Robin McAlpine – 9th September 2022
Are you finding us a bit depressing at the moment? You signed up for Common Weal because we were all about positive and exciting proposals for how to make things better, right? So why is our weekly newsletter so depressing?
This question was prompted in part because one of our supporters emailed in to tell us precisely this; that we were falling somewhat short of being a ray of sunshine each week. Is our position helpful? Is it fair? What about the fact that Common Weal is a pro-independence think tank and we’re being critical of a pro-independence government? Is that counterproductive?
So let’s have a look at the question ‘what should a pro-independence, left-of-centre think tank do in the Scotland where we live?’.
Common Weal set out in 2014 to be constructive and to work with anyone who would work with us to try and promote new and innovative ideas and to get them picked up. We decided that the first thing to do was to accept that the independence referendum had just happened and we needed to move on to look at domestic policy.
So we produced lots and lots of work early on, tailored to what was happening in Parliament – on the childcare expansion, a PFI-defeating National Infrastructure Company, bringing ScotRail into public ownership on the right terms, a mutual Scottish banking network, a different approach to housing policy, a Scottish National Investment Bank and loads more (all in the policy library).
These were almost all ignored and, in the case of the SNIB, our request for a short meeting with the Scottish Government to explain the idea was summarily declined. (It was later after a party vote in favour and after a major setback at the 2017 General Election that the idea was picked up to try and restore some momentum.)
So we started to do two other things. If we couldn’t get productive direct engagement with the Scottish Government we would instead work more directly with SNP party members to promote Common Weal policy. That led to a string of Common Weal policies becoming party policy. But sadly the Scottish Government did not implement any of them (though they remain official party policy).
And we decided that the failure even to start any work on filling in the blanks on independence policy from 2014 should prompt us to make that start, a two-year project that resulted in the book How To Start A New Country. But the SNP leadership not only didn’t draw on or recognise that work, they set up the Growth Commission to directly counter it (announced within a few weeks of us announcing our initiative).
By 2019 our extensive efforts at collegiate working were bearing almost no fruit whatsoever. It is then we were approached by SNP members about setting up an SNP Common Weal Group. Again, that went extremely well and almost all the Group’s candidates for elected positions in the party won. But because only a minority of the SNP’s party governance is elected by all members, little could be achieved.
Common Weal had seldom been strongly critical of government at that point, despite so much of what was going on being very worthy of serious criticism (the proposed education reforms alone would generally draw the ire of a left-of-centre think tank). But it was by now impossible to ignore how badly things were going.
Government had become a cabal of the big accountancy firms who were again and again tasked to write policy and which again and again produced right-of-centre proposals. These were, again and again, picked up and implemented by the Scottish Government. In any other nation it would be uncontroversial for left-of-centre think tanks to be highly critical.
The influence of corporate interests was quite apparent by 2017 when the whole Heathrow relationship became front-and-centre. At this point the SNP was still trying to resist its own members’ attempts to force a ban on fracking (under significant pressure, the Scottish Government only went as far as a moratorium).
By the time the Growth Commission was published it was quite difficult to sustain the idea that we were dealing with a centre-left government. At times it was hard to justify describing it as ‘centrist’. The Growth Commission meant the economic ideological positioning of the SNP was now clearly right of centre.
It wasn’t just ideological positioning though – it was also a question of competence. Basically the entire education agenda (utterly ill-conceived from the outset) had predictably collapsed and more and more was going wrong. What should a think tank do when it sees this happening?
There was another crucial factor in all of this. It is not easy for me to write this but if you look round the bodies that you might expect to be carrying out the role of scrutinising government, it became difficult to identify any which were not receiving government funding. In sectors like the environmental and anti-poverty sectors, few organisations weren’t taking public money.
One NGO was honest enough with me to reveal that its grant award letter came with an explicit provision that it was expected that the award of money would be matched by a commitment not be publicly critical of government policy.
I say this is difficult to write because I’ve worked in many coalitions where I’ve sat round a table with good people I respect and agree with but whom I knew were deliberately suppressing collective criticism because by offering public support for initiatives they should be criticising they would be in line for funding for helping to take those substandard initiatives forward.
In fact one of the big unspoken secrets about policy influence among the wide gamut of broadly progressive campaigning and advocacy organisations is that no-one (honestly, no-one) thinks that the government is doing a good job or that it is trying seriously to push things very far in the right direction. It’s just that their financial sustainability relies on them putting out press releases that say the opposite.
I do completely understand this dilemma. If you don’t take the money and don’t go along with things you don’t really agree with, you get cut out of decision-making and for many the sustainability of your organisation may be threatened. ‘A little influence to improve bad things is better than standing outside and moaning’ is a perfectly legitimate position.
But what happens if everyone is caught in this trap? What if no-one feels free to speak out? What does that do to our democracy? Even the media has been in receipt of very significant public funding.
And of course there is the question of independence. What became known as ‘wheesht for indy’ always gave me real problems but was not seen as controversial in the wider indy movement. Lots and lots of people hated lots of what government was doing but were led to believe that if they ‘sucked it up’ for another 18 months they’d get independence and then they could vote for a different kind of government.
Over time more and more have started to ask themselves how long they can wheesht, whether they can justify steps like the mass privatisation of the future of Scotland’s energy in return for vague promises that their silence will be temporary until the fabled referendum comes.
Should Common Weal have stayed silent about the appalling ScotWind privatisation auction? Had we done so, I’m not sure anyone in the media or the public would fully have appreciated the scale of what was going on. How much silence turns you into the problem rather than the solution?
Common Weal is one of the very few left-leaning pro-independence bodies in Scotland which has any staff. We are also one of the vanishingly small number of organisations that can operate professionally without being beholden to the vested interests who fund them. It is our unique funding model (all small individual regular donations from ordinary people) that makes this the case.
Is it not our duty to speak without fear or favour about what we see in front of us? There are damn few other organisations free to do that – does that not increase the duty on us further? What credibility do we have as an organisation if we sidestep or whitewash the big issues of our day because engaging with them leads to criticism of a pro-independence government?
And for those who do still think we should pull punches to help protect a pro-independence government, is it helping? Is pretending that things are fine moving us faster towards independence? I personally find it very hard to sustain that argument. Indeed I think that progress has been greatly slowed precisely because for a long time there was absolutely no internal pressure.
This approach means that we produce work that is important. Our Care Reform Group’s work on a National Care Service is now driving the agenda for the many, many organisations who strongly oppose the awful contents of the Care Bill. We are getting direct kickback from government sources pressurising us to step back and pull our punches.
We aren’t doing that and as Nicola’s really important article today shows, it is right that we don’t. Does this mean that we produce material which may not be comfortable to read for people who have supported the SNP all their lives? Yes, it does. There’s certainly some of it that I don’t like writing.
I (and everyone else at Common Weal) take a very low salary because we need to if we’re going to sustain this work. We do it because we really think that honest, independent voices which can’t be bought off are crucial to democracy. We believe our work has been important. We have never stopped producing positive ideas work. In fact our forthcoming ‘vision project’ is probably the most exciting and optimistic thing we’ve done.
But we have never flinched from our duty to be fair and frank. That means that I don’t expect that all of it is comfortable reading for you. And I don’t imagine you all necessarily agree with it all. But I hope, we all hope, that you can at least appreciate what we are doing, why we are doing it and what we hope it will achieve.
We can only do this because of our donors and supporters. We’ll keep doing it until you don’t want us to any more.