Robin McAlpine – 4th August 2022
Are you excited? Optimistic? Looking forward to the future? Are you seeing, hearing and reading things that make you think that the next 20 years could be a golden age of human civilisation?
Well here’s a different question. We’re really lucky in Scotland, resource-rich and with the foundations of a modern, advanced economy. We have well-developed public infrastructure and decent public services. So what about Scotland’s future? That ought to be optimistic. Is that what you’re feeling?
OK, we’re stuck in a clearly dysfunctional UK which quite severely limits our ability to do good things in Scotland. But we’re still free enough in our minds to imagine better, so the case for what we could do in and with an independent Scotland – surely that must get you excited?
Sadly, I’ve been talking to a lot of people of late and their answers to these questions are nope, nope and nope. The world is a bit scary right now and how it gets better isn’t immediately obvious. The UK is clearly in a mess and there is little real hope around.
And in Scotland the official story of what independence is for has boiled down to “put all the levers of power into the hands of the Scottish Government at Holyrood” (according to a current Yes.scot leaflet). What is that Scottish Government planning to do with it? We have currently got the outcomes of two commissions to guide us – the Sustainable Growth Commission and the Social Justice Commission.
Between them the future that is predicted is to be pretty much the same as the present. A bit worse here (the Growth Commission’s return to austerity), the hint that just mibby it might get slightly better there (the Social Justice Commission’s list of very modest reforms which it thinks might be worth considering at some point).
These are all pretty dismal reasons to get out of your bed in the morning. Is this really the best our civilisation can do? The best our society can do? The best our politics can do?
Here at Common Weal we’d like to think not. We’d like to think that, with a bit of ingenuity and wit, a dash of courage and a lot of solid work, it is perfectly possible to imagine a future that is, well, exciting. Something that would motivate you to go out and fight for it (metaphorically).
Surely that’s the point? One of my favourite fragments of poetry is from Robert Browning’s Andrea del Sarto. It goes “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?” If the sum total of our ambition is what we can already see out of the window, then there is something wrong with us.
If we didn’t reach beyond that which we can grab without trying, we would never build anything. An engineer who looks at a river too wide and too deep to cross can imagine a bridge. A doctor who sees an injured patient can imagine that person healed. A parent staring into their child’s eye can imagine all its possible futures, and begs the fates that it is the best of them.
So why is it that, so often, when a politician looks into our future they see only their own reflection? And why do the rest of us settle for it? We surely deserve something more than this sad state of affairs which, increasingly, feels like those with power are using it to reconcile us to our current existence.
I don’t just mean ‘tackle all the things that are going wrong’, like drug deaths or demand for food banks or young people who can’t get housing. I don’t just mean the big structural challenges, like the need to start taking climate change seriously or to trying and stabilise the impacts of a global economy which is increasingly misfiring.
I want to know why we’re not asking the even bigger questions – what society can we imagine in the future? How do you want to live? What do you hope for? What do you wish for others?
These questions used to be the preserve of philosophers and dreamers. We just passed the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia, and in the centuries that followed every generation produced their own versions of Utopia, that ‘no where’ vision of what a truly great society would be like.
Not us, not our generation. The last real wave of Utopias petered out at the end of the psychedelic era in the late 1960s. Ours is a generation of dystopias. When our generation imagines the future it seem only to be able to see fear, desolation, oppression, horror.
The ‘Utopians’ are now corporations. They sell a vision of how their corporate growth is actually the Utopia you’ve been waiting for. That they will fix the world’s ills through pursuit of their financial self-interest (but by inventing flying cars as a byproduct of that, or something). And almost without exception the politicians only see what the corporations tell them to see.
Well that’s not good enough. Making tweaks to the world as it is in 2022 isn’t good enough. Telling Scotland that independence is just a change of manager for the system we already have isn’t good enough. Even if you incline to caution yourself, surely you can see how unhealthy it is not even to have a discussion about something better, to not have an idea worth getting excited about.
Common Weal was created for this exact reason during the independence referendum. By early 2013 Scotland’s media was full of indy sympathiser asking why they were so uninspired by the campaign. In fact it was a Karine Polwart article in the Scotsman that really triggered the creation of Common Weal. She wrote:
“The Yes Scotland website reassures that ‘on Day 1, an independent Scotland will look pretty much as it does today’. Let me declare that this endlessly reiterated sameness scares me.”
So we kicked off a project to ask what Scotland might look like if it didn’t look ‘pretty much as it does today’. Was there a better version of Scotland, a more exciting and hopeful version of Scotland? That’s why we existed in the first place.
Yet nearly ten years later the cause of independence seems to be stuck in precisely the “endlessly reiterated sameness” which so scared Karine Polwart back then. Just like then, we desperately need something more than this, something better than this.
It may surprise some people to note that since that flurry of work back in 2013 and 2014, Common Weal hasn’t set out a vision of what independence could be. We have worked very hard to live in the Scotland as it was and focussed on trying to make a constructive contribution to the domestic policy agenda. When we looked at independence it was precisely not to push our vision but to do the hard slog work of asking what needs to be done to create a new country which enabled everyone’s vision to be possible.
But it is time now for Common Weal to try to paint a picture of ‘better’. We’re working on a big project to pull together all of our work and to add to it, to bring it together and set it out as one hope-filled view of what a future Scotland could look like. We hope we can excite and inspire.
In fact we’ve been quietly working away on this in the background for a while now. But it is time to tell you about it, because it is time to ask you what you want to see in it. You will hopefully know a fair bit of Common Weal’s big ideas already and there will be others that you will fully expect that we’re looking at – and we are.
But Scotland’s future is about capturing the energy of as many people as possible. So please, inspire us, excite us, teach us – what do you think is a big, important idea that we should be looking at that we might not have seen. What do you think makes for a reason for people to get out of their bed and fight for Scotland’s independence?
Drop me an email and tell me – Robin@common.scot. We will look at everything you send us and work as much into this project as we possibly can.
At the end of her article Karine Polwart quoted a saying attributed to St Augustine: “Hope has two beautiful daughters: their names are Anger and Courage. Anger that things are the way they are. Courage to make them the way they ought to be.”
Ah, that poor forgotten offspring of Hope; Hard Work. That’s the daughter we’re spending most time with right now. So help us get that hard work done. Tell us what hope means to you. And let’s see if we can’t get that bottled so we can share it with everyone.