If we look at Scotland today with a cold, hard light, you would struggle to describe us as an ideas-rich environment. The legacy of the independence referendum has been changing that as activists become more interested in what is possible. Brexit poses massive new challenges. In this context what you might refer to as our ‘collective thinking infrastructure’ has not been particularly strong, and obviously that needs to change.
What do I mean by this? Well, let’s start from the reasonable assumption that it is rarely governments or political parties that create the big ideas that define an era or the small detail which dictates success or failure. Reagan didn’t invent Reaganomics – that was the ‘Chicago School’ of right wing economists. Thatcher didn’t invent Thatcherism – that was right-wing think tanks like the Adam Smith Institute. And if Blair took ‘third way’ theory from Clinton, Clinton in turn took that from a range of well-funded centrist US think tanks.
So where, generally, do ideas come from? It is tempting to begin with academia where the blue-sky thinking is meant to be done. And it does – but a lot of the outputs of academia are generally not yet ready for practical use. The concepts and analysis they develop can be crucial, but they generally need to go through another stage of development before they have influence.
That is where public and semi-public institutions and think tanks come in. It is important not to see think tanks as primarily policy-focussed vehicles. Throughout the independence campaign any think tank that opposed Scottish independence was treated as if it had been set up by philanthropists whose only interest was in the betterment of society as a whole. In reality, think tanks were devised in the first half of the century by the public relations industry as a way to ‘launder’ bad ideas and make them look respectable.
Now it is very unfair to suggest that all today’s think tanks are a PR exercise (as someone who runs one, I hope we’re more than that). But think tanks should be thought of not as neutral seekers-after-truth but rather as campaigning organisations which come from one political direction or another. What it does mean is that unless there is a wide range of think tanks and unless they are properly funded, they risk being completely unbalanced and on occasion little more than blogs with pretensions. But a rich think tank environment is a good way to bridge the gap between academia and a more practically focussed consideration of public policy.
Another place where this takes place is in public and semi-public institutions. These might be public agencies tasked to deliver policy objectives which have their own policy function, membership-driven organisations campaigning for member interests (for example trade unions), supra-national institutions such as the World Bank or the European Commission – and of course the civil service or the direct public bureaucracies in other layers of government such as in local authorities.
These can be a mixed bag. Some are enormously risk-averse, seeing radical ideas as a threat to ‘neutrality’ and viewing change as something which is politically loaded. Some are simply undemocratic and wholly captured by ideology. A lot of them see themselves as institutions of management and delivery and shun the idea that they are about big ideas. Some are simply seen as vested interests. And all of them tend to be afflicted with all the usual problems of institutions and bureaucracies – slow to change, staffed with people who do well out of the status quo, keen to please paymasters and so on.
Then there is a campaigning and advocacy sector. This sector is mostly on the more liberal and left end of the scale (right wing and business interests tend to prefer buying direct influence…), but not wholly. So while there are lots of visible campaign groups on everything from the environment to racism to gender to poverty, there are also religiously focussed campaign groups and single-issue campaigns which sometimes tend in the other political direction. What is slightly strange is that campaigning groups are routinely written off as vested interests in a way that think tanks and business interests aren’t. Their analysis and ideas often tend to be treated with more suspicion, in a ‘they would say that, wouldn’t they’ kind of way.
A next layer you’d expect to find in an ideas-rich environment is a broad media sector. This does not just mean strong, daily newspapers with well-commissioned opinion and analysis sectors, it means specialist policy publications, investigative journalism, new media discussion sites and basically any other medium via which the ideas produced by others can be looked at, scrutinised, discussed and debated. But if you want this to function well, it requires balance, a readership and an audience. If every newspaper is owned by one wing of politics, if every journal is geared towards an internal readership and if no one is investing in investigation, this sector will not fulfil its job.
Finally, there are vested interests. In various ways, much of the above lies in the public domain. They are public discourses to which we can all be party (if we want). Beyond these is a large, very well funded and almost completely secret world of lobbying in all its forms. Sometimes lobbyists use think tanks to ‘launder’ their ideas (oil companies, big tobacco and those involved with pushing for GM crops are particularly bad for this) or use the media to press their concerns. Other times they just push government for policy and spending decisions directly. Mostly, they don’t want public discussion of these ideas; they just want to cut deals directly and in private. It is possibly reasonable to argue that this line of ‘idea generation’ has a greater impact on final public policy than any of the others outside the civil service itself. And of course, the private lobby sector works closely with and on some occasions has actually placed itself inside the civil service.
The last paragraph begins ‘finally’. It shouldn’t. There ought to be some mechanism where ordinary citizens are given the access and power to discuss, debate and influence ideas. But other than in some small and mostly experimental instances (such as developments in participatory budgeting), they don’t. Ideas are something that the elite do, not the wider public. (And this was what made the Scottish independence referendum such a breath of fresh air – ordinary people in their own communities really did get involved in a debate about ideas.)
So if this maps out the components of an ideas-rich political environment, what does it look like when it works? Put simply, there is breadth and depth, balance and transparency. Think tanks would come from many different political stances and have something like equal resources. Academia would be better funded for public policy and be a bit more orientated towards policy-makers (while being protected from increasing encroachment on their academic freedom from their managers). The media would be diverse, properly funded and properly read. Campaign groups would be listened to as much as big business and very little of this would be done in secret. The civil service and other public agencies would be able better to balance the need to take risks and the need to ensure some kind of policy continuity and stability. There would be much better mechanisms for public engagement in ideas. And politicians would have more incentives to make the best decision and not the safest one.
So much for the ideal – what do matters actually look like in Scotland? Well, not like that. Academia is fairly uneven in its relationships with government (and the regimes in Scottish universities are undemocratic and career structures discourage trouble-making and risk-taking). There are few think tanks and they’re barely resourced (that Common Weal is the biggest is a constant source of surprise to me, given how little resource we’ve got). Also, they are not generally all that well integrated into decision-making processes, partly because none really have the resources to meet the demands that would place on them – but also because they’re mostly all new.
The ‘traditional’ media seems like it is on its last legs. There are few policy journals about Scotland and fewer people who read them. The print media is disinvesting left, right and centre and its readership dwindles seemingly by the hour. Our ‘national’ broadcaster is seldom viewed in a particularly positive light when it comes to big thinking and covering national politics. And while there is a comparatively flourishing new media scene, it is barely funded.
Our public institutions are steeped in a low-risk mindset and are mostly utterly conventional and content to manage their own little fiefdoms. The civil service in particular is an uncomfortable amalgam of big thinking and administration. Because of the lack of alternative source of ideas it is often the civil service which is tasked with doing the blue-sky stuff (and I should add that there are many very good and very bright people in the Scottish civil service). But as they also have the task of implementing policies, and as success in implementing policies is generally measured as ‘no-one noticed’, there is an internal conflict of interests. There is a strong incentive to scale back big thinking to meet the ‘safety first’ imperative of implementation. So we often don’t even know if there was a big idea in the first place.
We have a reasonable series of campaigning organisations in Scotland, but it is not as rich as it was. Though cooption as some big NGOs became contracting bodies for government services, because of the steps to limit the campaigning activities of charities by right-wing government in Westminster and because of the general scaling-up and corporatisation of the NGO sector, we have good, smaller campaigning groups in specific areas but not in others (for example, Scotland has never had a dedicated anti-PFI campaign and no real lobby for high quality social housing).
The combination of all this means that we have a comparatively empty ideas agenda – and this is a vacuum the lobbying sector is happy to fill. A lot of economic policy in Scotland in particular looks rather like a straight life from some of the corporate interests. It is important to be clear that Scotland does not have anything like the corporate capture that we see in Westminster – but then it has less of the balancing think tank and campaigning sector either.
When it comes to the ideas environment which surrounds the Scottish Parliament, it sometimes looks a bit better suited to a large regional authority than it does a national government. And it is perhaps because Scotland still seems to be caught somewhere in between these two notions (national and regional) that we haven’t developed that fuller ‘thinking infrastructure’.
And this really matters. Say what you like about the direction of travel in government in Westminster, but it is ambitious, radical, determined and detailed. It is a right-wing programme which has been developed by a wide range of right-wing thinkers dedicating serious resource over a sustained period of time to create that agenda, from the dismantling of a wholly-public NHS and the neutering of the BBC to the permanent protection of tax havens and the radical overhaul of the structure of state schooling. If there isn’t an agenda in Scotland, we will drift. And drift is a very attractive attribute to the secret lobbyist who is happy to bring ‘easy, non-risky’ solutions to the table.
So what can we do to fix this in Scotland? Here are four specific suggestions. Two of these could be seen to benefit Common Weal directly so I will do no more than outline the ideas generally.
First, Scotland has no funding of any sort for alternative media. In fact, there isn’t really any direct funding for media at all (though public sector advertising helps to keep some publications going). Scotland has a media which is in existential crisis. The overheads of print media in relation to their declining sales means sustaining them is a difficult problem to solve. But funding for new and on-line media (probably in the not-for-profit sector) is much easier and cheaper to support. We really do need to take media more seriously, recognise it as an important part of our democracy, accept that what we have is almost certainly not fulfilling that role – and dedicate a little money to it. The kinds of sums we’re talking about here are negligible in the scheme of public budgets. Of course there are difficulties in being seen to be even-handed, but the imperative to support places where debate and discussion can take place is too strong to do nothing.
Second, even more difficult to balance is the question of funding campaigning and think tank work. Inevitably, public funding for campaigning and think tank work has been made controversial by Westminster and the right-wing media which constantly questions whether ‘unpopular causes’ should get ‘your taxpayer’s money’. But then what they really want is that only organisations which can get money from rich donors are able to participate in democracy. While there would be some political hurdles to overcome, recognising that a society without a non-governmental, independently minded civic sector which deals in ideas, thinking and analysis is not properly serving its democracy would help us to move forward. We need sustainable and reasonably funded think tanks of every political persuasion if we want a strong policy debate in Scotland. Some modest public support would help enormously.
But that’s enough of what might look like special pleading. There are other important steps we can take.
A third one is to democratise decision-making generally, opening up closed systems to public debate. Common Weal has written and published quite a bit on how to make participatory democracy work. Particularly relevant here is the way in which advice and consultation processes are carried out. At the moment the standard model is to create either a consultation managed by the people making the proposal (who will clearly have vested interests in certain outcomes) or to set up an enquiry of some description, generally made up of ‘experts’ in any given area.
These both have major problems associated. It is pretty universally recognised that consultation almost always takes place too late in the process or has too little impact on actual outcomes. They also tend to be passive processes, attracting only restatements of the already-established positions of organisations which are resourced to respond. There are much better ways to manage consultation. Taking responsibility for the act of consulting away from the body which is making the proposals would help. So would using much more supported practices which help many more people engage with an idea – and at the very earliest stage. Genuine public participation in ideas at an early stage is a realistic goal. It could very easily increase the quality of ideas being generated.
Even more importantly, the process of enquiry and advice should move from being one controlled by insiders (or ‘experts’ as they are generally referred to, in the way my cat is an expert on mice) and rather make it a more neutral space controlled by citizens. Rather than a number of people from very similar backgrounds with very similar views getting together and agreeing with each other in private, processes such as citizen’s juries and deliberation polls open this process up. Of course expert views are crucial – but rather than controlling the process of developing thinking, they would simply be feeding in their views along side others who generally have less privileged access. If expert advice is persuasive enough, it will of course shape decisions. But it would enable ideas to be tested much more fully and completely, and would create a solid avenue via which alternative ideas can be fed in.
Fourthly and finally, for the purposes of this piece of reflection, we need to address the weaknesses in the ‘blue sky’ and analytical part of the process. The dual role of the civil service as thinker and doer is problematic – because as explained above, these two responsibilities can very easily be in conflict with each other. Unfortunately, the civil service is not devolved to Scotland so any substantial restructuring or redesign is not possible here. However, the civil service in Scotland does have extensive ability to second people to external organisations. This is an effective route to developing a better system
Scotland could establish a series of ‘policy academies’. These would probably be set up by linking them to universities (though the governance would be entirely independent). Policy academies could cover any range of subjects wanted – a Economic Development Policy Academy, a Poverty, Equality and Social Justice Policy Academy, a Policy Academy for Towns, Cities and Housing, a Rural Policy Academy and so on.
Once they are established each would be staffed through a process of seconding civil servants, attaching practicing academics and by enabling other organisations to be located in and around the academies (with very great care taken to ensure equality of access and to avoid issues of ‘capture’). Each academy would be governed in a transparent and democratic way, providing access not only to interest and expert groups but also using the best practices in participatory democracy to engage the wider public. There should be means and routes which would enable individuals or organisations to submit ideas which would be examined and where appropriate developed. Government would go to an academy as a first port of call when devising big new policy ideas. Parliamentary committees would ask academies to scrutinise and comment on government proposals. It would be expected that academies may well produce ‘plural’ outcomes – more than one opinion, more than one proposal, more than one piece of advice. In the end it is for elected politicians to decide. The role of academies is to think, not to dictate.
These four steps – funding media, funding think tanks and ‘thinking NGOs’, putting in place participatory democracy practices, and creating national policy academies – would for the first time give Scotland some serious ‘thinking infrastructure’. It would make us a nation where producing big ideas was normal, engaging people with those ideas would be everyday, a citizen with a bright idea would have somewhere to go with it, proposals would be effectively scrutinised and vested interests would find their voices balanced by a wider range of other voices.
Scotland is in a fascinating, transitional period. It is being changed from a regional administrative centre of the British State to being an independent and independently-minded nation of its own (whether than nation has a state or not has yet to be finally decided). But in that transition it is sometimes trying to behave like a nation with the intellectual infrastructure of ‘the provinces’. This is a recipe for bad thinking and for policy capture by vested interests. We can do better than this. We have all the ingredients necessary for a much better nation with a much richer ideas environment. It would require so little investment for the returns it would generate that I have come to believe this could be one of the most valuable developments we could see over the next few years.
I really do hope that a wider community begins to see just how important ideas are – and just how shallow is the pool from which we are currently fishing. Scotland has an amazing tradition of innovation. This would be the perfect time to rediscover that tradition and to engineer our public life as a place that thinks big thoughts. If we do, we’ll all benefit.
This is an extract from Scotland 2021.
In forty chapters we explore practical radical innovation and policy challenges with contributions from Irvine Welsh, Joyce McMillan, Maggie Chapman, Robin McAlpine, Kathy Galloway, Tom French, Vonnie Moyes, Anuj Kapilashrami, Niamh Webster, Michael Marten, Milja Radovic, Talat Yaqoob, Jan Bebbington, Adam Ramsay and dozens more.
Scotland 2021 edited by Simon Barrow and Mike Small (Paperback) (ISBN: 9780993294235)