by Martin Sime
IT’S been another exciting week in the debate on the future of Scotland.
On Monday the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) helped to launch a broad coalition of non-governmental organisations who seek to widen out the debate in the lead up to the referendum. Churches, trade unions, students, business leaders and think tanks have joined our call to carry the debate to the wider public and to better connect the hopes and challenges which people face in their daily lives to the constitutional choices they have to make in 2014. Can we make a difference in such a highly charged and politicised atmosphere?
Party politics and the voluntary sector make uneasy bedfellows. Our charitable status prohibits alignment with political parties – although there are no inhibitions to involvement in politics per se. We have no democratic mandate. On the other hand some larger voluntary groups have more members than all of the parties put together; formal involvement in politics is in decline.
Our sector routinely lobbies politicians for laws and resources to support our many causes. One of the main differences between north and south of the border is the strong support which politicians of all persuasions express for the third sector and the difference it makes in our communities. In England, our counterparts face the gloomy prospect of being caught between commercial markets and the empty rhetoric of the Big Society.
Constitutional politics demands a different paradigm. In shorthand, the issues involved are too important to be left solely to the politicians. Their trade relies on seeking advantage over their opponents, most often in the short term. Such cut and thrust is ill-equipped to address major long term constitutional change because, as we have seen from Calman onwards, it narrows and contorts the debate. The politicians already know the answer they want and this contaminates all that they say.
So the challenge now is to see whether this civil society coalition can step into the debate and create space to have a non-party process in the run up to the referendum. Have we got what it takes to hold our nerve and stick to our guns in the glare of media scrutiny and political frenzy? Even more important, can we use our deep roots and powerful affiliations to engage the people of Scotland in mature consideration of the choices they face? Can we reach the parts of our society that party politics can’t?
I believe we can. This week the coalition is launching a website to help connect all of those who want to get involved. We hope to bring together the many resources, initiatives and events which are taking place along with the people who want to get involved. A simple click on the “yes I want to get involved in the Future of Scotland” button will connect you to the campaign, electronic bulletins will keep you up to date and we’ll be running regular blogs and comments through Facebook and Twitter so that everyone can have their say.
But voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises have an opportunity to help mold the Future of Scotland. By importing the button to their own websites and organising debates which promote the involvement of their members, staff, volunteers and service users they can carry the debate to millions of citizens all across the country. It’s a great way to connect your cause to others and to listen to what people are saying.
Already a number of organisations I’ve met are beginning to plan their contribution. The Black and Ethnic Minority Infrastructure in Scotland (BEMIS) is going to hold special events for ethnic minorities, the Scottish Youth Parliament and Youth Link will work with others to get young people, whatever their age, into the debate. There is already work underway looking at how devolving employability might work and the first paper on a devolved welfare programme in Scotland has just landed on my desk.
I am confident that many more initiatives will follow because the third sector is a positive mine of information and detailed knowledge about every conceivable public policy issue. This knowledge should and can be an important ingredient in the make-up of tomorrow’s Scotland. As an organisation you do not have to have a political agenda to consider the implications of constitutional change. What will be the impact of a devolved lottery? Will devolving international development provide opportunities or obstacles? What happens when free personal care and benefits collide? These and much else are the nuts and bolts, the core business of public services and public life which need to be unravelled and considered anew in the context of the referendum.
Broadening the terms of the debate and deepening public involvement in it are two sides of the same coin – the more we open up the questions, the more people will want to get involved and vice versa. It’s a virtuous circle. Voluntary organisations are famed for their reach and the trust they engender – here is an opportunity to ensure that unique position enables the Scottish people to make an informed choice about their future.
I’m often disappointed by the reluctance of organisations to speak out when they have suffered, for example, cuts in their local government funding. There’s often a degree of intimidation going on, and a reluctance to bite the hand that feeds, even if the meal has been reduced to the odd pile of crumbs. Critics claim we have lost our edge in search of the next public service contract.
The Future of Scotland campaign is a chance to throw such caution aside. The coalition (ours, not the UK Government!) has created the space for debates about the kind of country we want to be and voluntary organisations can enter the debate on their terms, with their networks, debating the issues that they care about. Yes, this will eventually take us into the business end of politics, but this is not a debate about which party offers the best prospectus; we are exploring how the structure and purposes of government can best reflect the challenges we face as citizens and as a country.
Your involvement in this historic project is only a click away.