A sign of the health & breadth of the pro-independence movement in Scotland is that we are no longer exclaiming over how many folk we’ve packed into a venue. It just seems normal now to have crowds of 500+. I was one of many taken completely by surprise at the scale of the Radical Independence Campaign’s first conference back in 2012. The following year they had over 1,000. Now, in 2014, as the end of the referendum campaign (but definitely not of the movement) approaches, it seems normal to be roaming around the Arches in a crowd of 700. The scale and momentum of the movement are extraordinary, and won’t be going away regardless of the referendum outcome.
And I wasn’t even roaming round the Arches for a specifically pro-yes event (though that was the tone of the day, certainly). This was the Festival of the Common Weal, a day of talks, comedy and music around their proposals for a progressive, social-democratic Scotland – whatever the outcome of the referendum.
Proponents of the Common Weal aren’t afraid to talk of vision, inspiration, and justice. Such emotive and even personal arguments are lacking in the official levels of the official Yes campaign, as they like to keep it dry and ‘rational’. But talking of hopes and dreams, doesn’t have to mean flag-waving and weeping over Bannockburn. People need inspiration, vision, something to work towards.
‘All of us first’ is the Common Weal tagline, to replace the ‘me-first’ politics which has reigned for so long. It’s not just the political system that is seen as ripe for change, but the bigger picture – education, work, infrastructure, energy, housing, consumption. What are our resources, natural and human, and how are they being used? What barriers are in place to happiness, health and justice? Academics, commentators and policy experts have contributed over 50 research papers, all available at the Reid Foundation’s website, and the whole raft of proposals has been debated at length. Recently a small 130-page book explaining the Common Weal vision was published and quickly sold out. This, too, is available online as an e-book.
It was of course labelled populist, but as Reid Foundation Director Robin McAlpine argues, this slur doesn’t work here. Universalism and socially progressive policies are popular, not populist.
There’s a lot of ‘could’ in the Common Weal book. That’s not a weakness. It’s not utopianism, but practical idealism. A lot of this is about seeing just how strange the UK is; just how dysfunctional and ridiculous the way in which our society is run has become, compared to almost anywhere else in Europe. We have the most expensive ‘public’ transport. The longest working hours. The most complex and inefficient tax system. The most unfair, skewed and dysfunctional economy. Our ‘weirdness’ is well documented, from child poverty & infant mortality, wealth gaps and extreme privatisation levels, a desperate lack of local democracy, and extreme concentrations of land ownership.
These are things that can be changed. It is not mad to think this; only difficult, because it goes against the many decades of neoliberal dogma which has extended so far into how we see the world that any alternative can indeed seem utopian and ridiculous. At the Common Weal festival John Duffy of the FBU remarked that one of the problems in the indyref debate is that we’re so constrained by what we’re used to. Yes Scotland’s official message tends towards the safe and steady – gradual change, don’t scare the horses. But can’t we imagine something vastly better? McAlpine writes that there is a viable, alternative philosophy to this status quo:
It is perhaps best summed up by Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, who said “to build more, we must share more”. Instinctively, all of us know this to be true. Modern Britain is like a nursery school in which the teachers thought the best bet was to allow the most aggressive child to hoard all the Lego. Nothing gets built; the goal becomes to get and keep the Lego, not to use it. Share the Lego more equitably and, far from losing productivity, you see a rapid rise in productivity as youngsters build things rather than fight.
Seems appropriate to have analogies about lego given its use in the campaign so far (and the amazing movie). Anyway, as acknowledged throughout the last two years of campaigning and planning, and repeated on Sunday, none of this radical change is guaranteed. There is no silver bullet. Willie Sullivan, in one of the day’s talks, remarked that you can ‘cut the head off the monster’ of London-concentrated power – ‘but the head can grow back in Edinburgh’. Tackling the location, operation and concentration of power in Scotland is a huge challenge, even if there is a yes vote. It’s lucky then that we’re not lacking in momentum and commitment. I do think we do stand a chance of realising these practical ideals.
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Grand as it is that there’s enthusiasm & commitment, what the Common Weal does need to continue its work is money. If you support their vision and want to see such principles & policies taking centre stage, please donate here!