Think Tank

WHY Scotland Needs THink Tanks

Craig Dalzell – September 30th, 2021

Scotland’s political landscape is in a strange place. On one hand, it clings stubbornly to a Westminster Majority Parliament model where the goal is “winner takes all” and anything short of that is seen as a failure. On the other, there are the merest hints of a more European model of coalition and collegiate politics coming through at least in theory via the current SNP-Green cooperation agreement and a call from the First Minister for more ideas to come to Parliament from outwith Government. This tension is compounded by divides between the political parties that makes it difficult for allies to come together. The decades-long rivalry between the SNP and Labour is driven less by policy differences and more by stance on the constitution and (perhaps more importantly) a tribal rivalry over who gets to control “their” country. Even within the constitutional blocs, Labour and the Tories share little other than their rivalry with the SNP making a “pro-Union” coalition difficult and costly whilst newer pro-independence parties like Alba nip at the heels of the SNP hegemony in a way that is clearly concerning to the larger party despite none of the upstarts coming close to entering Parliament in the May elections.

I think Scotland is still a long way from reaching the kind of political landscape that we see in, for instance, Germany or the Nordic countries where coalition politics is not just normal but expected (not least because the election systems in those examples are much closer to true proportional representation than Scotland is) especially as the barrier to entry for new parties who could carve out new niches in our political landscape is quite high.

Which brings me to a question I’ve often been asked. Given Common Weal’s broad policy base – much broader than many special interest political parties – will Common Weal ever form its own political party? (A less generous phrasing of this question often asserts that our role as a think tank involves “carping from the sidelines” instead of actually taking power.)

My answer is not as simple as a yes or a no. “Never” would close a door that may well prove necessary at some stage should there be both demand and need for a “Common Weal Party” to fill a particular niche. However, to form a such party would obviously present issues for several of our staff members (including myself) and many of our activists and volunteers who are members of extant political parties.

The question is a little more complex than those surface practicalities though. Whenever I’m asked this question my answer general starts by saying “If we did, we’d need a new Common Weal to fill the gap we’d leave behind”. This is because think-tanks themselves fill a vital role in the political landscape beyond the party structure.

One of our core functions is to try to convince various parties to adopt our ideas and polities. We can only do this as a non-party think tank. We’ve become quite good at this and most of the parties of Scotland’s political left have now adopted policies originating from us. (The SNP’s National Investment Bank, the Greens’ Energy Development Agency and Labour’s National Housing Company to name just three policies in the Parties within Parliament at the moment.)

There’s another reason that the kind of thinking (and doing) that we produce is best done outwith the party system. The nature of party politics is compromise. To find agreement through common cause and smoothing over differences, or to “meet in the middle” of positions. This is often a good way to approach negotiations but it cannot achieve the kind of systems’ change that we need to solve some problems like the climate emergency. The Scottish Government talks often and loudly about how it is a “world leader” in climate targets but even if it’s true (and even if those targets are met, Greta Thunberg very correctly pointed out that none of the countries in the Global North are doing enough to solve the problem. The same is true within Scotland. None of the parties in Parliament has fully adopted the kind of plan required to turn Scotland into a net zero, Green New Deal nation by 2045 and therefore it should be obvious that any compromise between any of those plans will itself be insufficient. This is where think tanks can provide the radical solutions that parties can aspire to, adopt and then negotiate from.

The necessity of compromise comes not just from opposition parties however. A Government has to deal with a multitude of other groups who cannot always be ignored or brushed aside. If one wanted to suggest, for example, a radical overhaul of health and social care, it may be that health boards or trade unions object to the plans – in extremis, perhaps even threatening strikes or other reprisals should they be pushed. A plan to completely restructure local government and bring in a system of municipal democracy could receive knee-jerk backlash from current local authorities who might be quite cosy where they are, thanks.

In both cases, those objections could be dealt with over the course of negotiations and compromises as the plans are developed, but if they prove to be too painful a knee-jerk at the mere suggestion, then there is an obvious barrier to Government (or even opposition parties) making it. As  Common Weal doesn’t answer to these bodies, we’re much more free to make those suggestions in the first instance and then to help explain how it would impact the groups involved as the policy is turned from theory into practice. It allows us to keep pushing political parties to be as good and as radical as they can be instead of slipping back to being merely one vote better than their next best rival. This freedom does come at the cost of being far easier to ignore, however. Something that we’re all too accustomed to as well.

Who the Government chooses to listen to and to ignore says a lot about both that Government’s receptiveness to outside advice and who it feels it can get away with ignoring and who it can’t. If a Government comes under too much pressure from the “immovable objects” that prevent it from making changes then there is the risk that it retracts into itself – seeing all opposition as immovable. In those instances Government at its best realises that sometimes governance is about doing the right thing despite opposition rather than shying away because of it. It’s at those moments that principles guide politicians and they are made by their willingness to adhere to those principles or broken by their willingness to discard them.

At its worst though, it can retract into looking for the path of least resistance. Not only avoiding policies that will or even might cause a bad headline but simply avoiding even listening to any of the voices advocating those policies. To listen only to those who provide the easy option instead. Perhaps even to outsource decision-making out to “arms-length” bodies to evade responsibility for the decisions altogether. Perhaps to take on only the opinion of that one lobbyist that they do allow into the room…plus perhaps their golfing partner.

This brings us to the another important role that groups like Common Weal and other third sector organisations play in Scottish democracy – accountability. Our policies might be ignorable by those in power but any critique we make can’t be dismissed on the basis that we’re trying to court voters or win an election. We are luckier than most think-tanks in that we’re accountable to our members and supporters but don’t have to rely on large sponsors or funding bodies to run ourselves – that gives us the flexibility to research what needs to be researched (like our ongoing work to create a blueprint for a National Care Service. If you’d like to help us do that, please do consider signing up as a supporter.

 But, of course, that power of accountability must come with transparency, which is why Common Weal campaigned strongly first for the Scottish lobbying register and the strengthening of it to close clear and present loopholes (such as being able to exempt your lobbying from the register by turning the camera off during your Zoom meeting. It is why we still campaign for the protection and strengthening of Freedom of Information regulations. If you, the voter, cannot see who is talking to Government, you cannot see who is being ignored and who is being listened to.

Think-tanks are a vital part of Scottish democracy and we could certainly do with a few more of them presenting their unique visions for Scotland as they see it. I obviously want to see Common Weal policies enacted in Scotland and I’m encouraged that more than one party out there already agrees with that to at least some extent. I hope that the call for a more collegiate Holyrood can be heeded over the course of this Parliament and that neither Government nor any party in that Parliament has a monopoly of ideas or of authority. There’s power enough in being able to see past tribal loyalties and rivalries to the common purpose and goals that we often feel with each other – even if it means sharing the credit for reaching them.

1 thought on “WHY Scotland Needs THink Tanks”

  1. NO! to forming as a political party for reasons stated and so many more. There are already too many pro indy parties (I have joined one but not with any great conviction) competing for votes (next at local elections in May 22). On a personal/professional level, I have always wanted to share ideas and experiences but not to hold power, have a better salary/bigger office etc. Many folks don’t understand this; like a character in a Raymond Chandler story they wonder “hey mister, what’s your racket”, njwhat are you after?!😂 Party politics is often a morally corrupting process; individuals have been ruined/even driven to suicide by the dirty tactics of their own comrades in the lust for selection/election etc. The future is going to be different from the recent past. The need for a strategic response to Climate change and environmental vandalism which does not also ruin the economy and consign millions to penury classically demonstrates that old models/solutions won’t work. We need fresh thinking, new energy, new ways of collaboration which will more likely come from those of a more youthful age than folks like me! Adapt but please don’t become a political party, the quickest route to closed thinking and self-interest?

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