Robin McAlpine, director of Common Weal, explains the White Paper Project and a fresh vision for Scotland
WHAT’S the best way to build a new nation state? For all the strengths contained in Scotland’s Future, the White Paper on independence published by the Scottish Government prior to the first referendum, there was much more about vision and aspiration than there was about the nuts and bolts of how to get things done.
At Common Weal we’ve been working on the White Paper Project, an initiative to try and explore what a revised case for independence might look like going into the next referendum. From the outset we’ve been asking not what visionary things Scotland could do after independence but instead what concrete, solid things do we have to do to be ready for independence day.
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And when you start to ask not “what” but “how”, some big questions emerge. If we’re going to set up a civil service, a foreign office, a department of trade and industry, a borders and immigration service, an energy system, a military, possibly a new currency and central bank, there is a lot of work to do.
Our existing civil service would be compromised if there was a vote for independence because it continues to be line-managed from London. In any case, there simply aren’t hundreds of civil servants sitting around looking for something to do.
So no matter what, we will need to recruit a lot of people to get the work done – and there’s a strong case for suggesting that the UK civil service is not best placed to be in charge of the process. Which implies there would need to be some kind of new organisation given the task.
That then raises the question about how that organisation should be set up, managed and governed. Who should shape it? Who should steer it? Who should it be answerable to?
At the last referendum there was a strong suggestion that this process would be under the control of the Scottish Government. I must admit I always had some principled reservations about this.
First, on a purely technical basis, no-one (including the Scottish Government) had any democratic mandate to design and build a new Scottish state. No election had been held at which the public had been offered democratic choices on what would be done or how. A mandate to run devolved public services is not a mandate to create a new nation state. But more importantly than that, there is a strong argument against any one political party having a monopoly on building a new nation. A nation is owned by and is there for all its people and there is a strong case that it should be created by all the people. I always had some concerns that this fresh start might all begin behind closed doors. Surely that’s not the start a new Scotland deserved.
An even stronger argument for a collective way of building that Scotland is that frankly it will be done better. There is now lots of really compelling evidence that decisions are better made when more people are involved. And Scotland really is full of expertise on a wide range of subjects. Simply put, we’d do a better job of building a new nation if we’re all working together.
But possibly (for independence supporters) the strongest argument of all is that we should take seriously the concerns of people who might support independence but who for whatever reason don’t support the SNP. The idea (fair or not) that the SNP might take a “to the victors the spoils” approach to a Yes vote was a genuine concern for a lot of people.
Think about it in reverse – if you support the SNP, how would you feel if you got the impression that after a Yes vote a group of anonymous Labour politicians and their friends were going to lock the doors and design Scotland between them? Perhaps that kind of suspicion is misplaced, but we need to start taking these worries more seriously if we’re going to build a strong winning margin for independence.
For all of these reasons, we’ve suggested that immediately after a Yes vote a “National Commission” should be set up. Think of it a bit like a democratically run short-term civil service with only one purpose – to build the systems and infrastructure of an independent nation and to negotiate with Westminster.
We’re proposing it would exist for three years (that’s how long we think it would take from a Yes vote to the day that Scotland became officially independent) and would recruit the best possible people it could find to build every aspect of the new Scotland.
And both to open up the building process to the widest possible talent and to help to reassure any worried potential Yes voters that a new Scotland won’t begin its life as some kind of stitch-up, we’re suggesting that it should be governed mutually through a ‘Council’ with all political parties represented in proportion to the vote they received in the most recent Scottish election.
We’re also suggesting that all the richness of civic Scotland should be represented on the Council too. This would make it much closer to the model of the Constitutional Convention which brought Scotland together to design the Scottish Parliament.
But times have moved on since then. There is now a much better recognition that citizens themselves should be involved in these crucial decisions about Scotland’s future. So we’re suggesting that we should use models of citizen participation on the governing Council as well.
That would make an organisation which is able to recruit the best talent from all across Scotland and beyond, and which was overseen by a Council which did everything it could to offer a voice to all of Scotland.
This is only our first draft of the White Paper Project and we’re really interested to hear what people think about our plans. For democratic, practical and strategic reasons we think there is a strong case for an open, inclusive process of building a new Scotland.
But above all we think, as a matter of principle, the best possible future Scotland is one that is built to belong to everyone. We think setting up a National Commission with a broad-based governing Council is the best way to do it. We think it promises a start for an independent Scotland that rejects the closed-shop nature of British politics, that is born not in control-freakery but openness. So we think it sets the tone for the kind of future people say they really want.
What do you think? Email to tell us on WhitePaper@common.scot