Scotland Has No Hibernation Option

Robin McAlpine

If you read the take on the state of politics in Scotland offered by one political commentator this week you’d perhaps conclude it’s time just to call it a day and make an appointment with Dignitas. In his view, literally any possible version of ‘what comes next’ is next to apocalyptic. Best just to bunker down and wait out the next decade.

Here’s the thing though; there is no escape, there is no ‘contingency Scotland’ waiting to offer us a home if this one goes wrong. Even if you can contemplate sitting out the next decade, many hundreds of thousands of Scots are in a much more precarious position and do not have that luxury. Climate change continues apace, niceties at Holyrood be damned.

Over the next decade the physical face of Scotland will be reshaped by what we build, what we knock down. Our services will be transformed one way or another. What remains at the end is not this Scotland emerging from hibernation – it’s just this Scotland plus ten years.

And like every future that ten years remains a fight, a battle, a fear, a hope. I make no apology for using the language of conflict, because the world is a conflict of ideas which must be resolved somehow. The future always contains hope, always contains fear. It’s which one you fight for that matters.

Now you wouldn’t have mistake me for a constant ray of sunshine over the course of at least the last six or seven years. I have been critical and often highly critical of the Scottish Government and how it was performing. But none of it was ever without a purpose.

There had been a widespread view that the Scottish Government was ‘already doing all the kinds of things Common Weal wanted’ and that if people would just step back and stay out the way it would be fine. I was critical because only by challenging this view could we hope to get to a better place. And equally, I was never critical without proposing concrete solutions – if we are to condemn ‘this’, we better be confident that there is a better ‘that’.

It is really, really important that you keep this distinction in your head over the coming months and years. Scotland is about to go through a degree of political turmoil which has largely been absent from our politics for all but the last two decades. The independence referendum changed much and the 2015 General Election was a symbolic sea-change.

But the fundamentals have remained the same – a fairly consistent continuity government pursuing a policy agenda which has evolved but certainly not fundamentally changed, with the opposition only ebbing and flowing against each other in the same dynamic. Don’t get fooled into thinking Labour-SNP animosity on the constitution emerged in 2014 – it was on full display in 2007.

Those certainties look set to end. There is nothing yet to criticise in what comes next because we don’t know what it is yet. We can voice fears about what it might be, but we then also need to explain what we hope it could be. If the thing that is coming next is not what you want, then what do you want and where can it come from?

Neither the leader I know I want next nor the perfect continuity leader exist. Neither the party in power or the only one that might take power from it are, in themselves, persuasive answers to this question. And the holes and gaps in what is there do not look easily plugged based on what else is currently there. It isn’t clear there is an opposition which has the intention and skill to drag the government in a different direction or a coalition partner who will ‘do it better’ than what we have.

But there are elements of all these things. We must start from where we are. Those of us who want to see change need to look at how to piece together coalitions, on a subject-by-subject basis if we must. Those of us who feel government has let us down must look again at how we can build things outside of government.

Those of us who don’t want to keep wrestling over a political system that offers us such uninspiring options need to explain how we could change that system. Those of us who believe there is something fundamentally unhealthy about the lack of dissent and diversity of thinking need to think about how to nurture that.

This is all complicated. So for example if we want to build more things outside of the central governmental sphere, we need to break open the possibility. That means major policy change, so we need to build the coalitions for that. If we feel our politics is not representing our hopes, how do we get people into our politics who do? If we’re tired of tribalism, how can we create conditions that punish it and encourage independent thought?

The task isn’t to burn it all down or hide – the idea that you can go back to scratch and start again is as badly flawed as the idea that you can put a country into deep sleep for a decade and come back then when things are less mad. So we need to talk about approaches.

Let me give you some just for starters, building on what I have mentioned above. If you want to build thing outside the central governmental sphere there needs to be an ability to do it. That can mean many things, probably particularly local democracy and land reform. OK, so can we create a coalition around that if we have weaker government? Very possibly.

In fact this is more or less what Common Weal was proposing with Development Councils – think of them as a cross between old town councils and development trusts, a local development-focussed democratic layer.

Another bugbear of mine is the almost universal lack of interest in arts and culture in the Scottish Parliament. Where are the people who care about the arts or what would make those who are already there start to care? Again, creatives want to speak out but many are stymied by being reliant on public funding – which is why Common Weal proposed removing governmental control over that and instead democratising funding to the arts community itself (in Sorted).

Perhaps some leading arts and culture figures need to get together and form a Party for the Arts and stand candidates. They don’t really need to win to create change, they just need to challenge the politicians directly and expose them for their disinterest.

If we want to deal with tribalism, why not push for a different kind of constitutional debate? Again, that’s what I tried to do with Direction, a strategy for independence which is not predicated on a political leader blaming everything on another political leader. We could take the independence campaign out of party politics and thus take party politics out of the independence campaign.

Personally I would do more. I’d send out some constructive messaging about working better together. If I were a new SNP leader and First Minister I’d appoint Brian Wilson to lead a proper programme of land reform, because he actually wants to do it. Yes he’s a vocal critic of the SNP, but he’s much better than them on land reform. The ability to work together sends messages.

If you don’t think the Scottish Parliament has the personnel then you’re really arguing that the political parties are selecting the wrong people (they are, they’re selecting in the interests of the leader, not the party). Perhaps you should join and fight. Perhaps we should all set up a new party. Perhaps what is needed is local democracy to give potential politicians a first step on the ladder. Perhaps we need community initiatives to build the confidence of citizens to engage with politics.

For me the problem over the last decade was that while these issues were all live, too few people saw them as issues. The believed all was well, that this was all being sorted. They heard about various never-ending ‘local empowerment’ and ‘land reform’ reviews and assumed this was something that was happening (it wasn’t). 

They heard about plans for independence, or climate change goals, or noises about ‘affordable housing’ or reform to Council Tax or talk about regenerating high streets and so much more. They thought it was covered, that they could do something else while this happened.

Meanwhile others, either through good faith or bad, went beyond that and tried to stop those sceptics among us from questioning whether this was all actually happening or not. Too many were complacent, too many tried to close down debate, not enough voices offered dissent.

We are in this mess not because there are suddenly problems that we need to solve but because for much of the last decade too many of us behaved like there were no problems which weren’t being solved already. We all moan endlessly about low-quality politicians, but have we been high-quality citizens?

I’d argue not. I’d argue we’ve been passive, far too comfortable in our tribes and far too quick to believe our own propaganda. All the problems we face now were always there. It just feels worse just now because they’ve accumulated and so now we can see them. It was our failure too. We can stop failing. Scotland needs a civic society again, not more government apologists.

Criticism without purpose or solution is simply pure nihilism. It is destructive. We live here whatever happens (if anyone is concluding that it’s time to emigrate I’d love to know where in the developed world they want to emigrate to that isn’t going through the same crisis). We live with the legacy of what we do now, whatever happens.

We’re in such a mess because we believed we didn’t need solutions. The very best way to make that much worse is to pretend there aren’t any.

6 thoughts on “Scotland Has No Hibernation Option”

  1. Alasdair Macdonald

    “We all moan endlessly about low-quality politicians, but have we been high-quality citizens?” You have got to the nub of the issue with this statement. What too many people do is complain and blame and, in that they are taking their cue from our dire news media.

    However, a fair number of people actually take responsibility and do things, such as clear litter from their local streets, tidy up vegetation, clean graffiti. Usually, when I point out things like this to the complainers, their response is, “What are we paying Council Tax for?” Some are more forthright, calling me a “fucking eejit” or threatening to report me for “doing cleansing workers out of a job.” Nevertheless, doing such things makes a difference to the ambience of an area and, indeed, most people passing usually say thanks and give praise. With work and family commitments, many people do, indeed, find it hard to find the time to do much more than work, look after the weans, keep the house in order, and, often, look after elderly relatives and neighbours.

    Last weekend, for example, our residents association had one of our regular tidy-ups of our common backcourt area, Around 20 of the 150 residents took part. Remember that a fair number of the other residents are children, others have caring commitments, some are infirm. However, ALL contribute their annual fee for the Association because they recognise the value of such a common space and what it provides for us and develops a sense of neighbourliness.

    There are different examples of such voluntary but community-directed efforts taking place across Scotland every day.

    What many who participate in these activities are reluctant to engage in is ‘politics’ and largely, this is due to the identification of ‘politics’ with ‘political parties’, rather than recognising that ‘the personal is political’ (to use an old cliche.

    In the distant past, I did a Master’s degree and my thesis was about ways of changing attitudes in an ethical way. One of the key things is about making people aware of things and that entails more than just telling them. It is about directing attention to the things that need to be addressed and to the kinds of things that make a difference. It takes time, but, as long as we are so zealous and insistent that we turn people off, people begin to notice examples and direct attention to them.

    There are several different theories about this and one set out by the Brazilian Marxist educator, Paulo Freire was the idea of ‘contientisation’, whereby people begin to attend to things in their own lives and reflect on how they impact on their lives and begin to articulate their concerns and consider how they can bring about change by empowering themselves.

    As you say in your article we need to regenerate ‘civic’ society in Scotland via a process which involves individuals, local groups, wider area groups, town and city wide groups. These groups need something concrete to focus on to bring about change, whether it is our local backcourt group or the ‘friends’ groups which have revived Glasgow parks like Alexandra, Victoria, The Claypits etc.

    Unity is, indeed, strength, but people need to become aware that it is strength deriving from their combined voluntary efforts and the blethers over a cup of tea or watching a couple of deer or hearing a willow warbler (all of which happened to me last Sunday in The Claypits.

  2. Alasdair Macdonald

    In the fourth last paragraph the final line ought to be “…. NOT so zealous and insistent ….”

    Apologies for slack editing.

  3. After 45 years of supporting Scottish Independence including listening to your lecture in Perth when you outlined in detail how it was possible to give everyone over the age of 60 £1 million with 4 conditions and save the country money. ( something that is firmly planted in my memory bank ), I’ve finally realised that we need to have a temporary hiatus and put everything on hold until the madness that surrounds us is brought to an end.(even New Zealand , a shining example during Covid under Jacinda is now suffering under a far right administrarion.
    There is a precedent for this lunacy. Think Billy Graham in the late 50’s/early 60’s the last time the UK went batshit crazy.
    No, on the subject of hibernarion, I just wish I could hibernate until Common Weal establishes itself as a political party and sweeps the country making Robin McAlpine First Minister.
    Well one can but dream

  4. Bill Kerr-Smith

    As P.G.Wodehouse wrote “It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.”. You always write with positive intent and suggestions, even if the stimulus for your commentary might be discouraging. Long may you continue differentiating yourself from sunshine, in any of its forms.

  5. Democracy is about having choices. When it is becoming clearer by the day that the main pro-independence party has lost its focus and lost its way, pro-independence voters need to have a pro-independence alternative. I used to think the greens would rise to fill that role but now don’t ever intend to give them my second vote again. Hopefully Alba will grow and evolve into a more credible alternative than the Greens for second votes at the 2026 Holyrood election.

  6. florian albert

    This article suggests that Robin McAlpine has a naive understanding of the Scottish people and of Scottish society.
    His assumption is that people believed that ‘all was well’ and that there was a widespread view that ‘if people would just stay out of the way it would be fine.’
    On the contrary, most people understood that the country faced huge social and economic problems and that the SNP was fairly clueless about how to solve them. The real problem has been that for most people, life was fairly comfortable. Those for whom it was not could – mostly – be kept out of sight and out of mind. They (again, mostly) lived physically separate from the comfortable.
    Covid has been the catalyst for changes which seriously increases the number of people for whom this is not so. Whether this is sufficient to bring about political change remains to be seen.

    The proposal that we should ‘build more things that are outside the central governmental sphere’ is unrealistic. This is because the central government has acquired such a stranglehold on finance and on the levers of power.

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