The positivity balance

Robin McAlpine

Last week a comment at the bottom of the Common Weal website suggested I’d been too negative in my means of criticising growth theory. In a sentiment I entirely understand, the commenter gets negativity everywhere and the Common Weal newsletter is usually a little injection of positivity. We all need that right now.

But where is the line between trying to inject positivity and drifting in to sheer denialism? And what are we to do if we find ourselves on the other side of this line? Like a moth to a flame, let me return one more time to this perennial subject.

It doesn’t matter whether you ask me in terms of my personal disposition, in terms of my understanding of political strategy, in terms of readings of basic neurology, in terms of moral philosophy; in every case I will offer you the same response – there is incredible power in positivity. I’ve seen it. I’ve sat in a room of despair and watched a single person lift the entire place through a determined burst of seeing the bright side.

Or, in the instance I first thought of, giving us a firm kick up the arse to remind us how close we were to the place we wanted to be. (It was a dressing room at half time in a game we needed to win but were losing narrowly – we had thrown everything at it and weren’t winning. Our coach gave us an inspiring bollocking, explaining that we hadn’t even thrown half of what we had at the game and we were nearly ahead. We won the game.)

If the room is down in the dumps, it won’t get anything done. It’ll mope and moan. If you want to get something done, someone has to lift the room. I have made it a personal mission to be that person when I need to be. And that stretches into the metaphorical room that is Scotland. It is why I set up Common Weal in the first place. Solutions, not moans. That was what we intended, that was what we did.

Now let me tell you another story; I was (tangentially) involved in a project many moons ago. It was the development of a campaign that had some very serious money behind it. The campaign launch was being organised by a marketing manager. She was absolutely brimming over with neon-coloured bubbling optimism. “This is going to be BIG” she said, making the word big feel actually big.

It had everyone in the room leaning in and getting excited – and it failed. It failed because the campaign itself was beset by fundamental problems, fundamental internal contradictions. There was not enough ‘spine’ in the campaign plan to allow it to both grown big and stay on its feet. It sunk.

I was but a youngster and all this was above my pay grade, but I could still see a whole bunch of difficult questions that no-one was asking. I am pretty sure others in the room must have left, got over the hype and realised they had quite a lot of questions too. But those questions never got asked.

Pretending things are good when they’re not is a pretty reliable way to make them stay bad. The power of positivity is genuine, important and necessary for change. Yet all the big mistakes come from too much positivity, not too little. Walls don’t fall down because of the bricks that are in the right place but because of the ones that are in the wrong place.

So let me return to the question again – in this moment, as of all-but April 2024, what do we need, a big voice saying ‘we can do this‘ or a wee voice saying ‘not like that you can’t’? I know its miserable out there, I know the world seems grim, but right now I’m damned if I can see where to place my positive reinforcement.

Let me give you an example of the problem. One of the catechisms of the contemporary independence movement is about how hard the Scottish Government has tried to mitigate the worst of Westminster. Tax, child payment, all that stuff. Why don’t you praise it more Robin?

I’ll tell you why – because of Council Tax freezes, refusal to back a windfall tax on the oil and gas industry, freeport tax breaks, slashed affordable housing budgets, PFI for Trees and big cuts to community health initiatives. If you add up the tax breaks and spending cuts contained in all of that and you sum it up it turns out bigger than the money spent on the Scottish Child Payment.

And see every one of those cuts or redistributions? It either takes from the poor or gives to the very wealthiest – or both. Frankly if I was just being coldly cynical I could easily argue that they have assiduously clawed back every penny they put anywhere near a poor person – and given it to a rich person.

What do we do with this information? How do we respond? Should we pretend the negative half of the balance sheet isn’t there so that we can show some positivity and say something nice about the positive half of the balance sheet? Even when they’re already out of balance?

Or what about the idea that ‘the Scottish Government means well so our job is to try and help them be better’. What if you’ve tried that, a lot? We engaged fully and enthusiastically with two rounds of ‘land reform’ legislation over the last decade. Both pieces of legislation were weak, and we tried to strengthen both. We failed.

In the same ten years, land ownership in Scotland has actually concentrated further. There are fewer people owning Scotland’s land after this was done than before. Now there is a third round of land reform legislation (in ten years, mind), and it too is so shot through with loopholes, the chances are it won’t work either. We’re remaining fully engaged, but there is little sign much will change.

Like with the National Care Service legislation. No-one but no-one could possibly accuse us of not being constructive or positive here. In fact everyone but everyone recognises the power of the vision we contributed. Almost everyone commenting or engaging with this policy cites our work. 

Except the Scottish Government. The Government’s proposals met virtually universal opposition to the extent that care service providers were going to boycott the whole process to try and make it stop. Left with no choice, the Scottish Government paused – but then continued to ignore almost everything everyone was telling them and reintroduced precisely the same legislation again without so much as an amendment.

What response can possibly be made to that? Smiley faces? I’ve just been through this in another bit of legislation. I will withhold info on what it is because we pursued the work through a coalition and I certainly don’t want to criticise partner organisations. After six years of relentless campaigning we got legislation – and it was weak as dishwater.

Most of the coalition partners wanted to say as much, but a small number wanted to take the positive reinforcement route, convinced that if we said nice things about the overarching legislation we would have more influence over implementation. I warned instead that we’d lose all our leverage – but I lost. So we smilingly welcomed legislation none of us actually welcomed.

A few months later it was clear we’d been more or less shut out of the implementation process and that the whole thing was a farce. People wanted to turn the heat up at this stage, except we had welcomed all this with open arms. We had no leverage. Everyone ignored us. Nothing happened, nothing changed. We all but wasted six years.

What if I contest the suggestion that we’re in a situation where we have a government striving to do the kinds of things Common Weal wants to see done? What if the evidence clearly suggests I’m right? What if, over and over, people have attempted constructive engagement and positive reinforcement and it was banked by the government and we got nothing much in return? What if good intentions aren’t enough?

And what if this continues on into a crisis, the crisis we’re about to go through? What if young people are going to get more and more disillusioned by politics as we slash the affordable housing budget, walk away from our commitments on climate change and stand alone in Britain to oppose a windfall tax on profiteering oil companies?

What if poor people correctly realise that a wealthy-person-baiting Council Tax freeze is going to devastate the public services they rely on? What if those who believe that Scotland’s land ownership patterns are a national disgrace show goodwill to yet another round of legislation and end up with yet another round of obfuscation and failure to actually do anything much?

At what point does positivity become toxic? You see, for my money we sailed past that moment a while ago. Policy is not being made well, big ideas are not being absorbed or enacted, cynical electoral bribery and the corrosive power of corporate lobbying still shapes policy much more than progressive organisations like Common Weal

How much longer can we all be expected to smile through gritted teeth and say ‘look, they mean well – just keep smiling and hope for the best’? It doesn’t appear to be working. Sometimes it’s not about good faith or good intentions, its about facts on the ground.

Common Weal continues, day after day, to seek solutions. We’re soon going to issue a paper on how to implement a land tax. The likelihood is we’ll be ignored on our thoughts on a land tax and it won’t actually happen because it involves reforming the Council Tax and challenging big landowners.

We’ve been trying this for a decade and we still will. Our policy work is solutions-focussed. But asking us to look at the world around right now and draw positive conclusions? Or expecting us to change this state of affairs through positivity alone?

If I thought it would work I would do it. We tried. It didn’t. If Common Weal has become more negative, that is because Scotland has become less optimistic. Scotland’s problem right now is the circumstances that drained the optimism, circumstances that remain in place. There is no way round it – we need to talk about them honestly.

12 thoughts on “The positivity balance”

  1. och och Robin,like many many folk we know how you feel.Lifetimes spent trying to influence in positive directions policy
    in our so-called ‘democratic’process ,so heavily weighted in favour of those already with power ,wealth and all the help going to them, aided by by the governments,gov.bodies,councils ,the law,privately run utilities….we could go on.My reaction alas is no longer to engage or even bother voting, except perhaps for you Robin,Tommy Sheridan and Caroline Lucas…

    1. Robin McAlpine

      There’s a crisis in democracy but underlying it is a crisis in political economy. There is too much focus on ‘the party system’, flawed as it is. There is not enough focus on what is driving the gap between what the political parties say and what they do. That gap is largely explained by the underlying political economy. They say they’re on the side of ‘the people’ but the means of organising policy states that they must actually be on the side of ‘wealth creators’. The trick was to persuade everyone that these two groups of people have converging interests. That wasn’t true, and it has taken us to where we are. Changing the politicians without changing the politics will not get us far. In fact my big hopes no longer lie in ‘saviours’ but ‘water carriers’. It is no longer my view that the one visionary leader is every going to solve our problems. We need leaders who carry ideas into power and engage seriously with ideas. No party does that – they all live in a bubble of their own. We need to open up, not just replace.


  2. Alasdair Macdonald

    Thanks for responding as you have done.

    I am not looking for the closing scene of the Life of Brian, funny and poignant as it is.

    It is worthy of note that you have used the term ‘sheer denialism’. This is an example of exaggerated polarising used routinely in much media discourse, that irritates me. I prefer nuanced accuracy.

    Mentally and emotionally, I can cope with listing the bad aspects of a situation, but articles which are unrelievedly gloomy and pessimistic cause me to lose interest. What is the point of such articles? I want some suggestions about what might be done. And I can cope with a discussion of the pros and cons.

    Before the War, my mother had a friend, Bella. Bella lived on the edge of poverty much of her life and her husband was not the most reliable of people as she struggled to feed and clothe her five weans. And, sometimes things would get on top of her and my mother would find her in tears. She would listen as Bella described the latest thing that had befallen her and eventually, having got it off her chest, Bella would say, “Ach, Rachel, therr wur worse losses at Culloden. C’moan and we’ll huv a cup o tea.” She would then get on with her life. Things did improve for her. She did not live a life of luxury and lotus eating, but life became more comfortable for her and she was able to enjoy her grandweans.

    1. Robin McAlpine

      I say ‘moth to flame’ in the piece precisely because this is always the line I try to walk and be balanced on. I am not loving the world as it is right now and struggle to find positivity in what I can see ahead of me. I want that not to be true, but just now I believe it is. In a total Mulder kind of way, I want to believe again. But how do I get to that place?

      Let me take your point here – is ‘sheer denialism’ an extreme statement? Well let me make the case that it isn’t. The issues I’ve picked in this article are very specific. There are dozens of things going wrong I could have picked. I deliberately picked a small handful of issues for a reason – these are the ‘no excuses’ issues. If I’d picked say education then we get into a lot of whataboutery about poverty and funding envelopes. If I’d picked the Health Service people would be pointing to the UK and shouting ‘worse!’. Neither of those stances would be sheer denialism. But introducing a Council Tax freeze or failing to reform land is 100 per cent the responsibility of government in Scotland. I’ll happily engaged in a nuanced debate about health, or even ScotWind (doing that properly wasn’t exactly nail-home easy, not that that justifies the mess made of it). But not Council Tax freeze or failure on land reform. To claim there is some external factor preventing the Scottish Government from doing the right thing really IS sheer denialism. That’ my point and it isn’t overstated.

      Meanwhile let me follow you back to the pre-war era of Bella. What mad the difference for Bella? it was probably the establishment of the NHS and the expansion of high-quality council housing. So why did those happen? The war was a driver, but the plans for solving this were largely developed before that. So where did they come from? They came from a wealth of Victorian philanthropist work documenting the experience of poverty in Britain. I’ve read extracts and there ain’t no ‘but on the bright side’ in most of these. Horror at the unvarnished reality of things was the driver that gave momentum to the positive, solution-focussed post-war policy agenda.

      That’s the debate I want to have. If we look closely, harshly at where we are, is there a lot of bright side? Is this a Beveridge moment where we devise plans? Or is this a Henry Mayhew* moment of shouting the alarm? My view is that we have departed so far from the optimism and possibility of 2014 and have strayed well into ‘alarm bells’. What I’m asking is whether we can really shrug off our domestic responsibility for this. That’s what we’ve been doing for a decade – it’s all the Tories… But it isn’t all the Tories. We could have reformed Council Tax any time. We could have introduced a land tax any time. We could have done so, so much. Common Weal has set out. And yet after two fake attempts it has taken nearly a decade to act on say Rent Controls (which we published a paper on in conjunction with Living Rent many years ago).

      I’m now heading for cheerio coffee and cake with Nicola who leaves us today. We’re all really sad, but a young person can’t really afford to live in a house on a Common Weal salary if they are a single income. Now she needs to take a job to make money. We IN SCOTLAND could have made this different. My point is we’ve been telling people like Nicola to look at the bright side for a decade now. That’s why they’re pissed off. And they ARE pissed off. I believe it’s time to say it.


      1. Alasdair Macdonald

        Notwithstanding what you say about the benefits large numbers of people gained from the post war settlement, the war itself empowered a lot of women. With increasing numbers of men mobilised, women filled the gaps in employment and to a large extent, kept the home fires burning. My mother was a highly trained cook, but, being a woman could not be called a chef, but she became, in effect, the head chef of a popular Glasgow restaurant. Bella was one of the cleaners. My mother brought her into the kitchen. She learned skills, she worked more hours and, socially, she met a wider range of women. She was an intelligent person, but left school at 12 because of economic necessity. Now, she had a steady job, a steady income and had time to read and self educate. After the war, the ‘marriage bar’ was reimposed and many women lost their jobs or their seniority. But, for 6 years they had shown what they could do and they made sure their daughters would be able to assert themselves. The general growth in the world economy throughout the 50s and 60s needed more women in the workplace and the advent of ‘the pill’ gave women control over their fertility.

  3. Unerringly, nail, head, hit! If I had one wish it would be that all the nonpolitical party independence groups would get together, agree a common set of principles and unify as a single group. That unity would ferret out the idiocy that damages the SNP in independence supporters and undecided people alike. Independence needs a leader and that will only happen through discussion and agreement. Political “festivals” seem the current way to go, so why not find a way to have the leaders of the various independence groups, you know them better than me, in a room and thrash out the common areas for an “independence festival”. Independence will happen!

    1. Robin McAlpine

      Let me tell you an old programmer’s joke. Two computer programmers look and say ‘this is mad, there are 14 competing file formats for graphics and it makes the internet a mess, so let’s build a single, unifying file format’. And thus there were 15 graphic file formats…

      I was approached again recently by someone who wanted to do something not totally dissimilar to what you propose here. That was me up to, I think, seven or eight initiatives of the same sort I’ve spoken with. We’re uniting by fragmenting. Why? Because the non-party movement doesn’t have the scale, authority, recognition or internal communication capacity to make decisions on its own. And the party political part of the movement shows no signs of wanting that to change – or more accurately, letting that change. Like it or not the political parties remain the gatekeepers to independence and everyone who has tried to tunnel under the gate has failed.

      It is now my belief that we can only unify when those with most power in the movement no longer see their interests as lying in division. Right now I feel like I’ve wasted ten years of my life on trying to create ‘structures of unity’ in the independence movement. I started trying to do this in October 2014 and I will jump at any chance to do that in the future if it emerges. I’m watching with an eagle eye, waiting for that moment…


  4. Ian Davidson

    Positivity of individuals and small groups with defined, achievable goals (eg a sports team) is one thing; mass politics in a complex, unequal society quite another. There is also the question of good/bad faith. I supported SNP from 1980 for just under forty years, when the party was nowhere electorally. However I gave up on the SNP when they were popular with just about everybody! Why? Because morally (yes morally not politically) I could no longer honestly vote for politicians who were acting in bad faith; who were ignoring my personal pleas to sort out health/care issues long before the current disaster; who exploited the covid crisis for political and personal ends; who talked about indy but did little to achieve it; who criticised Tory/Lab policies but voted with Tories when expedient in Holyrood. Likewise I would not vote for the Greens because they have morphed from their original raison d etre to pursue a whole range of bizarre social issues which they have zero political mandate for.
    On a world level, I have always tried to be “positive” about the Middle East and studiously avoided the default position of “Palestine good, Israel bad” on which many scottish left wing political careers and dynasties have been formed over many decades. However, based on what has actually happened in the past six months, again, morally, I have had to utterly revise my view. No amount of Palestinian “positivity” can change the facts of genocide and the culpability of a good part of Israeli society plus politicians in US, Europe and UK.
    So, yes to positivity; yes to making our immediate world as good as it can be for ourselves and others via right action and speech. But no to optimism-bias, to denial of facts, to twisting words, to the world of spin and PR. No to being positive with people who lack moral integrity and may wish you/me harm. Be clever enough to know the difference?

  5. Bill Kerr-Smith

    The problem with the Scottish government is that the pool from which they draw Ministers is constrained to the elected MSPs. The majority of those proposed as candidates (and then elected) for MSP are people who have been party members for a very long time and have been selected on the basis of loyalty and longevity, rather than competence. It is little wonder that so many of the SNP Ministers and Cabinet members are, at best, of average competence, which severely limits the possibility of any of them delivering exceptional results in whatever portfolio they happen to be responsible for. Is there a regulation or law that states that Ministers have to be chosen from the available MSPs? Not that I’m at all confident that the First Minister would pick a stellar team, even if he had the whole of Scotland to choose from, but at least it would increase the possibility of Ministers being chosen for ability, rather than tribalism. It might also make MSPs up their game if they knew that outsiders could be chosen.

    1. Ian Davidson

      Bill. Here’s another kite to fly which I have raised with a number of politicians in various parties with almost zero response. Why oh why did the Scottish Opposition parties not approach SNP at start of Covid and insist on an emergency coalition Cabinet as the basis for full cooperation with this public health emergency? At that time, SNP was effectively a minority administration and would have been awkward to refuse such an overture? This would have avoided all the nonsense about “St Nicola” and ensured more accountability/transparency; perhaps we might have had a better covid response overall throughout Scottish society? I suspect that it was political cowardice; better to let SNP carry the can and then slag them off later than be a participant in life and death decisions? The Greens were the most silent party during covid, I have my own theories about that but perhaps best left unsaid? But happy to form a cynical coalition after 2021 elections, hence why we now have a zombie administration/Holyrood until 2026 when it clearly needs a refresh now? In summary, whilst I remain committed to indy, I feel that SNP have let us down badly. However, other parties have also messed up and it leaves me very frustrated after the first 25 years of devolution. What next?

  6. florian albert

    What Robin McAlpine is writing about is political power. In Scotland, the SNP has a near monopoly over it. As a result, it can, and does, ignore Common Weal and everybody else if it chooses. Equally, it can indulge groups like the Greens, if it chooses.
    In 2024, a decade after the Indyref, it is only too clear, how poorly the SNP has used this political power during that time.
    Nicola Sturgeon’s undoubted presentational skills hid this failure for most of that time. In this she was abetted by a large section of the Scottish population which wanted to believe that radical change, which would leave them untouched, (was being pursued, when the evidence for this was minimal.
    The core question facing independence supporters is how to respond to this failure. Many of the best know faces respond by denying there is a problem – admitting there is one calls their longstanding loyalty to the SNP into question.
    The near certainty is that, for independence supporters, things will get worse before they get better. Looked at from every angle, the SNP is in poor shape. This matters because it remains central to the independence cause. Alba has shown how difficult it is to start an alternative political party, even with a well known figurehead.
    There are times when the best response is to accept that the negativity being experienced is deserved and start from there. That is where the SNP – and, of course, the Tories at Westminster – is right now. Pretending that things are, just about, OK is far more damaging.

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