Audience at the Sorted book launch 3rd December 2022

Unity really is possible

Robin McAlpine – 9 December 2022

I wish you could have all been at the book launch on Saturday. It was a lovely venue, a great turnout and a really positive buzz. It helped us to realise that one of the regular ‘truisms’ of Scotland just now really might not be as true as all that – division is not inevitable.

Or at least division among fellow travellers may not be inevitable. Despite all the doom and gloom you get from a lot of commentary about Scotland just now there really does seem to be a very significant desire for, if not unity, then at least common cause. That desire stretches out in many directions.

The many climate change and environmental bodies in Scotland are increasingly collaborating and increasingly seeing the need for greater collective organising. There had been a wee bit of a tendency to stick to ‘my campaign, my solution’, but there seems to be constantly increasing recognition that none of us can achieve what we need to alone.

It is telling that a surprisingly wide range of what I’ll very loosely refer to as ‘organisations interested in decentralisation’ are identifying exactly the same problems just now. They’re dominated by local community groups who don’t have access to the power they need to get things done but also include democratic reform campaigners, land reform campaigners, activists in areas such as elderly loneliness and many more.

I have picked up a kind of increasing militancy from the arts sector too, a sense that there is a much better version of Scotland where they are better supported, better funded, and better promoted.

Trade unionists aren’t just campaigning for pay, they are also campaigning to protect the public services in which they work. The Enough is Enough! campaign isn’t a narrow employee-focussed campaign but a much wider social campaign about the importance of the public realm to ordinary people, a sort of reclaiming of the question of what really matters to society.

Poverty campaigners, health campaigners, public transport campaigners, Freedom of Information campaigners and many, many more are all circling the same kinds of issues. The things they are talking about keep crossing over. The vision of what they are pursuing is surprisingly consistent.

But if we are talking about division versus unity, it doesn’t take long to arrive at the subject of the independence movement. Here we can all agree that the divisions are pervasive and insurmountable, can’t we?

Except I disagree. I’ve always disagreed. I’m not kidding myself on that there isn’t hostility and ill feeling between many different strands of the independence movement. Up to that point I’d certainly accept that traces of it can be found all over the movement. But I haven’t found it to be pervasive – or, rather where I have found it pervasive it has been about a single specific thing.

That is not the ‘Alex vs Nicola’ show, and it isn’t the Gender Reform Act. Both of those issues have combatants who are daggers drawn, but both involve many, many fewer people than those who wish these two issues could just be resolved so we can move forward.

Where there really has been a split in the independence movement is over strategy, over whether waiting for things to come down from above was working or not (to put it very loosely). But again, with a few exceptions this is not the kind of disagreement which ends relationships, it’s just a disagreement about how to do things.

When we talk about ‘the movement’ we still talk far too much in terms of the payroll, professional politickers, people who are very active on social media. That really isn’t ‘the movement’. The people I know who are the grassroots are all desperate for something to unite us again. The questions is what? What can unite us again?

What can unite us all? What can unite all these causes? Can it be done? To start to answer that question we can begin by looking at what it is that everyone is campaigning for to look for crossovers. If we do we will find a pretty small number of pretty big issues which they all share. 

Almost all are about the redistribution of power, the redistribution of wealth, an unwillingness to accept social failure and the merits of decentralisation, transparency and mutuality.

That’s why I’m optimistic. When a trade unionist wants to see members having more say in how public services are governed, a local community group wants more say in how their town is developed and a Freedom of Information campaigner wants more information on the things government is doing, they are all asking for a redistribution of power.

When poverty and health campaigners, trade unionists and land reformers all speak, they are all calling for the redistribution of wealth. All of them want to see the importance of public services prioritised over the asset-stripping approach being taken as economic policy in Scotland. All of them think that proper collective working can deliver more than the top-down way Scotland works.

That coalition of interests is complicated – there are climate change campaigners who don’t support independence, local community groups that haven’t got a strong view on what should be done about climate change, trade unionists who don’t want to see reform of local government. We don’t have a set of perfectly-aligned issues which just fit together like a jigsaw.

But we can work to align these issues. We can create a ‘Venn diagram of change’ which captures a great majority of the people I’ve been writing about above in a single space, a single programme for action. That vision can create unity where it doesn’t currently feel like it exists.

Which brings us back to the launch of Sorted at the weekend. That is what Common Weal has been trying so hard to do for the last year and a half. It has always been our belief that more can be achieved through unity than division. We also believe that you can’t achieve true unity based on discipline or control.

Instead we believe that unity happens when people have a shared vision, a common cause, something they can believe in together. It is the belief that each of our issues are part of a bigger whole, elements in a bigger picture, which connects people to common cause. I don’t stand with the naysayers who believe such a thing is impossible.

But it will be challenged. Be it politicians or landowners, corporations or senior managers, those who currently have wealth and power will probably not give it up without a fight. They will certainly prefer a population disunited in inaction than a population united in a desire for change. But we can choose not to be that.

Sorted is Common Weal’s contribution to developing a vision which can unite us all. The launch event brought out an audience which ranged from babies to people in their 80s. We had lots of young activists, and lots of old ones. It was a great mix, and it is telling that everyone I spoke to was as desperate for some kind of unity as I am.

It is possible. The interests of a small business owner, the interests of a low-income pensioner, the interests of a disempowered local community, the interests of a nurse or a teacher or a student, the interests of a 20-something who can’t get a secure home, the interests of campaigners who want to save our environment – they all share an awful lot in common. We just need to be better at finding it.

Saturday was really lovely. The venue was just great and the atmosphere left every single on of us in the team on a high. So are we probably imagining the possibility of unity and togetherness based on our own excitement rather than what is actually possible?

I don’t think so. Let’s put it like this, one of our team members has an older family member who is a No voter who is sceptical about all that ‘Extinction Rebellion’ stuff. That’s where this all falls down, isn’t it? It’s only activists who think and feel the things above.

Well, he read the coverage on Sunday and said ‘but I agree with all of this’.

So whomever told you unity was impossible, disregard them. It is always possible if we try hard enough. For that 18 months Common Weal has tried hard, and under those twinkling lights last Saturday, it really did feel possible. 

5 thoughts on “Unity really is possible”

  1. A Venn diagram of change…

    Bravo Mr McAlpine, these words provide a vision that encapsulates the common purpose running through all the disparate groups and organizations we need to unite.

    My maths teacher would’ve been well impressed!

  2. Thanks to everyone at Common Weal for years of imagination, creativity, wisdom and sheer hard work charting the way ahead which can unite us. A special mention for Robin for his dogged determination to surmount all obstacles and setbacks. His indefatigability is infectious!!

  3. Gordon Shanks

    The amazing possibilities for change in an Independent Scotland is what we have to convince people of. I think the most important thing the Yes movement can do is get behind a robust marketing campaign. Agree on the 3 (or 4 of 5) moist persuasive arguments for independence and pool our resources and ideas to promote these in every way possible (Professional Video clip for each point, podcasts, leaflets, any interaction with MSM, social media, speaker opportunities etc.)
    For each key selling point we need to focus on three things – What is wrong with the status quo that needs to be changed. Why is it important this is done. How could it be different in an independent Scotland. The How part can be a vision of the possibilities rather than saying this is how it will be – more of an inspiring vision.
    The Scottish Psyche needs to be saturated with these key points over the next few months/year keeping the message simple and clear. Anything else can be sorted out once we are independent.

  4. florian albert

    ‘Trade unionists aren’t just campaigning for pay, they are also campaigning to protect the public services’

    Sadly, the evidence suggests the contrary. Middle class public sector workers have comparatively strong unions. There is little record of doctors, nurses or teachers striking in the interests of cleaners or of catering staff.
    Only this week, the leader of the SSTA, teachers’ union, came out against a SNP government proposal to favour younger, lower paid teachers in the resolution of the present teachers’ pay dispute.
    Middle class trade unionists are campaigning to protect their own (comparatively) privileged position in our unequal society. The middle class domination of so much of the Scottish left leads to an unwillingness to accept this. In turn, it creates a left that the working class is switched off from.

    1. Gordon Andrew West

      Just came across this comment and, though 3 weeks late, felt a response was necessary.
      The teachers’ unions had all rejected a flat rate 5% pay offer and, after much chatter about the government working hard to enable an improved offer, a new offer that averaged…wait for it….5.07%, was presented. However, to allow the BBC and others to be able to present this almost identical offer as a big improvement, the offer reduced what had previously been offered to headteachers and depute head teachers to enable the initial pay rung, where all teachers start during their probation year, to be increased by 6.85%. Thereafter the media dutifully portrays the ‘improved offer’ as being worth up to 6.85%. The SSTA were absolutely right to see this ‘improved offer’ as nothing more that a PR stunt and not as a serious attempt to resolve the dispute.
      In terms of the teachers’ dispute being more than just about pay, I think it is worth noting that many secondary schools are now struggling to fill vacancies due to insufficient new graduates being attracted into the profession at the same time as significant numbers of current teachers are choosing to seek better paying jobs in industry. If we want to have decent state education for the vast bulk of our children who will not attend private schools, we need to be willing to pay for it.

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