When we were picking the Scots words and phrases to be used to theme our Edinburgh Festival shows there was one phrase the team was particularly keen was included – “taps aff”. For anyone from outside Scotland reading this it just means “looks people, look – the sun has come out so don’t waste it, get your top off, run half naked through the streets and make the most of it while you can”. In our Festival shows we use it to represent the moment in the progress of the independence campaign where we all realised that this was probably the best chance we had to take a shot at producing a really exciting political discussion, that the time for demure caution was over and the time to go just a bit mad was upon us. It was the moment when the campaign that we all now celebrate was really born.
But in Scottish terms, a miracle has happened and the sun is still shining on us. The family and I are just back from our first proper holiday in five years, a week in Reykjavik. During the campaign Cristina and I (like many of you, I know) played a game of ‘if there is a No vote and Scotland turns into a desolate and demoralised hell-hole of conservatism, to where shall we emigrate?’. We decided on Iceland, what with their banker-jailing habits and the general sense of edge-of-the-world cool. And it is still an amazing place – we got into a long conversation with a cafe-owner who had been heavily involved with their social movements and it is still inspiring. But, in the conversation, something fascinating emerged – Iceland is still in a battle to forge a different politics but the chances of it happening are now quite a bit higher in Scotland.
I’m writing this in Heathrow Airport (on Saturday, when the sun was still out and the Greeks hadn’t yet voted). I’m on the way back up from a fascinating two days of round table meetings organised by the London School of Economics and Open Democracy in which activists from social movements all round the world got together to see what we can learn from each other. I was honoured to be asked to come down and talk about the Scottish situation. The people who were there represented struggles of all sorts – there were activists from Greece, Spain, Turkey, Armenia, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Hong Kong, Ukraine, Mexico and many other places. It was eye-opening. The Greeks were facing right in front of them a major showdown on the future of their country, a showdown they didn’t know whether they would win but which they felt strong just having been able to create. The Spaniards talked about the long way still to go but also about how much they have built over the last few years. The Armenians talked about the way their campaign has started to draw in and win over whole new sections of their population, and yet at the same time how narrow (for now) are the issues on which they fight.
And then a female activist from Jordan talked about how thinking about even a basic level of democracy seemed so distant for her, living as she does in a situation where she struggles even to be heard seriously in her extended family, a culture where a hierarchy of gender and age is pervasive.
In Scotland we are lucky beyond our wildest dreams. You only have to tell an activist from Tunisia or South Africa or Mexico where we are and how we got here to realise what a gift we’ve been given – no blood, no real hatred, everything still feeling like it is possible. My conclusion, shared by almost everyone I talked to, is that there is possibly nowhere in the world right now that is in a better position to do something amazing than Scotland. Certainly the English activists continue to place high hopes in us and so many people want to visit, better to understand some of the hows and whys.
And yet, as is so often the case with privilege (and we really are privileged), it is easy not to notice, to start to take it for granted, to absorb it as the new normal. For Scotland the sun really is out and shining brightly. But have we possibly started to believe that the clouds will never return?
I’ll be honest; my biggest fear is that I’m back at an event like the LSE one again in five years’ time and people start to talk to us the way other activists were talking to those from Tunisia – so much hope, what went wrong? In the excitement of what the indyref has done to Scotland, are we at risk of forgetting that getting the ball into the box is not the same thing as scoring a goal? Frankly, are we going to take this moment, this amazing moment, and blow it?
What is the root of my concern? Well, we’re now months away from the Holyrood elections. The movements we’ve built are great. The way our progressive political parties have changed and grown is great. The engagement among our population is great. The sense of hope and optimism is great. Now, what are we going to do with it? What policies can we enact in the four years between 2016 and 2020 that will transform Scotland in the way we say we want it transformed? In short, if you were to add together all the good ideas you’ve heard about what Scotland should do in the next four years, do you think it would sum up to a programme worthy of our aspirations? My worry is that I don’t think we yet have enough big ideas from which to construct a really transformational plan.
I understand the many reasons; people are exhausted from what feels like non-stop campaigning, some people are worried that trying anything ambitious might possibly go wrong and harm the longer-term case for independence, some people are focused on other equally important tasks (in communities, organising campaigns, developing skills and capacity). But we may get only one chance to make the most of this moment, of this space for real transformational policy-making. It is our collective responsibility to do everything we can to build a ‘community of ideas’, like some kind of pool of thinking and imagination from which we can encourage the political parties to fish. We didn’t leave this kind of task to ‘someone else’ during the indyref and that’s why we became so strong. I don’t believe we can just assume that ‘someone else’ is doing it right now.
Apart from putting on Butterfly Rammy, this is Common Weal’s overwhelming focus over the summer. During the referendum we produced a book which asked a simple question – what could Scotland do to change itself if it had all the powers of an independent country? Before this autumn we will publish another book asking an equally simple question – what can Scotland do between 2016 and 2020 using the powers it has to make itself a better country? We’ve been working on it quietly for quite a while, drawing on lots of expertise.
But with Common Weal being Common Weal, it’s not enough that this discussion is held only between the ‘experts’. So we’ve been developing a methodology we’re calling ‘policy labs’ to encourage people to get involved. A lab will be a variation on what many people will recognise as a ‘hack’ – not a general discussion group but a fixed period of time (usually a day) in which a mixed group of people pose themselves a specific question and, to that deadline, must produce specific proposals and ideas. An outcome-focussed event to generate innovate ideas and pragmatic plans. We’re currently sending out packs to our 60-odd local groups to help them organise their own policy labs with a form for sending back to us the proposals they produce. If we can get them by the end of August we’ll get as much as we can into the book.
So find your local group (or start one) and join the lab or organise one. Or if you want to run a lab in your own organisation, with your friends or colleagues, drop Katie an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and she’ll send you a pack (though be a little patient—she’s still finalising the methodology and is away for a week). And watch this space for three pilot events to be run by the central Common Weal team where we will be solidifying a strategy of how to implement and integrate this method into our policy development.
On Friday, in a Skype call to one Greek participant who understandably had to cancel his trip, I shouted out a message of hope that they would win. He shouted back how much he hoped Scotland could set a precedent for others. It was a moving thought that this might even be on his mind two days before a referendum that may determine the next 30 years of his nation’s history. Many around the world are still looking to Scotland. We owe it to them to live up to the aspirations we have created.
But more to the point, we owe it to ourselves. A careful, cautious policy agenda designed not to scare anyone would not live up to the new politics we have built. A same-as-it-ever-was four years of old-politics government is exactly what our opponents are praying for, to put hopes for transformation out of our heads for good. And it would let down the many people struggling in Scotland if we think that somehow or other they’ll just need to survive through to the next independence referendum or something. We must honour the promises we made to be a nation they deserve, that we deserve, that the international community of nations deserves. I don’t even think we have the right to blow this – it is our responsibility not to. It is YOUR responsibility not to.
So Scotland, sun’s oot. Taps aff.