But How?

by | 21 Apr 2023

If you look at the pieces which are currently on the board in Scottish political and civic life, you can push them around as much as you want but you don't seem to be able to fix things. It is time to start a proper debate about what's wrong.

First published by Common Weal

Every week in the Common Weal newsletter I try to explain either why what we are doing in Scotland is wrong and isn’t working or (preferably) what better looks like and how it can be done. In response, one of our regular commenters often asks ‘fine, but how is any of this going to happen?’.

This is an important question and one that occupies my mind a lot. It’s also a really big question and not all of the answers are completely comfortable, so please don’t expect me to have sorted this all out by the end of a thousand-odd words. But given the current turmoil in our politics it seems a pertinent time to ask ‘how do we get anything good to happen in Scotland?’.

It might be helpful to start by ruling out some of the options. For example, I’m a big fan of ‘flatpack democracy’ and I know a few of the people who started this movement down in Somerset. For those who don’t know it it basically involves communities standing their own candidates to take out self-serving political party appointees and run local services themselves.

When government misfires, a lot on the left raise flatpack democracy and some similar initiatives as a possible response. But the initial flatpack people didn’t take over Somerset, they only took over Frome, one town in Somerset. And of course a comparable town in Scotland doesn’t have a town council to take over.

We can’t vote to take over health boards, there is zero democratic accountability in Scotland’s sprawling agency and quango sector, the community councils have extremely limited power and negligible budgets – there is just nothing powerful in Scotland you can take over using democratic means. It’s been designed that way by the people that run it.

I know people who’ve tried – community initiatives which have done some really bold things to bring change. But the point is they aren’t operating with power or being able to take power themselves, they are defying power and carrying on regardless.

So what about more of that? If we can’t get a hold of our institutions because they’re like public sector aristocracies, how about defiance and ‘just do it anyway’? Since indyref there has been a lot of this. In fact I’ve lost count of how many good projects I’ve been invited to see that are where they are not with help from the public sector but by outright defying it.

And yet, they’re all broke and without fail they’re all totally exhausted. Public sector Scotland can be incredibly petty. Refuse to ‘recognise our authority’ or interfere with what they see as their interests and they may well put a surprising amount of focus and effort into making your life incredibly difficult. I can think of a couple of examples where it crossed the line into harassment.

Scotland burns through community activists at an alarming rate because Scotland makes it really, really difficult to get anything done as a community activist. The achievements of Scotland’s genuinely exciting and innovative community activism sector are so much less than they should be, so much less than the effort they put in, that people end up giving up.

You really can’t take power from below in Scotland and those higher up who have some power are gaining financially from the power they have so they’re not driving change

So what about the ‘big players’? What about the big third sector organisations which have at different times in Scotland’s history played a major role in changing society? Common Weal will soon be publishing a paper by our Care Reform Group’s Colin Turbett which details how the big care NGOs went from being campaigners to being service delivery consultants.

And that is why the NGO sector isn’t a hopeful source of change – it benefits far, far too much from the status quo. Its incomes has soared in the last decade and that has come from being complicit in the governing agenda. In a very real sense they will not bite the hand that feeds them.

So you really can’t take power from below in Scotland and those higher up who have some power are gaining financially from the power they have. They’re not driving change. Which means you’re now looking at influence from outside.

Can we push change through lobbying and campaigning? It is of course possible to shift policy a bit, but this is really getting into my core professional area and I can tell you quite a lot about the experience of me and others who have tried.

First of all, it is really quite easy to ignore campaigners in Scotland because the limitations on our media makes it quite easy for politicians to ignore a lot of things. Really effective lobbying and campaigning takes time (it’s not all about throwing paint at things). And because the NGO sector doesn’t really do it, there aren’t many properly-resourced organisations which do.

Easily out in the lead just now is the STUC which has money and influence and has been doing a really effective job in recent years. Friends of the Earth have resource and some influence and also does a good job and there are a number of smaller-but-staffed organisations which campaign on more limited, specific issues.

And of course there is Common Weal which was set up and designed specifically to create ideas and seek to influence government to introduce them. This is our entire reason for existing. What I can tell you is that neither me nor anyone else has worked out how to get real change to happen. Mostly you get ignored. Then if you are persistent enough you get patronised.

Then, if you keep pushing you get ‘make-busied’ – for example, I know one large coalition of local voluntary organisations whom I was helping with strategic advice which was simply being bounced from meeting to meeting to meeting, each one with another low-level official, each one leading to a reason to meet another (in three months time).

I told them to give up. If the Scottish Government has sent you to see four or five junior civil servants they’re not interested. It is seldom that the Scottish Government actually says no to you, they mainly just waffle and waffle until you give up. Or they say they love your stuff and are totally doing it and then use your words in all their documents – while changing nothing at all.

Scotland is in a dreadful mess and the mess ain’t cleaning itself up

So you need to be clever. As an experience lobbyist I realised fairly early that we were being stonewalled. What we did was to work around government. We worked on the basis that if you could apply ‘pressure from below’ and organise ‘permission from above’, you could push them quite effectively.

What that meant (I can give away my secrets now the administration has changed…) was that you had to get people they couldn’t ignore to push them from below and people they respected and saw as powerful saying ‘yes, that’s OK, that’s a good idea’. Common Weal followed a ‘pressure and permission’ strategy from about 2016 to 2020.

The best way to get pressure from below is SNP policy. We had six or seven major Common Weal policies adopted as party policy following campaigns in the party. But those were mostly just ignored, so we worked from above as well. The best example was that we persuaded the then Council of Economic Advisers to back a Scottish National Investment Bank, as well as the party.

And we won. Except it still went awfully wrong, because the Scottish Government never really wanted to do it so they actively allowed it to be entirely subverted by the Edinburgh financial classes it was meant to challenge. Common Weal’s biggest victory is now a sorry lesson.

I can promise that there is almost no-one in the campaigning sector who does not have the same story to tell. You can campaign but chances are you won’t win, and if you do the chances are it will still somehow be subverted on the way through (usually by KPMG or their ilk). Nope, right now in Scotland, unless you have serious money or impressive connections, you can’t get things done from the outside.

So what about our politics? The SNP leadership election didn’t have a credible left, environmentalist candidate. There isn’t currently one in the SNP. The Scottish Labour Party is doing some interesting things on an individual basis (actually, the most interesting things happening in the parliament just now). But they are still the awful Keir Starmer’s party, they’re run by a centrist and they alienate pro-indy voters.

The Tories are the Tories and who knows what the Lib Dems are actually for any more. So can existing smaller parties drag things in the right direction? The Scottish Greens seem to be trying to disprove this possibility. One leader is busy faking a rent and eviction freeze which is resulting in the worst outcomes yet for renters. The other seems not to see anything she doesn’t want to privatise.

While the Scottish Greens as a party is filled with good people, it’s leaders when in government have been worse than awful. And it is very hard to see how Alba, even if it got a foothold, is going to change anything other than the debate on constitutional change. As for the ‘organised left’ – I really don’t think there is one.

And that is where we are. It is time to be honest. A lot of people were telling themselves they could live with this state of affairs for a little longer because independence was coming. We need to reevaluate that. Because it is time to face a hard, hard truth.

There is next to no way you can move the pieces which are currently on the board in Scotland to deliver anything like the change people like me (and, if you’re reading this, presumably you) want to see. We’re not going to get a Green New Deal as things stand. We’re barely going to get serious climate action at all. We’re not getting a housing revolution or a major economic reform programme.

And we’re not going to get independence either for the foreseeable future. So it really is time to be honest. If the politicians keep blocking democratic reform and keep running their NGO patronage scheme, if local authorities keep seeing communities as the enemy and if Scotland’s political parties stay as they are, Scotland is in trouble in the short and long terms.

I have literally tried everything I can think of to work with things as they are. It isn’t working – for me or for anyone else I know. Either we give up or something in Scotland has to change. So, to our regular commentator asking how is any of what I write about here going to happen, it isn’t. As things are, nothing good is going to happen.

The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can begin a serious conversation about Scotland’s future. Because things are in a dreadful mess and the mess ain’t cleaning itself up.

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