By Gerry Hassan
The Scottish debate trundles on; accusation and counter-accusation are traded in the Scottish Parliament, Westminster and media about the most important issue in recent political history, namely independence.
All of the political parties are in unfamiliar terrain and don’t quite know what to do. In this strange situation, everyone sticks with what they know best, trying to feel safe in their comfort zones.
Behind the often arid talk of the constitution and things like ‘devo max’ and fiscal autonomy, the real issue is what kind of Scotland we aspire to, and even more deeply, what kind of collective future we wish to create.
This poses all sorts of questions to our political parties and traditions. How do we get past the Scots pastime of grand abstractions and fill out the detail of statehood and self-government? Independence is either the ultimate positive, the land where Scotland will be free and fair, or complete negative where we spend decades obsessing on the constitution and then wallow in introspection and navel-gazing.
We have to get past these simplicities and the shrill, insistent voices of unionism v. nationalism. Most Scots don’t see themselves as reflected in these tribes or visions. We could call this huge majority, ‘the other Scotland’, ‘We are 99% Scotland’ after the recent Occupy movements.
At this crucial point, Scotland has a significant lack of political and public spaces to aid any kind of thoughtful conversation. There have been previous attempts. There was the Scottish Civic Forum which drew from too narrow and complacent a section of the chattering classes. Then came the Scottish Parliament Futures Forum which has always been too close to the Parliament, politicians and civil servants and shied away from taking risks.
Neither of these bodies widened debate beyond the usual suspects and didn’t break out of old-fashioned ideas of engagement, while co-opting their participants by being part of the system.
One thing devolved Scotland has spawned is a plethora of Commissions and before that Conventions. While some of these have provided valuable expertise, the Scottish Broadcasting Commission being one example, we need to question this growing industry.
There has been too much window dressing and going through the motions of public engagement. Too much reverence for a past, supposedly, golden era; the ‘myth’ of the Scottish Constitutional Convention is one example which never was all it was claimed. It was the ultimate talking shop which didn’t despite what some of its participants claim ‘set up’ the Scottish Parliament.
Instead, the Convention of the 1980s and 1990s was a gathering of Scotland’s political establishment under Thatcher and then Major; although it did serve a purpose for a while aiding people coming together. But the last thing we need is another forum of big wigs, politicians and councils, purporting to talk for ‘civil society’. We need higher aspirations than that.
There are at least two distinct post-Convention approaches Scotland could take. The first is a Scottish Citizens type body, drawing on the lessons and successes of London Citizens. This would be locale focused, community led, not take public or private money, and be a genuine third space rather than a pseudo-voluntary agency of the extended state.
There is significant interest in setting up such a body in Scotland across a range of church and community groups, but there are challenges. How do groups like London Citizens understand Scotland’s difference, its sense of a nation and different Scotlands? Then there is the reality for Scottish churches and community groups about how they can aid this, and yet have the insight to not take it over, but to let flourish and grow itself? With all these caveats a Scottish Citizens could be one answer to the chasm in public life seen in the hollowing out of parties and decline of civic participation.
The second would be to create an independent initiative on Scotland’s future, something which isn’t in any shape or form a Commission or Convention in that it would not be stacked with the great and good, would have a very different mandate and embrace innovative processes.
Such an initiative would not talk exclusively about the constitution but about this and economic and social Scotland, the changing world of work, nature of welfare and what social justice means. It would be independent of the Scottish Government to be seen as non-partisan, but it could be (if people wished) sanctified by a vote of the Scottish Parliament.
One relevant example where this has worked – of a modern European nation engaging in a genuine ‘national conversation’ to identify what it wants to stand for and what it wants to champion was ‘Mission for Finland 2030’.
This was commissioned by the Finnish Government but mostly run by outside bodies such as Demos Finland to aid integrity and imagination. It brought together people, experts and significant parts of society in a genuine nationwide exercise which identified the half dozen or so themes which Finland as a whole agreed that it would get behind, collectively champion and own over the next 20 years.
People will say such an approach isn’t possible in Scotland and that we are not Finland. Yet we know many Scots like mission and purpose, and we also know from the experience of New Labour’s attempt to reduce child poverty that when politicians are both ambitious and specific that it engages the public; vision plus detail works.
What these two approaches have in common is that we have to start seeing political power as about more than politicians, and we have to aid politicians to be confident enough to let go of their monopoly.
Genuine, creative participation and engagement, whether a Scottish Citizens or ‘Mission for Scotland’ has to sit, engage with and listened to by government, while sitting outside of the system.
These are historic, almost revolutionary times across Europe, the Middle East and much of the world. If Scotland is to embark on its own rather more quiet and humble revolution, then we have to break out of the old restraints and take some risks.
Can we dare to create spaces and resources which go past the insults and big words and instead put flesh on what kind of Scottish future we want? Dare we not do so at this crucial point in our history?
Courtesy of Gerry Hassan – http://gerryhassan.com