Is this a new dawn for civic Scotland?

by | 31 Mar 2023

The weaknesses in political Scotland make the role of civic Scotland particularly important. What can the past tell us about the civic role in Scotland and what does it tell us about the future?

First published by Common Weal

There is a strange relationship between hard power and soft power in domestic politics. Or let me phrase that another way; the relationship between a government and its wider civic environment is not always straightforward. As we move into a new era in Scottish politics, will we move into a new era in civic Scotland?

Let me just cut to the chase here and state that I think it is important for Scotland that this is a fresh start for the health of our civic sector. It does not look at the moment that we are going to have a government which is overflowing with the best talent the nation has. That is what it is. But it does place an onus on others to step up and contribute more to public life.

So what is the relationship between the civic and the governmental? That is something which has changed significantly in Scotland. At the start of my personal political memory (really the mid-1980s) the picture was clear. Scotland’s civic sector (charities, arts bodies, trade unions, churches, community groups, activist organisations) were, almost without exception, well to the left of the government.

Of course that government was Thatcher’s government and it was intensely unpopular in Scotland, at least with a big majority of voters. There really wasn’t much controversy in being opposed to that government. It was a pretty easy position for most to take.

And they did. Civic Scotland (along with the local government sector) basically became a focus of resistance to the Thatcher revolution. In some ways this was brave and bold, but in other ways it was also pretty easy for them. It wasn’t that it wasn’t sincere, but it was pretty cost-free.

This era came to a close with the election of Tony Blair and New Labour. Overnight the tone changed. I can remember the first time when, as a young man, it was explained to me that things were no longer ‘problems’ but ‘challenges’ and we now didn’t talk about ‘poverty’ but ‘social exclusion’.

In the early Blair years there was much talk about ‘stakeholders’ and what would now be called ‘co-design’. It’s not only that civic Scotland stopped being a resistance, it was (cautiously) really quite hopeful. Some maintained that hope for a number of years, others started to get a bit frustrated that there was a lot more talk about co-design than there was reality.

On top of that, quite a few were resentful about what Blair was really trying to do. He was using the civic sector as a battering ram to break down support for publicly-provided services by pretending that when he contracted them out it was actually lots of lovely charities that were going to step in. It wasn’t. It was Serco, but the charities gave him just enough cover to get away with it.

Blair used the civic sector as a battering ram to break down support for publicly-provided services by pretending that when he contracted them out it was actually lots of lovely charities that were going to step in

But the real break point was a couple of years after that, with the Iraq War. There had been increasing scepticism about the Blair government in civic circles by then but the Iraq War gave them an easy avenue to express it. Plus it is really important not to underestimate what a shock this was to a lot of people at the time. The civic sector was crucial in stimulating increasing opposition to the war.

This had a consequence, or at least it did at the global level. The group of NGOs which had really led a lot of the international opposition to the war became a target, very explicitly a target. So explicit that key figures around George W Bush started openly briefing that they were devising a strategy to clip the wings of the NGO sector.

They did this through a combination of applying conditionality to funding to prevent various activities, restricting the ability of NGOs to engage in campaigning if they wanted to be treated as ‘public good’ institutions and bribing some NGOs into silence by funding them but with caveats.

This wasn’t quite the approach that Blair took (he focussed more on the bribery approach and less on the punishment approach), but his own briefers made his government’s displeasure with their dissent quite clear. This relationship never really properly healed during the Blair years, and the picture was similar in Scotland.

But something else was going on in Scotland as well in the dawn of the devolution era. In a very significant turn of events, many of the main players in the civic sector started to actively undermine the wider sector’s role in Scottish public life. There was meant to be a ‘Civic Forum’ to go along with the Scottish Parliament, and there was, briefly.

Then what happened was that a number of the biggest trade unions and charities started lobbying against the Civic Forum. Their theory was that they were not going to dilute their influence by sharing it with smaller players. So Jack McConnell pulled the Civic Forum’s funding and it disappeared.

That does not mean that those that lobbied against it gained the influence they thought they would. They didn’t. They fell into two camps, those who were ostracised and those who converted themselves into ‘service providers’. 

Then things got worse. The Tory coalition government that came in in 2010 took aggressive action to significantly limit the capacity of the civic sector to campaign or be politically engaged. Ironically (or not) they did this through the power of a Lobbying Act which bent over backwards to prevent proper regulation of the actual influential lobbyists (the corporate sector) but severely cracked down on charities and trade unions.

By this point it was becoming increasingly difficult for a charity to do any campaigning that might be seen as political – and that included issues like talking about poverty or climate change. Even more it made it really, really difficult to do so anywhere near an election.

Scotland has its own Lobbying Act but the UK legislation had precisely the same chilling effect on the civic sector in Scotland. People in that sector became really worried about the risks they faced if they made comments that could embarrass politicians and they largely stepped back from election campaign periods altogether.

Government performance is currently poor and there are few signs it is ready to regenerate itself – in that context it becomes more important than ever for civic Scotland to step up

And then… the Scottish independence referendum happened. This was in some ways the opposite of the situation in the 1980s. During the referendum it was extremely difficult for the civic sector to take any position because the issue was miles from generating a significant consensus. So in reality the civic sector virtually disappeared from public life for the duration.

The post-referendum Scottish Government turned a selection of Blair’s tactics into a prime strategy. Very simply put the civic sector had its mouth stuffed with gold (not very much, but just enough) on condition that it complied with everything the government did.

That led to the era of ‘Civic Loyalty’. For what seemed like the longest time you could hardly find a civic body that would put out a press release for any purpose other than to praise and support the Scottish Government.

This was disorientating; I was working in many coalitions with the same organisations and what they were saying in private was many miles away from what they were saying in public. But that was the rules; criticise the Sturgeon government even a little bit and you were out of the (very small) circle of trust. Few did.

That is more or less where we are now. The civic sector in 2023 has really come full circle from its days as the nation’s resistance force and now is more like a pretorian guard for the country’s establishment. In other countries it might have been the more established civic sector which would have done things like blown the whistle on the ScotWind privatisation or challenged the general perception that the Scottish Government was a ‘climate leader’.

But they didn’t. Common Weal did. Even now you find it hard to see much civic criticism of the Scottish Government’s track record on issues like climate change, poverty, housing or the economy. If I have to see one more ‘wellbeing economy organisation’ praising a government which has never once wavered from a neoliberal economic agenda I’ll scream.

And yet there are already signs of change. The most encouraging of them by far is at the STUC. After what was a decidedly downgraded role for most of the devolution era the STUC has started to show some real signs of being a revitalised force to hold government to account. There are some tentative signs that others may follow.

My point here is that this is very deeply needed in Scotland. In reality this is needed in every democracy, but we now have a new government and it is not being widely seen as high-powered or experienced. Government performance is currently poor and there are few signs it is ready to regenerate itself.

In that context it becomes more important than ever for civic Scotland to step up. Will it? I guess time will tell. But I have strong concerns that we are heading into an era of failure and that someone somewhere has to speak up if we as a nation are to find a new path.

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