got a drunk unionist to reconsider his take on the SNP by talking about his children’s future. I opened up our SNP branch meeting into a full and frank discussion about our local MSP, shining daylight on to some issues that had been festering.

    On a personal basis absolutely we can make a difference but we need to push on all fronts and take our defeats with a shrug.

    From there it’s a matter of volume.

    Robin’s absolutely right that the system is structured against ordinary people but here’s the thing – it’s not all that competent. So while they want to shut us down if we keep trying to make cracks in the dam at hundreds of different points they can’t win them all.

    Volume will come, sadly, when things get worse. When typical dads decide they’d rather spend Saturday fighting for their kids’ future than watching the football. It was the utterly terrible predicament of their countries that galvanised revolutions in France and Russia.

    There’s an ongoing systemic movement of wealth from ordinary people to rich people. There’s the climate catastrophe. There’s new forms of political fragmentation that see popular persuasive and utterly horrible policies brought into the mainstream like the Rwanda deportations.

    And we set ourselves up for a 1945 style progressive win by being in the fight, even though it can feel like being repeatedly slapped in the face at times. By cherishing our wins. By winning people over. By staying in the fight even when we lose.

    Think about how difficult things are for people like Humza Yousaf. Then make ourselves visible as the easier path than ignoring the membership and being tame on Indy would be.

    It’s all contestable and, as Monbiot has said, we can’t afford the luxury of despair.

  8. Colin McGinnis

    Im sorry, but the SNP as the mechanism to move us forward is finished in its current form. I will NEVER vote SNP again and I have been voting for them since the 70s. I could never vote labour again and my skin would surely shrivel if I ever voted for a torry. So it’s either abstain altogether or Vote ALBA. I agree it took the SNP a lifetime to get where they are today, I think their collapse will be light years faster.
    Their choice is crystal clear, I think they need to waken up to the fact that their “Gravy Train” is off the rails and get back to reality very quickly (and I think that means getting rid of Humza, but the SNP Members had their chance at the leadership vote and got it badly wrong ) but the next time, its the “peoples” turn to speak and I think they will either shout very loudly or not at all (Abstention) because there cannot be “business as usual”

  9. A start would be to push for the Scottish Parliament to be moved out of Edinburgh – preferably as far north as possible. Maybe Lairg or Sullom Voe. (Let the MSPs see where the UK’s economic miracle – its survival – is made, and contemplate how it’s squandered on house price inflation and new tube lines in London instead of spent on roads, schools and hospitals.) Well away from any home of a titular head of state and certainly nowhere within a taxi ride of the main courts, or the colony of private schools in Edinburgh.

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