By Robin McAlpine
This week we launched the Jimmy Reid Foundation – and it took only hours to realise that what we thought we were launching might actually be less than what had been created.
The Foundation was designed for three main purposes. Firstly, it was meant to generate fresh thinking in Scotland which wasn’t simply yet another retread of the neoliberal doctrines of marketise, privatise and deregulate. We’ve had decades of being told that there is only one way to do things in the modern world. Now that this has proved utterly wrong and people are looking around for alternatives it is essential that they can be found.
We’ve had decades of being told that there is only one way to do things in the modern world. Now that this has proved utterly wrong and people are looking around for alternatives it is essential that they can be found.
Having been on the back foot in an era of ‘false accounting’ backed by enormous corporate lobbying the left needs to act quickly to fill the space before the neoliberals reinvent themselves after yet another failure of their policies (remember the 1970s oil crisis or the 1980s recession or 1990s property price crash or the millennial dot-com crash or the ‘credit crunch’ – with in every case the cause being recycled as the solution?).
The second reason for setting up the Foundation was to counterbalance the impact of the business lobby and it’s various off-shoots. Even while Scotland is rejecting right-wing policies at the polls and the mainstream of Scottish politics is walking away from these agendas, still they are almost inexplicably dominating the airwaves and the press. How can an issue so far off the real agenda as the privatisation of Scottish Water (or some precursor step) still be floating around? Why is the question of creating a market in higher education in Scotland still being discussed? What is it that creates an environment in which ‘democracy’ does not set the agenda?
The answer is that there are well-funded, pro-business advocacy groups, supportive individuals with clout and sections of the media which are happy to keep churning this stuff out. And crucially, there are insufficient voices seriously challenging this agenda or setting an alternative one. And so a focus for developing and promoting that voice seemed to be something of which we were in dire need.
The third driving focus for the Foundation was the way the left has become fragmented in Scotland. There has been too much focus on disputes and in-fighting but even given that the left in Scotland is very widely spread and has not always been good at talking to itself. If one branch of the left comes up with a proposal it is often the case that another feels somehow suspicious. If we leave the creation of ideas and the setting of agendas to political parties it can make it hard for others to come on board. So rather than focussing the left through another political party or the reform of an existing one, the Reid Foundation aims to provide a mechanism for the left to come together on an issue-by-issue basis by creating a ‘safe space’ for debate.
And that is what we thought we were producing – a ‘think tank’ which would produce new ideas that people would feel able to support and which could grasp the political imagination in Scotland. But then something a little unexpected happened…
Almost immediately after the launch people started to contact us. They wanted to know how they could get involved, what they could do with and for the Foundation. These weren’t academics or politicians or in many cases even activists. They were just members of the public who warmed to the idea that there was an alternative to ‘same old policies, same old processes, same old voices’.
This has opened up a real challenge for those of us who created the Foundation. We always knew that we would need to engage with people and that social media and alternative networks would be an important part of it. But now we see the potential for a more genuinely two-way relationship with people who support what we are trying to do and making the most of this – really getting people involved – is an opportunity we can’t afford to miss. An organisation with fresh thinking, good organisation and a wide base of support could have a genuine impact on Scottish politics.
But as with all new initiatives the Reid Foundation will only be as successful as what we deliver. The work programme of the Foundation will be set by a Project Board with a broad range of people from different backgrounds who have demonstrated the ability to come up with genuinely new thinking. It is important that it does not just become a ‘comment tank’, voicing opinions on what is happening or carrying out bits of research that illuminate briefly and then disappear. We will have to keep the pressure on ourselves to come up with ideas that can work, that can be implemented and that will make a difference. Hopefully a wider network of supporters will help us to keep that pressure on ourselves. I certainly see it as key to being successful.
Another challenge is how to balance the idea of ‘safe space’ with ‘radical ideas’. While the Foundation is trying to bring people together across party and other boundaries it has to be able to do this without slipping down to a lowest common denominator position with fudged outcomes and a cautious approach.
Now, in many area this should not be difficult – in all sorts of social policy areas there is a widespread desire for more radical thinking. And in others while there may be more resistance to radical thinking it should not prevent the Foundation from putting them forward and getting agreement and support. So for example, for the left to get involved with economic development policy would be seen as unusual and economic policy practitioners have become so used to following a standard neoliberal line that different voices would probably cause disorientation and perhaps be received as hostile. But in these cases the Foundation will have no difficulty in pushing against the grain of existing policy as an intervention is desperately needed.
So bringing people together need not mean timidity and there will certainly be no attitude of ‘safer is better’. But there is one field where it may prove more difficult to keep the left together and that is in the field of constitutional change. This is an area where there is some significant division in parts of the left. But in fact that division may not be quite as big as some assume. While there remains a dividing line between support and opposition for independence, there is almost no support on the left for the status quo. The question is not should we change but how much should we change? And while there remains some tendency to think in terms of how little can be changed while still appearing to support change, this is a rapidly-declining position. The debate on the left is moving towards a more extensive view of what powers Scotland should have and most on the left tend towards a more ‘maximalist’ position.
The Foundation will try to be inclusive on this issue and if there are voices on the left that want to make a case for how to change society within a variation of the existing constitutional settlement the Foundation will be happy to encourage that debate. One thing it simply can’t afford to do is to try to avoid issues where there is disagreement, and particularly the constitution. So it won’t.
And there is one final challenge for organisations like the Reid Foundation and that is to survive. Without wealthy business backers finding sustainable funding sources is always hard work. The Foundation is being supported initially by money gifted to the Scottish Left Review (which is setting up the Foundation). But this will not enable it to survive for long without more funding. The Foundation will have a Director who will work full time but otherwise will operate with the lowest possible overheads to make sure that funding can be used to promote policies and not to pay rent. And with the enormous good will we are receiving it will be possible to do a large amount of work without a large amount of money.
But we still need to find a way to keep going. So we are launching a major fundraising campaign backed by some of Scotland’s leading figures. We hope to be able to raise enough money to secure the Foundation for the first two years and over that time to develop ways of sustaining our work into the future. If you are able, please go to the Reid Foundation website and donate. And keep an eye on the website to sign up to mailing lists and to get involved.
More than one person has told us that the Reid Foundation is an idea whose time has come. The response we have had to the launch certainly backs this up. Now we need to get on and deliver to keep the momentum going. That’s how a good idea becomes the starting point for change.