Activism in the tent

The duty not to be silent

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.

24 thoughts on “The duty not to be silent”

  1. Caroline Crawford

    Thank you for a succinct and open article. I don’t usually respond to articles however I’ve had time to reflect on my long standing relationship with the SNP and it’s reluctance to bare its teeth to the propaganda levelled at Scotland and the government, by Westminster and the main stream media. So much so that I rescinded my membership earlier this year.
    What you said about the Scottish government funding organisations on the understanding they don’t criticise them confirmed my suspicions that they have gone down the same route as the very Westminster parties they accuse of exactly that.
    This is not what I want for Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon has promised an inclusive and progressive independent Scotland and has talked a good talk, but in my opinion no real progress has been made. We are now ‘waiting’ again for the outcome of a Supreme Court ruling which we all know will make no difference to the final outcome . I understand the Scottish Government has to tick all the boxes to be seen in the eyes of the international community that we have tried every legal and political route towards independence. However, as I said in 2014 to those who would listen, Westminster are never going to agree to any amicable arrangement for independence and Scotland will need to declare unilaterally to the world that it has become an independent country once again.
    Meanwhile the work done behind the scenes towards setting up domestic policy is piecemeal and frustrating if your efforts are being ignored, or worse, used in a different capacity for the good of the SNP.
    All I can say is, as a 70 year old pensioner who has been with the party since 1970, enough is enough. Please keep up the work you are doing. It’s useful and needed.
    Thank you Common Weal.

    1. Eugene Crummie

      How do you declare to the world independence with apparently 50% of folk not wanting it? The strategy of a plebiscite election is right, if risky. But an overwhelming result would then mean it would be fair to make such a move. All the boxes have to be ticked to get global support. That includes the Supreme Court and requests to Westminster. Remember, the polls will be taken as evidence globally. Even if we know they are skewed in favour of the Union.

    2. Rhona Anderson

      Hi Caroline
      I have to agree with ever single thing in your reply.
      At the age of 61 I too have cancelled my SNP membership. I have never felt so disheartened by the SNP.
      Common Weal is a breath of fresh air!

  2. John S Warren

    It appears you did not understand the way Scotland has developed its real, functional institutions, over centuries, when it has required to develop a Scottish response to the birth of commercial society and then to the modern world, but without a Scottish Parliament to provide overall representation, or protect the common good (save solely in the narrow British context of Empire, and the exigencies of war). This has left modern Scotland operating in an unresolved British, unitary post-Imperial state that remains locked in a confused quasi-federal system of political Governance that points in two opposite directions simultaneously. Of course there is confusion.

    The point I wish to emphasis in this short comment is not the big constitutional concepts, but the internal Scottish reality; and the need to reflect on the extent to which Scotland in fact functions through large and powerful, effectively independent institutions (I am not thinking solely of commercial corporations – think of medicine, law, education, accountancy, and on and on), without close supervision in Scotland (and a British state that is both indifferent to the close detail north of Carlisle and, from experience, rightly both reluctant or frankly too dangerously ignorant, effectively to contribute): independent institutions that are, in the over-arching Scottish polity, little more than self-perpetuating oligarchies. Institutions that, to all practical intents and purposes, like it just the way it is now. This is quite well hidden from public gaze, or adequate close examination, but it is deep rooted in Scotland’s culture.

    1. John – I’m flat out just now so very little respond time. No argument from me on any of your points here and I write a lot about the empires which exist in Scotland’s non-democratic institutions. Some of that is beyond politics (or at least it exists in long-standing self-governing institutions such as the law), some of it is about political appointments (e.g. quango world) and some of it is about informal networks of wealth (e.g. landowners). But this is only one article and it was specifically about what you do in relation to holding government to account when you’re a left-of-centre think tank and the government isn’t doing a good job but you share a central joint interest. You can be assured that both I and Common Weal will also continue to keep an eye on our institutions too.

      (If anyone can properly explain to me how Scotland’s public inquiry system is quite such a perpetual basketcase, please email me at robin@common.scot because I can’t quite work out what the hell is going on…)


      1. John S Warren

        Dear Robin McAlpine,

        Thank you for your response. I recognise the pressures and do not expect a relpy to this addendum, but merely ask you to reflect on it.
        A ‘Government’ in a devolved Scottish Parliament does not even rise to the level of ‘primus inter pares’ in the elaborate, recondite ritual dance that is Scottish institutional culture in action. Its ‘aye been that way’, but I think you expect too much of the SNP, aside from the fact that it could not avoid the snare of what I term ‘devolved managerialism’, even it had wanted to (even if it walked into it, all shiny naivety, and is not without its inner flaws – the problem here is the concept of ‘Party’ itself*); and now finds its is a trapped fly in a web that Westminster, which holds the power (not least the crown prerogatives in Parlaiment) and purse-strings (and has been doing this as a matter of state realpolitik with considerable accomplishment for over 300 years).

        * Party, as Hume understood almost 300 hundred years ago, is mere faction; and descends from there.

          1. John S Warren

            I am familiar with the ‘subaltern’ narrative; but although it can fit some examples (because of Scotland’s constitutional status), I do not think it is either a full or satisfactory explanation; it just doens’t fit. Scotland has a long history of exploiting itself. Scotland’s elites operate within a Scottish institutional frame that provides them with a high degree of independence from direct oversight by Westminster (ot its elites), and have operated with this quasi-independent status to considerable degree, since 1707.

            The 1707 Union was conducted by Scotland’s elite because, in the new age of commercial Empire, the one institution they felt they could discard for the opportunity presented, without great cost was an institution they had failed to make a success of, did not have the capacity, resources or inclination to invest in, and knew – by unburdening themselves of it for a representation in Westminter, even if only by the ‘crème de la crème’ (the only Scots who had the status, or could afford to establish a political presence in London) – would nevertheless allow them sufficently to guarantee their quasi-independence (where it mattered to feudalists still in transition, and not prepared to compromise or share their power in Scotland), to direct Scotland effectively as they wished through the remaining institutions that were vital to their interests (especially, law, church, banking, education), without any material ‘British’ interference (or interest), save in times of war and in support of Empire, Crown and independent Church; while indulging their real ambition for the future (not directed at any material change or growth within Scotland), but broad participation in a huge, profitable mercantile Empire where they could effectively develop their own rules of self-interested exploitation, and direct Scotland’s stifled energy and ambition there.

    2. A very good point. The late Kenneth Roy was good at highlighting some of these (often interrelated) networks of power and patronage in the incestuous world of establishment Scotland. These networks of unofficial power have been around since the Reformation and nobody scrutinises them. They are the people who combined to ensure Scottish workers in the industrial revolution were paid less than their counterparts in England, the people who collaborated to ensure a miner blacklisted from one pit couldn’t get employment anywhere else. They’ve done some good; they are also the people who, without initially any government support, staved off famine in the Highlands in the 1840s when the potato crop failed. But by and large they are holding Scotland back.

  3. Eugene Crummie

    When I read this it concerns me greatly. I have no doubt that SNP have made mistakes and have compromised principles, in government for 12 years these thing can happen. But the next 18 months are crucial and there is a finishing line in sight. Carping and sniping at the SNP is not going to help. “Wheesht for Indy” has become a negative disparaging term. We either achieve independence or we don’t. If we don’t SNP are finished, and God help us as to who will take over. Independence us over and we will be subject to our neoliberal masters for decades. Sorry but your organisation has no choice but to support without undermining. If you don’t you will only help to put us in a dark dark place. It’s all of nothing, back it or hinder it, up to you.

    1. Eugene,

      Two things. First, government rolls on nontheless. Please (for example) read Nicola’s article about the National Care Service Bill which will be law before that timescale plays out. It’s really bad – do we just shuffle our feet? Some of what is happening now will be very, very hard to untangle and no, it’s not just a few mistakes, its a large number of massive mistakes. And it’s not ‘compromised principles’, it’s ‘privatising the entire next generation of Scotland’s energy for peanuts and leaving the country at the mercy of Big Oil companies forever’.

      Second, I’m afraid there are more than a few of us who do not believe that there is any real chance of an independence referendum in 18 months, and that the ‘plebiscite election’ move is not a realistic strategy for independence. In fact, I think it is in part precisely about stringing people along and keeping them silent for another year and a half. Is there a time, a point, when ‘wheesht for indy’ stops? If we’re sitting here in 2030 and we’re being promised there will be a referendum ‘next year’, should we be quiet until then? And in the meantime government is a process where the right asks, the government gives and the left stays quiet?


      1. Eugene Crummie

        Robin, there is no way Truss will agree to a referendum, unless the courts back it. However, where do you go from there, a plebiscite election is the only way to go. Achieve a large majority and global pressure is in the UK. Support for Sturgeon’s strategy is the only way, it is the only ticket to independence. There was not a realistic chance before this moment, there now is. But, and this is crucial, not backing this means a complete reset, which will be decades to get to the point we’re at now. You might be right, if you are then we are in no worse a position if it fails than to reboot now. But if your wrong, our chance had gone and that would be tragic.

        Sorry, but we have to go with this, and it needs everyone. Wheesht for Indy needs to be a mantra not a disparaging remark. We have a real chance, it is now, and it won’t be easy. Your fight is for the future, either in an independent country or to reset the campaign. It’s not for now as you will only help the cause of the British Establishment.

  4. There is no hindrance here. Information and education in empowering. I hope every SNP supporter is reading Robin’s article and that they think more carefully about the policies they’re supporting. More importantly they need to challenge these policies by having alternatives (Common Weal reading would be a good place to start.)
    Fully understand what you are saying Robin. Common Weal is essential for Scotland’s democracy. I agree so much so that I’m going to raise my monthly contribution.

    (Let me know how I can do this. I know you don’t want to ask for extra money from those who are supporting you but I think there must be an easier way for those who wish to!)

  5. Please keep doing what you are doing which is writing from a position of integrity. It saddens me that much of your excellent ideas are ignored or worse, cynically rubbished by Scot Gov. It also saddens me that you are all doing this on a low salary when you could easily have a better material reward if you did something else. On the specifics of indy my view now is that:
    1. For whatever reason (s) there will Not be an indy ref 2 on 19.10.23;
    2. There will be no real movement on indy until at least 12/18 months after the next UK GE, whenever that is;
    3. MSPs, Ministers, Cabinet Secretaries, FM, special advisers etc will continue to enjoy their publicly funded material lifestyles until May 2026 Holyrood elections; they will continue to sit for less than 40 part time weeks per year; the Scottish Greens will continue to enjoy political influence disproportionately to their actual electoral support; the Nicola Sturgeon personality cult will end before May 2026 and the SNP will achieve ??
    Nil desperandum.

  6. Bang on Robin. I criticised you unfairly 5 years ago. I realised soon after you had information that I had not and that I was wrong and that things in general were badly wrong. Commonweal’s work is appreciated by me.

    Your criticism and the criticism of others of the Scottish government is absolutely vital for our ‘dream not to die’.

    It saddens me that folk cannae see it yet.

    Scotland is in a terrible state, wake up.

  7. John Stewart

    When The National first started, it advertised itself as going to hold power to account.
    They were very forthright about that, no matter who the government would be.
    Perhaps if they had held to that, ‘speaking truth to power’, perhaps there might be more now questioning why we’re in the place that we are.

    Wheesht For Indy has been a disaster. Having discussions and disagreements does not make people enemies. Closing your mind to what’s around you makes you out of touch. Good people who are shunned are a big loss to all of us.

    The Referendum campaign was such a success (notwithstanding the final result) very much because we were all different, with different ideas. United in our desire for Independence. That spirit of common purpose is necessary to any future campaign.

  8. Eugene Crummie

    What about “Powder dry for Indy” ? Two years make or break? The political landscape will be unrecognisable in an independent Scotland. Have it out once we’re free. We lose this chance, none of us will see it! Please, it us that simple!

  9. florian albert

    Immediately after the 2014referendum, the SNP made it clear that it had no interest in co-operating with left-wing nationalists in a ‘Yes Coalition.’ The SNP was gambling that it was strong enough to do without the left and that the left, on its own, would flounder.
    Eight years on, the gamble has worked.
    Common Weal may have produced many ‘positive ideas’ but it has failed to make the political weather. How many of its ideas have entered the consciousness of voters ?
    If Common Weal is to succeed, with existing political parties ignoring it, the only way is through electoral politics – creating a new party. That is far from a guarantee of success but it is the only way for Common Weal to escape from where it is now.

  10. Liberal Nationalism ( in contrast with populist demagoguery) is by its very political nature offering a highly pluralist ideological movement. Indeed its support and polity is quite promiscuous pulling together an inordinate variety of political identities.
    I have seen (and in some cases participated in) a variety of nationalist movements in newly independent states and have discovered, often dangerously, the intensley delibitating outcomes when the various tendencies seek hegemony.
    In the most extreme case 14 leading cadres of the ruling party were gunned down by a Stalinist faction from within the same ruling party. What had started as ideological alternatives based on criticism of the pace of change boiled over into a fatal split.( Grenada 2004)
    Another example of debilitating divisionism within a quite progressive nationalist regime was Jamaica 1980. The ruling People’s National Party of Michael Manley found itself facing substantial criticism from forces once loyal ;
    indeed from think tanks with whom the GOVT had earlier garnered much intellectual support. Persistent drips of insidious attacks often disguised as ‘ progressive’ meant that when elections were called the nationalists were routed by hostile reactionary oppositions financed from overseas state funds. 1500 people were killed during the election. Undoubtedly the ‘ critical support ‘ provided by forces objectively in line with the Manley regime undermined the outcome of the election.
    In the face of quite vociferous anti Gov mainstream media, the formation of alternative nationalisms, and a hostile state vigorously promoting its own form of arrogant aggressive
    populous nationalism, critical voices within the promicuous liberal nationalist movement are too easily amplified into widespread propaganda that weakens, distracts and ultimately damages the potential of the mainstream nationalist movement.

  11. Andrew Currie

    Better to be a hungry wolf than compliment, kennel fed dogs (NGOs, Quangos, press).
    Stay the course.
    Winter is coming and the fuedal Herd are getting nervous.
    Scotland is a prey rich environment.

  12. Andrew Currie

    Better to be a hungry wolf than complient, kennel fed dogs (NGOs, Quangos, press).
    Stay the course.
    Winter is coming and the fuedal Herd are getting nervous.
    Scotland is a prey rich environment.

  13. Bill Kerr-smith

    Well said, Robin, please keep saying it. The SNP itself is destroying its credibility to a far greater extent than anything that Common Weal is doing. By ignoring the wishes of its members, constraining members’ ability to criticise party policy and by abandoning policy development to the private sector interests epitomised by the Charlotte Street Partners, it prevents itself from learning from the people who actually have its best interests at heart. Running the party along the lines of the Chinese Communist party has not improved government policy or competence one iota. Informed criticism is the bedrock necessary to create the impetus for improvement. One of your commentators above asked for a way to increase monthly contributions. I second that motion. I am currently a member of the Green party but I feel they are increasingly losing the focus that attracted me in the first place. I will happily re-direct my monthly fees to Common Weal.

  14. Cathy Sengupta

    Much if what is written here is actually depression inducing. For myself, having watched and waited for Scotland to be independent from the early years of rising popularity for indy, I was ever hopeful. Having wavered often as we time-travelled through the years, desperately seeking solice in political influencers with strength of character and intellectual ability to take us there, never honestly thought it would be so frustratingly difficult to get sufficient numbers of fellow Scots on board.
    Why is this? I can think of many reasons but to my mind we need to appeal to “a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns”. Stop trying to influence government because they are a lost cause. Instead, turn your attention to the masses. We need Independence first and foremost. Then we can choose who we think is worthy of government. To achieve that, we need voters to feel wanted rather than needed. People really have to identify with the qualities that Independence would bring, to know they can be a part of the process and to leave a legacy to be proud of, to future generations.
    I am fed-up having all the negative information about today’s useless politicians spun into the tangled mess of conspiratorial corruptness and regurgitated by spineless “journalists” and “broadcasters”. Let’s change things to make life better for the rest of us.
    What better than to come up with something in print, transportable to social media, to get the prospective Scottish voters thinking? How about a Scottish version of Private Eye? A bit of intelligent, informative sarcastic lampooning gets people’s attention, maybe even laughing and talking. Better that than sitting around glumly feeding the Black Dog.

  15. I read your summaries and weep because I know they are a true and fair assessment. If only there were a left of centre, independence supporting party in place! I would vote for the Common Weal party but I know that you are not politicians and all the better for it. These are very frustrating times and it makes it very hard to defend being an independence supporter with those who don’t understand it’s not really about the SNP, but it is in a very immediate sense and there’s the rub!

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