Robin McAlpine – 4th November 2022
We really do listen at Common Weal. We ask you all the time for feedback on what we should be doing and we always take it seriously. In the last two years we’ve been asking more and more, and the messages you’ve been sending back have become more and more consistent.
Hope. That’s what everyone keeps telling us they want. Hope.
These aren’t easy times. You can take your pick – geopolitics, cost of living, poverty, climate change, war, biodiversity loss, slow progress on independence, the housing crisis, its a long list. And everything has been geared up to tell us bad news. Sadly good news doesn’t sell newspapers and happy thoughts don’t get the social media clicks.
So not only are there reasons to fear, there are more ways than ever to be fed that fear, fear that makes you click and click more and more, anxiety which keeps you glued to your ‘doomscroll’, being fed adverts the whole time.
There have been bursts of hope for many of us. The hope that lingered even after indyref was over. The hope that many felt for a while that we were in a new era and new things were possible lasted even longer. At a UK level the endless parade of sameness was briefly enlivened by Corbynism.
The rise of the young climate activists gave us hope. The massive social solidarity we felt at the start of the pandemic brought hope. The new wave of trade union activity gives many hope. We will seek it out, because we’re humans and that’s what we do.
But there aren’t many of these sources of hope left – or at least that is what you are telling us. You tell us that when you look around Scotland you see the will for something new but not the shape of it, not enough of the ideas that can persuade you your hope isn’t futile.
So we asked and we listened. And we’re Common Weal, so we responded in the way we know how to. We worked really hard to create a story of hope, to create something which could help people to close their eyes and imagine the alternative.
You told us what you don’t like, what makes you angry, what breaks your heart. Sometimes you said that you didn’t know what the alternative was but that you really hoped there was one. Sometimes you told us what the alternative was, often by pointing us to really good initiatives or studies or reports or articles. Sometimes you invited us to come and see. You led us towards what you thought we could do to make a difference.
I can’t begin to tell you how seriously we take it when you tell us that you want us to do something. It’s got nothing to do with the cynicism of keeping donors happy (though donors, thank you more than we can express). It’s not about signing up new donors (but please, these are hard times for many so if you are one of the lucky ones and can help us, please become a donor).
It’s because we’re only here to try and make a difference and you are our guide to the difference we can make. We call ourselves a people-powered think tank and that’s what we try to be.
The result of this was that one year ago, quietly, we began work. It is amazing to me to realise that in May next year Common Weal will be ten years old (though only eight and a half years old as its own organisation). We have a very substantial body of work and that acted as a starting point.
We chatted and thought hard about how to put it together, about what hope ‘looks like’ when you try to distill it into a form that you can share with people. Is it films? Is it shareable material? Is it public events? In the end we decided that it was a book, part story, part reference work. It would be something you could read from start to finish, or something you could dip in and out of as you wanted.
So how were we going to tell the story? Pick some examples of ‘better’ and paint a picture of the difference it can make? Pose the right questions to start the conversation? Gather menus of options for what could be? We thought about this. After all, ‘starting a conversation’ and ‘beginning to imagine the shape of what might come next’ is the kind of thing think tanks do is it not?
But in the end, none of you were saying ‘please start another conversation’. In fact some of you were telling us very clearly ‘we’ve had enough of aimless chats which go on forever and don’t arrive anywhere, so could you not describe a destination?’. That definitely chimed with me for one – I really can live without ‘starting’ another ‘journey’ of ‘imagineering’.
So we decided to take a shot at explaining how we could just make, well, everything better. After all, it’s so intricately connected. We were lacking health policy so we set up a Health Policy Group – and it talked about housing, and education, and IT. Our Care Group has been going for ages, and it talks about hospitals and GPs and human rights and democracy.
We decided that the way to do that was to assume Scotland had become independent and then to think about all the things a government does, organise them into chapters, and ask what it would look like if we did it differently, or how we could fix problems with what we are currently doing.
We went on expeditions to interview people. We asked you loads of times to send us ideas or point us to things we should be looking at. We read and researched from the best policy work we could find. We shaped up a broad model of the content.
And then we, well, started writing. And writing. And writing. It really was an incredible amount of work. Of course lots of words might contain hope, but do they feel like hope? We wanted to produce something that didn’t just give people the intellectual ability to think about hope but which would help them to feel it too.
For the last couple of years Common Weal has run a project with the Duncan of Jordanstone art school through which we met loads of great young illustrators and designers. So we asked four of them to take on the task of the ‘feel’ bit. They designed and illustrated the book, which I think looks really beautiful. They lifted me up with their work.
For the last month it has been the home straight. It was a hard deadline and it was hard to meet. But on Tuesday morning we got there – final, proofed and print-ready artwork.
Our book is called Sorted: a handbook for a better Scotland. We don’t for a second pretend it is the last word on a better society. There may be alternatives to our ideas, better ideas than the ones we’ve chosen. There will definitely be brilliant ideas we missed or couldn’t fit in. You may of course not agree with everything. This is our vision, and you can take from it what you find useful and leave behind what you don’t.
You may not know it, but you really have contributed so much to this book. We are incredibly grateful. We can’t do any of this without you. But we are going to ask if you can make one more contribution. While we have been doing all this work, printing costs have spiralled upwards. This isn’t a budget book. It’s full colour to do justice to those beautiful illustrations.
And our money is tight, as it is for so many, many people. We spend almost every penny we get on (very modest) wages for staff. To get this book finished and keep it affordable, we’re a few thousand pounds short of what we need. So we are asking you if you can help.
Perhaps all that is left to say is that we have one giant hope too. We hope you like it.
We hope that this is what you wanted us to do. We hope so much that we’ve properly understood what you were telling us.
But I can’t quite leave it at that. I have lived this piece of work for so long now. I had the honour of putting together the final text. Right now it feels to me like a photo I’m looking at but which is only a couple of millimetres in front of my eyes. I’ve been so close to it I can barely see it. I’m taking next week off to recover…
And yet I can, almost nearly, stand back and see what is in this. I need hope every bit as much as anyone. I need to believe that what is broken can be fixed because if I didn’t believe it I don’t know if I could get out of bed in the morning.
When this project started I didn’t know how we could save the NHS. I didn’t know how we might run the national accounts of a new country. I didn’t know what we should do to reform education.
I learned so much. It lifted me when I was exhausted and made it possible to find my way when I was getting lost in it. There isn’t enough space here to thank everyone – you, the policy team that did the real work, the enormous number of people who helped and contributed to this, the Scottish Independence Foundation whose funding meant we could bring in those artists and designers, the team who proof read it, the rest of the Common Weal team who supported us every step of the way, my lovely home in this beautiful country which inspires me every day, my family for putting up with all of this.
I do feel hope. I do believe we can fix our problems. I do believe Scotland is only starting to be what it can be. I do believe in this country, in its people. I refuse to be told this is as good as it gets. I refuse. I do believe it can be better than this. I believe it will be better than this. So I have hope, and very soon we can share this book with you. Then, I hope above all that you can share our hope.
It will be better than this. Much is broken, but it can be sorted.
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