The positivity balance

by | 29 Mar 2024

When does positivity work, when is it counterproductive, how do you know the difference and where are we now in Scotland? We need to get this right.

First published by Common Weal

Last week a comment at the bottom of the Common Weal website suggested I’d been too negative in my means of criticising growth theory. In a sentiment I entirely understand, the commenter gets negativity everywhere and the Common Weal newsletter is usually a little injection of positivity. We all need that right now.

But where is the line between trying to inject positivity and drifting in to sheer denialism? And what are we to do if we find ourselves on the other side of this line? Like a moth to a flame, let me return one more time to this perennial subject.

It doesn’t matter whether you ask me in terms of my personal disposition, in terms of my understanding of political strategy, in terms of readings of basic neurology, in terms of moral philosophy; in every case I will offer you the same response – there is incredible power in positivity. I’ve seen it. I’ve sat in a room of despair and watched a single person lift the entire place through a determined burst of seeing the bright side.

Or, in the instance I first thought of, giving us a firm kick up the arse to remind us how close we were to the place we wanted to be. (It was a dressing room at half time in a game we needed to win but were losing narrowly – we had thrown everything at it and weren’t winning. Our coach gave us an inspiring bollocking, explaining that we hadn’t even thrown half of what we had at the game and we were nearly ahead. We won the game.)

If the room is down in the dumps, it won’t get anything done. It’ll mope and moan. If you want to get something done, someone has to lift the room. I have made it a personal mission to be that person when I need to be. And that stretches into the metaphorical room that is Scotland. It is why I set up Common Weal in the first place. Solutions, not moans. That was what we intended, that was what we did.

Now let me tell you another story; I was (tangentially) involved in a project many moons ago. It was the development of a campaign that had some very serious money behind it. The campaign launch was being organised by a marketing manager. She was absolutely brimming over with neon-coloured bubbling optimism. “This is going to be BIG” she said, making the word big feel actually big.

It had everyone in the room leaning in and getting excited – and it failed. It failed because the campaign itself was beset by fundamental problems, fundamental internal contradictions. There was not enough ‘spine’ in the campaign plan to allow it to both grown big and stay on its feet. It sunk.

I was but a youngster and all this was above my pay grade, but I could still see a whole bunch of difficult questions that no-one was asking. I am pretty sure others in the room must have left, got over the hype and realised they had quite a lot of questions too. But those questions never got asked.

Pretending things are good when they’re not is a pretty reliable way to make them stay bad

Pretending things are good when they’re not is a pretty reliable way to make them stay bad. The power of positivity is genuine, important and necessary for change. Yet all the big mistakes come from too much positivity, not too little. Walls don’t fall down because of the bricks that are in the right place but because of the ones that are in the wrong place.

So let me return to the question again – in this moment, as of all-but April 2024, what do we need, a big voice saying ‘we can do this‘ or a wee voice saying ‘not like that you can’t’? I know its miserable out there, I know the world seems grim, but right now I’m damned if I can see where to place my positive reinforcement.

Let me give you an example of the problem. One of the catechisms of the contemporary independence movement is about how hard the Scottish Government has tried to mitigate the worst of Westminster. Tax, child payment, all that stuff. Why don’t you praise it more Robin?

I’ll tell you why – because of Council Tax freezes, refusal to back a windfall tax on the oil and gas industry, freeport tax breaks, slashed affordable housing budgets, PFI for Trees and big cuts to community health initiatives. If you add up the tax breaks and spending cuts contained in all of that and you sum it up it turns out bigger than the money spent on the Scottish Child Payment.

And see every one of those cuts or redistributions? It either takes from the poor or gives to the very wealthiest – or both. Frankly if I was just being coldly cynical I could easily argue that they have assiduously clawed back every penny they put anywhere near a poor person – and given it to a rich person.

What do we do with this information? How do we respond? Should we pretend the negative half of the balance sheet isn’t there so that we can show some positivity and say something nice about the positive half of the balance sheet? Even when they’re already out of balance?

Or what about the idea that ‘the Scottish Government means well so our job is to try and help them be better’. What if you’ve tried that, a lot? We engaged fully and enthusiastically with two rounds of ‘land reform’ legislation over the last decade. Both pieces of legislation were weak, and we tried to strengthen both. We failed.

In the same ten years, land ownership in Scotland has actually concentrated further. There are fewer people owning Scotland’s land after this was done than before. Now there is a third round of land reform legislation (in ten years, mind), and it too is so shot through with loopholes, the chances are it won’t work either. We’re remaining fully engaged, but there is little sign much will change.

Like with the National Care Service legislation. No-one but no-one could possibly accuse us of not being constructive or positive here. In fact everyone but everyone recognises the power of the vision we contributed. Almost everyone commenting or engaging with this policy cites our work. 

Except the Scottish Government. The Government’s proposals met virtually universal opposition to the extent that care service providers were going to boycott the whole process to try and make it stop. Left with no choice, the Scottish Government paused – but then continued to ignore almost everything everyone was telling them and reintroduced precisely the same legislation again without so much as an amendment.

At what point does positivity become toxic? You see, for my money we sailed past that moment a while ago

What response can possibly be made to that? Smiley faces? I’ve just been through this in another bit of legislation. I will withhold info on what it is because we pursued the work through a coalition and I certainly don’t want to criticise partner organisations. After six years of relentless campaigning we got legislation – and it was weak as dishwater.

Most of the coalition partners wanted to say as much, but a small number wanted to take the positive reinforcement route, convinced that if we said nice things about the overarching legislation we would have more influence over implementation. I warned instead that we’d lose all our leverage – but I lost. So we smilingly welcomed legislation none of us actually welcomed.

A few months later it was clear we’d been more or less shut out of the implementation process and that the whole thing was a farce. People wanted to turn the heat up at this stage, except we had welcomed all this with open arms. We had no leverage. Everyone ignored us. Nothing happened, nothing changed. We all but wasted six years.

What if I contest the suggestion that we’re in a situation where we have a government striving to do the kinds of things Common Weal wants to see done? What if the evidence clearly suggests I’m right? What if, over and over, people have attempted constructive engagement and positive reinforcement and it was banked by the government and we got nothing much in return? What if good intentions aren’t enough?

And what if this continues on into a crisis, the crisis we’re about to go through? What if young people are going to get more and more disillusioned by politics as we slash the affordable housing budget, walk away from our commitments on climate change and stand alone in Britain to oppose a windfall tax on profiteering oil companies?

What if poor people correctly realise that a wealthy-person-baiting Council Tax freeze is going to devastate the public services they rely on? What if those who believe that Scotland’s land ownership patterns are a national disgrace show goodwill to yet another round of legislation and end up with yet another round of obfuscation and failure to actually do anything much?

At what point does positivity become toxic? You see, for my money we sailed past that moment a while ago. Policy is not being made well, big ideas are not being absorbed or enacted, cynical electoral bribery and the corrosive power of corporate lobbying still shapes policy much more than progressive organisations like Common Weal

How much longer can we all be expected to smile through gritted teeth and say ‘look, they mean well – just keep smiling and hope for the best’? It doesn’t appear to be working. Sometimes it’s not about good faith or good intentions, its about facts on the ground.

Common Weal continues, day after day, to seek solutions. We’re soon going to issue a paper on how to implement a land tax. The likelihood is we’ll be ignored on our thoughts on a land tax and it won’t actually happen because it involves reforming the Council Tax and challenging big landowners.

We’ve been trying this for a decade and we still will. Our policy work is solutions-focussed. But asking us to look at the world around right now and draw positive conclusions? Or expecting us to change this state of affairs through positivity alone?

If I thought it would work I would do it. We tried. It didn’t. If Common Weal has become more negative, that is because Scotland has become less optimistic. Scotland’s problem right now is the circumstances that drained the optimism, circumstances that remain in place. There is no way round it – we need to talk about them honestly.

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