Let's Work Together

The Art of Working Together

Robin McAlpine

There is one opinion that probably does unite everyone – we need to work together. Obviously we do, because the vast majority of human achievement is the result of people working together. But while we all agree on that, the problems set in rather quickly afterwards. Basically from the moment we start to discuss what the ‘we’ bit means. And the ‘work’ bit. And the ‘together’ bit.

This is a big issue in Scotland just now. Government, communities, the economy, poverty, climate change, independence – the number of issues where we stand little chance of seeing the change many of us want unless we can work together is large.

Because we think we’re good at collaborating in Scotland but we’re really not that good at all. Right across our society a small country like ours ought to be less centralised and less top-down. Which is to say it is more collaborative.

But of all these issues there are three in particular where failure to collaborate almost certainly means failure to achieve the goals. Those are fighting poverty, fighting climate change and campaigning for Scottish independence. It is vanishingly unlikely that any of these issues will successfully be resolved by any one actor. It is going to take a social movement.

That is where it gets tricky. While it might be surprising, social movements are one of the areas where collaboration can be hardest. There are so many reasons for this ranging from strong ideologies to lack of experience. But we need to get over this. We need to find working methods that help us get over the barriers.

I’ve been involved in lots of social movements over the years and also been close to the work of government and its stakeholders (particularly in the civic field, but also on the economy). There are a few lessons that I have learned over the years which it may be useful to share.

So let me start with the most fraught, the most difficult issue. That is how we define ‘we’. This has become by far the hardest aspect of working in social movements. I’ve explained elsewhere how over the course of the 1990s and 2000s there was a shift in ideology from structural approaches to ones based on identity. This has had a profound impact on collaboration.

Put more simply, when you define problems as structural (i.e. the result of big social structures like the economy or government and its agencies) then it is natural to look for partners who are also interested in the same structural reform. You may not agree on other issues, but that is largely beside the point because you’re building a coalition around a single issue.

On the other hand if you define problems based on identity and actors, you need to take a different approach to identifying your partners. Again, simply put, if you claim that the problems stem from people who hold social attitudes with which you disagree, working with people who hold those attitudes becomes problematic or impossible, even if the views you disagree with are about another subject.

Because I grew up in the peace movement I have been very influenced by its approach (which in turn is quite influenced by Quakerism and its attitudes towards patience and tolerance). From the 1950s until today the coalition which believes nuclear weapons are a shame on society is wide and disparate. It worked together on this issue but its partners didn’t necessarily work together on anything else.

In particular over much of that period the Catholic church had views on issues like abortion, gay rights or sex education in schools which were diametrically opposed to the views of the big majority of others in the movement. But the Catholic church was always good on peace and poverty issues.

This meant that people who were themselves active in the gay rights movement would find a way to appear on a platform with representatives from the Catholic church. It involved all concerned confining their arguments and comments to the issue concerned when they were on a platform together – though they might disagree vehemently and in public on other subjects.

That is now a highly contentious position. The shift to the politics of identity suggests that people’s positions are based on inherent characteristics which they either have or choose to have and that those underlying characteristics or opinions are indicative of the whole. It implies that if you work with someone on one issue that means that you effectively endorse their position on other issues.

This has led to the idea of ‘no platforming’, effectively operating ‘blacklists’ of who you will not work with based on the alignment of their overall ideology rather than the position they take on any single issue. There is of course a big problem with this; if you are only able to collaborate with people who believe all the same things as you, how are you ever going to build wide social movements?

I sometimes refer to this problem as a ‘vanish purity cult’ – if you define an in-group based on how completely it adheres to one line of thinking it is infinitely divisible. If there are only three of you left in a field, two of you can easily decide that the third isn’t quite committed enough to the ideal. It is inherently reductive.

I am very sceptical that this can ever be a solid principle for a broad social movement. There are just too diverse a set of opinions and views in our society. There aren’t coalitions big enough which only believe one thing, at least not big enough to tackle the big issues. And we need to be able to tackle the big issues.

This is comfortably the most difficult part of my professional life. I have always believed in the principle of ‘work with people where you agree’ and I established Common Weal partly based on that principle. We have had constructive work with all the independence-supporting parties over the years, but also with Labour.

In fact beyond that there are a number of areas where we’ve worked with the Tories – local democracy, private finance in public infrastructure and the National Care Service bill among others. I do not believe this is a mistake. If a Tory wants to kick back against the centralised nature of Scotland, should we not work with them on principle?

We think we should work with them, but that is not a universally supported position. We have faced constant attacks for our willingness to work across boundaries and it is very difficult to deal with. If we’ve faced those problems then the independence movement in particular has had terrible difficulties.

It also leads to the other two parts of the question – what does ‘working’ with someone mean and what does ‘together’ mean. It is really easy to stand on a platform with people you agree with and talk to other people you agree with, but is that working? As in is it having the effect you say you want to? Is it enough?

And it also points to the ‘together’ part. This is a much wider problem but often when you trace back the failure of social movements it is often the case that ‘together’ was taken to mean ‘I’m in the lead and I expect you to follow’. This is another problem in the independence movement where too many people seem to want to be the ‘chosen one’. But this is also a particular factor in the climate change movement where people often have very strongly held but conflicting views on what change should look like.

This is all clearly a much bigger issue than can be covered here, but I do have some personal conclusions. First, if you want to create change you really do need to accept that you will have to work with people who have differing views to your own. You don’t need to compromise your on views but you do need to find a way to work together.

And if you want to achieve big change the coalition needs to be wider. That means you may end up working with people who hold views you find offensive. As best as is possible you need to find a way to ‘quarantine’ issues which will cause conflict if you can do it. That isn’t always easy, and there are always lines it is impossible to cross. But you should pick them carefully.

Second, you must always remember that ‘working’ isn’t what you like doing but what changes when you do it. You can do a lot of ‘work’ that doesn’t work. If you’re only talking to people like you you’re probably not changing anything. It has to be about opening up, not closing down, or nothing gets better.

And thirdly, you need to understand what ‘together’ means. This is hard. It almost always means accepting you won’t get absolutely everything you want (the Rolling Stones are quite good on this point…). But even more importantly it means you need to try and give up control, at least to some degree. If people don’t think you’re offering them a share of power it isn’t a coalition but a request for a fan club.

None of this is easy. It wasn’t easy before the ideological changes of the last few decades and it certainly isn’t getting easier now. What is easy is to stay in your little comfort group and shout at people who are outside it or who work with those who are outside it. It can look good, it can feel good. But it doesn’t achieve anything.

If we don’t find a way to work together we fall apart. That is the biggest truth of history. For the sake of change, let us think hard about how we really want our society to be – fragmented or a grand compromise which lets us all live together. So long as you remember that fragmented societies fail.

5 thoughts on “The Art of Working Together”

  1. Good, Robin – as usual! A friend of mine, who is now in a (the?) senior Systems Engineering role in MoD, used to give a lot of presentations about systems thinking.

    He often said that if you want to widen your circle of influence, you need to narrow your circle of control. He maintained there was an absolute tradeoff between influence and control.

    As you can imagine, that was an ‘interesting’ line to take in an organisation in which most people are instinctively controlling and hierarchical.

  2. Alasdair Macdonald

    People DO work together and always have. Co-operative efforts are going on just now in every city, town and village in Scotland and they usually include people with a diverse range of views but are able to put them aside because they accept that the specific issue on which they are co-operating is important for them and their community.

    A problem is extending such co-operation to other, often related or similar matters. Partly, this is down to the time needed to develop trust in others and the additional time needed to undertake the link building. Again, such things have been done and things like Friendly societies, trade unions and the Women’s Institute developed in such ways. So, the problem is not unsurmountable. It requires people to believe that these things are achievable.

    As you point out, one of the problems is ‘the purist’ who appends a big list of criteria who is the right sort of person – ‘yes, I know we are delivering shopping for people who are housebound, but some of these people are anti-gay/black/women/people with disabilities/Celtic FC/etc’. And there are also the cynics, who always start, “Ah, but …..” and then list ‘reasons why it is impossible to do it. This is a major industry and is the prime task of the media and journalists. Indeed, despite the quality of this article, you have laced it with cynicism in places.

    When I go for my shopping in the mornings, usually before undertaking some voluntary activity (us old codgers need to be kept occupied or we start misbehaving) I have a squint at the headlines of the morning papers and what we see is a litany of gloom and sneer, with organisations like The Ferret contributing to the Herald’s latest cavilling, carping sneer.

    The reason I support Commonweal is that it comes up with eminently do-able ideas and indicates how these things can be done. So, it irks me when most articles have in them some echo of the Scottish ‘cringe’ or doom-mongering. I have a friend who often quotes the Gramscian epigram: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will, but, as with many self proclaimed idealists the pessimism has become an end in itself and any expressions of optimism are dismissed as complacency or naivete. This can be seen on a large scale following the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon and the issues being uncovered within the SNP (I am not and never have been a member). To read many of those who claim to be supporters of independence it would seem that neither the former First Minister nor the SNP achieved anything since 2007. The bile exceeds even that of the unionist and right wing newspapers.

    In the case of the latter, it seems to me that it is based on a sense of relief because they had become exceedingly loose-bowelled about the chance of Scotland becoming independent. However, some amongst them are realising that although the SNP might be in trouble, the people who support independence are mainly as strong in their belief as they ever were. There is still significant rottenness in Westminster and things in Ireland are moving against the no-surrender squad.

    Which returns me to ‘self-help’. A substantial part of the achievement in 2014 was the emergence of ocal pro-independence groups. These have not gone away and are still beavering away. They comprise people who have a range of social and economic ideas, but they have a common cause in self-determination for Scotland. I have often bristled at some of Michael Fry’s Thatcherism, but I recognise his commitment to independence.

    Just before lockdown, I spent some time in Dublin and in the various museums, including in the former Collins Barracks near the ‘Croppie Acre’, which has a display of items from the period from before 1916 to the setting up of the Free State. One of the things which stands out is the fissiparousness of the movement for Irish independence. It makes the current troubles of the SNP look like a playground squabble!

    I exaggerate. But, crises are opportunities for renewal.

    All the best

  3. People on the left of politics seem to find differences difficult. We need to find things we have in common, rather than nitpick on things we disagree with. McFadean of Flatpack Democracy outlined ways to work together, and we could take from that. I bet the Right are very pleased we are so disjointed, and can’t come up with a strong narrative on what we stand for. We can do better than this.

  4. florian albert

    ‘if you define problems based on identity’

    Even as recently as the 2014 referendum, this would have been very much a minority position. Today, especially in the universities, it appears to have more support than any other.
    It is already – thankfully – proving a dead end.

    A more serious question is, what is this putative ‘coming together’ intended to achieve ? Since September 2014, Scottish
    politics and public life have been entirely dominated by the SNP. It, in turn, has been dominated by Nicola Sturgeon. The latter domination has been due to weaknesses – both structural and human – in the SNP. This domination started with electoral victories. Every other group in Scotland could be excluded as they all lacked comparable credibility. In a liberal democracy, electoral success trumps (sic) everything else.
    The pro-independence left does not seem ready to grasp this point. Scottish Labour does.

  5. Gosh you ask some tough questions sometimes Robin.

    Let’s consider complete no platforming. Would, in earlier eras, we be willing to share a platform with Hitler or Stalin or some serial killer or terrorist? In the modern era do we expect people to be fine about sharing billing with Trump, Bolsonaro or Farage or Andrew Tait?

    If most of us can identify someone that we wouldn’t share a platform with then we accept the principle of some people being unacceptable and it becomes simply a question of degree.

    And that then gets very tricky. If we would share a platform with an Islamophobe but not an anti-semite we’re operating a hierarchy of racism. If we would share a platform with a transphobe but not a racist we’re operating a hierarchy of bigotry.

    My next troubling thought is about how it lands. It’s clear that young people in general are more inclined towards no platforming than the older generation. Issues like transphobia are viewed differently.

    If we decide we’re fine to campaign alongside performative media figures like Piers Morgan or Lawrence Fox we risk being seen as people not worth listening to or worse. Even if we don’t incline towards no platforming perhaps our audience does, especially our younger audience.

    The recent AUOB controversy https://www.thenational.scot/news/23453763.one-banner-defend-may-coronation-rally-speakers-amid-row/ seems to me to be clumsy management by Neil MacKay and his colleagues. If all the speakers on one end of the Indy spectrum agree to speak and most of the speakers on the other end decline then for goodness sake reach out and get some replacement speakers to balance the rosters.

    I think in the end this area is a minefield, that scenarios need to be judged on their merits and that broad churches are built not by any overarching philosophy but by a thousand acts of political friendliness.

    Great article Robin.

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