is this a new dawn for civic scotland?

Robin McAlpine

There is a strange relationship between hard power and soft power in domestic politics. Or let me phrase that another way; the relationship between a government and its wider civic environment is not always straightforward. As we move into a new era in Scottish politics, will we move into a new era in civic Scotland?

Let me just cut to the chase here and state that I think it is important for Scotland that this is a fresh start for the health of our civic sector. It does not look at the moment that we are going to have a government which is overflowing with the best talent the nation has. That is what it is. But it does place an onus on others to step up and contribute more to public life.

So what is the relationship between the civic and the governmental? That is something which has changed significantly in Scotland. At the start of my personal political memory (really the mid-1980s) the picture was clear. Scotland’s civic sector (charities, arts bodies, trade unions, churches, community groups, activist organisations) were, almost without exception, well to the left of the government.

Of course that government was Thatcher’s government and it was intensely unpopular in Scotland, at least with a big majority of voters. There really wasn’t much controversy in being opposed to that government. It was a pretty easy position for most to take.

And they did. Civic Scotland (along with the local government sector) basically became a focus of resistance to the Thatcher revolution. In some ways this was brave and bold, but in other ways it was also pretty easy for them. It wasn’t that it wasn’t sincere, but it was pretty cost-free.

This era came to a close with the election of Tony Blair and New Labour. Overnight the tone changed. I can remember the first time when, as a young man, it was explained to me that things were no longer ‘problems’ but ‘challenges’ and we now didn’t talk about ‘poverty’ but ‘social exclusion’.

In the early Blair years there was much talk about ‘stakeholders’ and what would now be called ‘co-design’. It’s not only that civic Scotland stopped being a resistance, it was (cautiously) really quite hopeful. Some maintained that hope for a number of years, others started to get a bit frustrated that there was a lot more talk about co-design than there was reality.

On top of that, quite a few were resentful about what Blair was really trying to do. He was using the civic sector as a battering ram to break down support for publicly-provided services by pretending that when he contracted them out it was actually lots of lovely charities that were going to step in. It wasn’t. It was Serco, but the charities gave him just enough cover to get away with it.

But the real break point was a couple of years after that, with the Iraq War. There had been increasing scepticism about the Blair government in civic circles by then but the Iraq War gave them an easy avenue to express it. Plus it is really important not to underestimate what a shock this was to a lot of people at the time. The civic sector was crucial in stimulating increasing opposition to the war.

This had a consequence, or at least it did at the global level. The group of NGOs which had really led a lot of the international opposition to the war became a target, very explicitly a target. So explicit that key figures around George W Bush started openly briefing that they were devising a strategy to clip the wings of the NGO sector.

They did this through a combination of applying conditionality to funding to prevent various activities, restricting the ability of NGOs to engage in campaigning if they wanted to be treated as ‘public good’ institutions and bribing some NGOs into silence by funding them but with caveats.

This wasn’t quite the approach that Blair took (he focussed more on the bribery approach and less on the punishment approach), but his own briefers made his government’s displeasure with their dissent quite clear. This relationship never really properly healed during the Blair years, and the picture was similar in Scotland.

But something else was going on in Scotland as well in the dawn of the devolution era. In a very significant turn of events, many of the main players in the civic sector started to actively undermine the wider sector’s role in Scottish public life. There was meant to be a ‘Civic Forum’ to go along with the Scottish Parliament, and there was, briefly.

Then what happened was that a number of the biggest trade unions and charities started lobbying against the Civic Forum. Their theory was that they were not going to dilute their influence by sharing it with smaller players. So Jack McConnell pulled the Civic Forum’s funding and it disappeared.

That does not mean that those that lobbied against it gained the influence they thought they would. They didn’t. They fell into two camps, those who were ostracised and those who converted themselves into ‘service providers’. 

Then things got worse. The Tory coalition government that came in in 2010 took aggressive action to significantly limit the capacity of the civic sector to campaign or be politically engaged. Ironically (or not) they did this through the power of a Lobbying Act which bent over backwards to prevent proper regulation of the actual influential lobbyists (the corporate sector) but severely cracked down on charities and trade unions.

By this point it was becoming increasingly difficult for a charity to do any campaigning that might be seen as political – and that included issues like talking about poverty or climate change. Even more it made it really, really difficult to do so anywhere near an election.

Scotland has its own Lobbying Act but the UK legislation had precisely the same chilling effect on the civic sector in Scotland. People in that sector became really worried about the risks they faced if they made comments that could embarrass politicians and they largely stepped back from election campaign periods altogether.

And then… the Scottish independence referendum happened. This was in some ways the opposite of the situation in the 1980s. During the referendum it was extremely difficult for the civic sector to take any position because the issue was miles from generating a significant consensus. So in reality the civic sector virtually disappeared from public life for the duration.

The post-referendum Scottish Government turned a selection of Blair’s tactics into a prime strategy. Very simply put the civic sector had its mouth stuffed with gold (not very much, but just enough) on condition that it complied with everything the government did.

That led to the era of ‘Civic Loyalty’. For what seemed like the longest time you could hardly find a civic body that would put out a press release for any purpose other than to praise and support the Scottish Government.

This was disorientating; I was working in many coalitions with the same organisations and what they were saying in private was many miles away from what they were saying in public. But that was the rules; criticise the Sturgeon government even a little bit and you were out of the (very small) circle of trust. Few did.

That is more or less where we are now. The civic sector in 2023 has really come full circle from its days as the nation’s resistance force and now is more like a pretorian guard for the country’s establishment. In other countries it might have been the more established civic sector which would have done things like blown the whistle on the ScotWind privatisation or challenged the general perception that the Scottish Government was a ‘climate leader’.

But they didn’t. Common Weal did. Even now you find it hard to see much civic criticism of the Scottish Government’s track record on issues like climate change, poverty, housing or the economy. If I have to see one more ‘wellbeing economy organisation’ praising a government which has never once wavered from a neoliberal economic agenda I’ll scream.

And yet there are already signs of change. The most encouraging of them by far is at the STUC. After what was a decidedly downgraded role for most of the devolution era the STUC has started to show some real signs of being a revitalised force to hold government to account. There are some tentative signs that others may follow.

My point here is that this is very deeply needed in Scotland. In reality this is needed in every democracy, but we now have a new government and it is not being widely seen as high-powered or experienced. Government performance is currently poor and there are few signs it is ready to regenerate itself.

In that context it becomes more important than ever for civic Scotland to step up. Will it? I guess time will tell. But I have strong concerns that we are heading into an era of failure and that someone somewhere has to speak up if we as a nation are to find a new path.

5 thoughts on “is this a new dawn for civic scotland?”

  1. Ian Davidson

    Hi Robin and fellow Common Wealers!
    Excellent historical context and narrative. Where are we now? In the middle of a dense wood in a deep fog. Impossible to see a clear path ahead. Easter, irrespective of religious affiliation or none, is an excellent time for genuine meditation and reflection. Time with family/friends/pets/nature/garden/ chocolate! I am reflecting on a few personal anniversaries and also several current local bureaucratic battles which have come to a sort of natural exit opportunity. Constant campaigning and complaining is not always good for my soul?
    A good time for me to start to delete some “lost campaign/overtaken by events” files and gradually re-focus, starting from the inside and working out. The new and very youthful Scot Gov team will have a busy fortnight rearranging the office desks, stationery and IT permissions; very exciting when you are caught up in the excitement. However, I am taking an Easter Vow of E-Omerta; no further comment, for a while at least!
    CW has an excellent intellectual template with “Sorted” and I look forward to some practical inspiration from you guys in the weeks and months ahead. However, for now, unplug the IT and enjoy our precious planet with fellow sentient beings or just your own being! Regards.

  2. Bill Johnston

    Good stuff Robin, many echoes for my own experiences.
    Sorted should give Humza’s team a blueprint for the coming period, so interesting to analyse how the Ministerial posts and personalities align with the proposals in Sorted.

    All the best,


  3. florian albert

    My political memory goes back a couple of decades further than Robin McAlpine. In the late1960s, I do not remember hearing talk of ‘Civic Scotland.’ This idea came into being as a response to Thatcherism. There was a spontaneous element to it but it was, in part, a Labour Party ploy to create a ‘popular front’ against the Tories; one that Labour would control. This was seen very clearly in the run up to the creation of a Scottish Parliament. Labour made concessions but assumed that it had retained sufficient power to control Holyrood. When the SNP took power in 2007, it was even more
    determined to exert as much control as possible, right up to last week’s leadership election.
    The idea that a ‘Civic Forum’ could – in any way – share power with the Scottish Parliament was always delusional.
    The key weakness of ‘Civic Scotland’ is that it lacks the political legitimacy that election success provides. Most of those involved accept this, though some learned this lesson slowly. SNP and Labour are united on this, though they may say otherwise to gain the acquiescence of subordinate organizations.
    Where this leaves ‘Civic Scotland’ has been shown clearly in recent weeks; on the outside looking in.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald

      What a gloomy and destructive response. But that is always what your responses are since your aim is to continue the disempowerment of the public, local government and the Scottish Government. It is the colonial governor general attitude as exemplified by Alister Jack, with the sneering approval of such as Iam Murray.

      Personally, I think it is a good thing for any country if it has a range of vibrant institutions, such as those Mr McAlpine listed. Edmund Burke believed that such institutions are essential to society. He was writing in response to the tumultuous times of the French Revolution, but, nonetheless, he was making arguments that are valid in any national community and under any government which is not authoritarian. Such institutions have always been rooted to a fair degree within communities and, so, often reflect the particular conditions specific to any community.

      However, I think, too that local government must be substantially re-empowered, with significant revenue raising powers. Since the Second World War it has been progressively weakened and distanced for the communities, and many people, as exemplified by electoral turnout, see little point in voting, largely because they see how disempowered it is. Those of us old enough to remember Glasgow Corporation, which despite the flaws of a number of cooncillors, was a very powerful body and, over the centuries of its existence achieved some monumental achievements – water and sewerage, public transport, gas and electricity generation and transmission, schools, public baths and wash houses, hospitals and clinics, public parks. Manchester and Birmingham, for example, were similarly powerful and innovative bodies.

      As Westminster, whether under the corrupt and decaying Tories or under a Blair/Brown Mark 2 Labour Government, becomes increasingly detached from the concerns of millions of citizens, I think local actions, whether by ‘civic society’ institutions or ad hoc local groups, will become increasingly common.

      100 years ago, William Butler Yeats expressed it well:
      “Turning and turning in the widening gyre
      The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
      Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
      Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, ….”

  4. florian albert

    Quite how you conclude that my aim is to ‘continue the disempowerment of the public, local government and Scottish government’ I can’t work out. The reference to colonial governor is silly.

    I approve of ‘little battalions’ but the main Scottish political parties have very little interest in them, except as a means of implementing policies decided on high. The SNP’s record here is more destructive than any previous party in the democratic era; think Police Scotland and CfE. They have never even heard of subsidiarity.

    The SNP has no interest in re-energizing local government. At present, it is unrealistic to go down that road. Glasgow, to take the example you refer to, lacks two things necessary for successful local government. It lacks the tax base necessary for success. It also lacks people willing to devote themselves to such a venture. The prosperous part of Glasgow, mainly in the much-expanded West End, has largely opted out of civic involvement. (There have been solid reasons for such disengagement in the past.)
    The monumental achievements you refer to nearly all predated 1945, very many predated 1914. The water from Loch Katrine dates from 1859. Recent ‘achievements’ have been motorways and tower blocks.

    I think you have misunderstood Yeats. He was so pessimistic as to make me appear Panglossian; read the last line of the poem you have quoted from.

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