Finding hope in hard work

by | 2 Dec 2022

In which, against his better judgement, Robin tells a story about writing the new Common Weal book as a metaphor for how the independence movement can start to get out of the doldrums...

First published by Common Weal

I never do this. I never write about myself. I just don’t think you should be the slightest interested in ‘my journey’ or ‘my struggles’ or be subjected to a long spiel about how I overcame the challenges I faced in some self-imagined odyssey of personal achievement. I’m a boy from the west of Scotland and so am fundamentally suspicious of anyone who thinks its ‘actually about me’.

But just this once I will tell you the story of my involvement (among many) with writing the book Sorted. (It launches tomorrow Saturday 3rd December in the Drygate Brewery in Glasgow and you can still register to come along HERE). I hope I shall have provided sufficient justification for doing so by the end.

It all started in the very early spring of last year. I had lost my voice for a couple of months and so was going out for a long walk every day to fill my silence with thoughts about where things were and where they would go next. I wasn’t optimistic. In fact, the dominant feeling I had was of despair.

No matter what way I paced forward in my mind from the circumstances as they are were, they always led here. They always led to December 2022, to more failure in government, to a bitter and divided independence movement, to everyone being let down over promises of referendums being round the corner, to a deflated, disorientated movement.

I couldn’t come up with any realistic way to prevent any of this, couldn’t see any intervention that anyone could make that would save us. Tramping through the melting snow, I could feel what this was going to be like for supporters when it happened.

But nothing comes from nothing. I came out of my walks with plans and one of them was to find a way out of my own despair. Never mind the rest of you, I needed to believe again. I needed to feel like this was all worthwhile, that I could look into the future and have at least enough hope to get out my bed in the morning. And I have this hard-wired belief that if you want to feel hope, you need to work.

So I spoke to everyone else in the team and suggested that we do one of our projects to go out, find all the hope we could possibly muster and put it all in one place. No-one said ‘no, we’re feeling totally optimistic so this isn’t really necessary’. So we started planning and building the structure of the project.

Of course there is always the risk that social reformers produce naïve, unrealistic wish-lists. It’s easy to write down what ‘nice’ looks like, but to make it possible you need to look at the difficult stuff. I’m not afraid to talk about the deficit Scotland will face in the first few years of independence. It is an inevitable reality. And I’m not afraid to take that head-on and make it work.

So quickly those emerged as the goals – answer questions, try to unite people, show how things which are wrong can be fixed, paint a vision of a different society, persuade people that it’s all possible.

At that stage in a project there is always that nervousness about ‘can we actually do this?’. In particular I always believe that trying to unite people by disciplining them is a mistake. People unite when they believe in something, so could we give them something they could actually believe in? Thing is, you can’t answer this until you dive in.

So we built a plan and once you have that you can really get going. Well, you can if your Care Reform Policy Group aren’t absolutely knocking it out of the park with the work they are doing. I was also meeting with them weekly as they developed their work and dear goodness it was good. In fact it was one of the projects in all my life I’ve been proudest to be involved with.

So quickly those emerged as the goals – answer questions, try to unite people, show how things which are wrong can be fixed, paint a vision of a different society, persuade people that it’s all possible

And that sucked up the time until late January so while I wouldn’t have admitted it, I was getting just a little twitchy – we wanted this out for Christmas (because let’s not kid on that Common Weal isn’t constantly needing to secure income and selling books is one of the ways we do it) and we were clearly behind.

By now the team had expanded. Craig and I had already been diving deep into this but now Nicola and Kaitlin joined us. It was amazing, because they turned out to be amazing and suddenly if felt like we could really make progress. Just as long as the Scottish Government didn’t do anything stupid like privatise all of Scotland’s offshore wind and force us to do lots of analysis…

So we were researching the big project and constantly also dealing with the day-to-day things Common Weal keeps getting dragged into. ‘No more new bits of work until this is finished’ was the promise to ourselves that we seemed to break on an almost weekly basis.

That said, as the summer approached we had a lot of the material together. Gathering all Common Weal’s existing policy work was a fairly fast process. It was the stuff that we hadn’t done work on that was tricky. It was about this point when we set up our Health Policy Group and our Schools Policy Group. They started meeting weekly.

And yes, I was just a wee bit petrified. We quite literally had only a few months to work out how to save the NHS, how to fix the mess in education, never mind areas where we had no group like criminal justice and some of the monetary policy stuff.

Plus we had a solid, clear national security position but it looked up in the air after Russia invaded Ukraine. Peacefulness was way out of fashion and even people on the left were saying ‘I’ll go back to being a pacifist just after Russia is defeated’. I personally fretted a lot on whether we could hold our line without being pilloried.

But if you’re worried about everything, get started on the first thing. The Health Group found its groove and became an absolute joy. I learned so, so much. So we started to get NHS policy together, a sketch outline for justice, some basic foundations for the schools work (which kept getting interrupted by random events).

I had been designated to pull all the final text together and I should have been writing, but I was secretly conscious of prevaricating-through-more-research. There’s always one more thing you can read, one more person you can interview. So I just said ‘for god sake get this started’ – and then I really freaked out, because it fairly quickly became clear that this book was going to be longer than intended. Much longer.

I drafted a health chapter to run by the group. If every chapter was like that, that long, took that long to write, the deadline was toast and the book length unmanageable. Over a weekend I just kept trying not to think ‘what if you don’t get this finished Robin, because everyone else has done their bit on time?’. I don’t miss deadlines. I don’t let people down. But what if I do?

I realised I had to be much tighter, so I changed how I was writing. I was going to London to talk budgeting with Richard Murphy and shared the draft chapters with him. His accountancy input was invaluable, but not as much as him saying ‘you need to break this up and make it easy for people to dip in and out of’. He was right.

Hope peeks through despair and the hope is stronger

Now it was a sprint to the end. Yes, I’d screwed up my timescales a bit so by October I was working 12-hour days, and weekends too. It was coming along, I knew I could finish something. But justice and education weren’t ready. I was waking up at night thinking ‘oh god, school assessments…’ It came last. We did a survey of the group members and I banked on being able to turn it into something in one weekend.

I emailed it to the group with trepidation. They liked it. The content was done. Now it was a mad dash to review and get it proof read. All this time I’d been working with our wonderful illustrators Charity and Lauren and our designers Meryl and Robin. They were sending me final pictures and designs and I was overwhelmed. One last weekend and… it was print ready.

I took a week off to recover. I was still waking at night ready to fight imaginary fights, thinking ‘fuck, what do I need to fix?’. Nothing. It was done. But what was done?

I still don’t know. I’ve been so close to this for so long I have no idea any more. People have said lovely things about it, but people always do that. This thing I lived with for so long is a blur to me now. It feels almost unreal. And then, on Tuesday, the boxes arrived. I opened one. The book is gorgeous. It felt real. Honestly, I shouldn’t still be waking early with a slightly strange nervousness.

But not a lack of hope. I don’t worry now that Scotland really could be a better country after independence. I really do believe that what is broken can be sorted. I’m not in despair now. I jump between hope and anger, sometimes in the same thought. I feel determined.

So what has all this been about? It is meant to be a metaphor. We all feel lost sometimes, individually and collectively. We all feel despair and that is an energy-sapping emotion. No-one likes division and bitterness. And one winter they can look insurmountable.

But the next winter? They can seem fixable. Hope peeks through despair and the hope is stronger. It is possible, not certain but possible, that people can come together and be united in the belief that something is just worth fighting for. It is possible, individually and collectively, to face any despondency and get back out of it again. And we’re going to need to.

It just needs three things. Determination. Belief. And work. Hard work. Hard work has dug me out of where I was. I believe it can dig us all, collectively, as a movement, out of where we are. We just need to move forward. We need to get past egos and decide that the thing we hope to build is worth building. Worth it enough to put our differences aside. Worth it enough to knuckle down.

My biggest hope just now is that we’ve pulled it off, that you eventually see this book and it makes you feel hope too. If it plays any part in helping to drag even one person out of the doldrums and remind them that there is work to do, if it lifts one head, then I’m very, very glad to have had the chance to be involved.

The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for. Scotland is a wonderful home. Let’s make it worth the working for.

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