Pushing Forward Not with Certainty

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By Robin McAlpine

Letting go is so much harder than clinging on. It’s a skill I’m having to learn after 20 years working in the media and in politics, places where strong central control tends to be assumed. But I think I learned my biggest lesson so far on Friday.

We had been contacted by a couple of people in Inverness who wanted to start a local Common Weal group and they asked if I’d come up and speak to an inaugural meeting. I didn’t really know them and to be honest I didn’t have any idea what their plans were or what they wanted to do. Old me would have been worried.

New(ish) me was mainly knackered. I drove up to Inverness weary and not exactly sure what it would be like. I dropped my stuff at the guesthouse I was staying in, grabbed some chips and headed out to Bogbain farm where the meeting was being held. The car park was packed. When I got in the place was mobbed. They’d organised a children’s Halloween party as a creche so kids were running all over the place. I met up with the organiser and Jean Urquhart (who was speaking along with me) to go over the format. Then I wandered into The Barn where the meeting was being held.

My heart lifted. For those that don’t know the venue, the Barn is a long, narrow, high space with old stone walls atmospherically lit with twinkling lights. It was packed – people sat on straw bails, chairs, the floor. The atmosphere was amazing. The response was amazing. The whole thing was amazing. And when people started to talk about what they wanted to do locally, that too was amazing. Ideas included everything from training people to reading groups to organising food banks.

We (Common Weal central) couldn’t have organised anything this good and this locally focussed. I don’t know Inverness well enough to be able to propose how to address their local social issues. I don’t want to tell them how to organise. Common Weal is, at heart, about encouraging people to see social change as about something we all do, in our own way, in our own place. It’s about taking responsibility for ourselves.

I think there are now over 25 local groups which have either formed or which are in the process of forming. We’re happy for them to associate with us, happy for them to use our ideas, our logo. They’re all voluntary, self-funded. They don’t give us any money and while we’d like to be able to offer some support, we don’t yet have enough income to provide them with funding (although we have two members of staff dedicated to offering support and advice where it is helpful). We couldn’t control them even if we wanted to. Old me would have been worried about this – every group an opportunity for someone to do something that might possibly cause bad publicity. It wouldn’t be exactly true to say that new me is absolutely completely relaxed about this (old habits and all that). But I have come to realise that it’s a price that has to be paid if we ever want to escape from the centralised, top-down, command-and-control nature of ‘the way it’s always been done’.

And so today we’ve spent a lot of time on social media fighting back against suggestions coming from those not sympathetic to us that we’re hypocrites because one of our local groups put out a clumsily worded call asking for volunteer barristas to help make coffee for a non-profit initiative – and we’re not paying a living wage (for volunteers).

It’s a great initiative.

A local cafe which doesn’t open in the evenings has offered the local Common Weal group to use the space for a social gathering place for events and discussion about politics and society – one of the ‘Common’ cafes we’ve talked about. Any profits will help the group run events and put on a programme of activities. Nothing about this seemed in any way unusual – and yet ‘anti poverty organisation doesn’t pay living wage’ may appear in newspapers tomorrow. Ho hum.

So what do we do? Do we clamp down, ask every local group to pre-approve every initiative it wants to do by us first? Should we be vetting volunteers? Checking every line of every press release a local group sends to its local papers? Should we expect people (many of whom are getting involved in active politics for the first time) to never make mistakes? To be afraid and cautious? Oh god, I hope not. If we do, how will we be any different from the old way of doing things? How could we possibly say we’ve learned anything from the last two years in which how we see politics in this country has been turned on its head?

Which means I think we’ll need to get used to every action from every local group being used by opponents to attack us. And you know what? I think I’m ready to live with it. The alternative just looks so rubbish, so patronising, so dead.

This does not mean we don’t care. We care very much. At our Board Meeting last week we agreed a process for creating a ‘charter’ on what we think it means to be Common Weal, what behaviours it assumes. And we’re going to produce it in a participative way that involves anyone who wants to contribute. It will be a series of standards it is possible to live up to and we’ll expect people to live up to them. But it will be a long way short of control.

I really hope that one day it will be normal to have de-centered organisations which are celebrated for the strength of their totality and not attacked arbitrarily for the mistakes or failures (real or imagined) of their weakest parts. In the meantime, I absolutely realise that Common Weal is going to be shot at by those that don’t share our hopes for Scotland. I’d just rather be shot for trusting people to do their own thing than for being some sort of central control freak.



Categories: Commentary

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34 replies

  1. Well, all that’s encouraging!

    • I was one of the people there who had two wee folk running about, Well in fact one who was only six weeks sitting with me. I am lucky enough to know some of the people who were there also and have no doubt that you are right not to be tempted into trying to overly control local groups. Some of these people have simply amazed me at their desire during the referendum campaign to take time out of their very busy lives simply to want to try and change other peoples lives for the better. I know these folk, I know they care about fairness in society more than they care about themselves, I know some of them to be comfortable and some of them to be totally skint, It is fantastic to feel that they can unite in the things Common Weal stand for no matter who they are.

      I also got to meet new people who all talked about the need to change politics and look after their communities and how excited they were. Everyone I talked to touched on the heartfelt sadness and pain they felt on September the 19th (put me into labour) but they were back out and ready to look at things differently, all simply wanting to make things better for the so many who need it. They are not all people who feel they belong to a political party but like many want to be brave enough to do more than moan about the way things are done but to try and help change it. It was a great night and I will be volunteering as a result and encouraging others locally to do the same.

      I can’t recommend highly enough to other groups to have childcare at the meetings. It was so refreshing to be able to go out with them and felt like being in a foreign country where children are not always excluded and left to play in plastic shiny snot covered rooms covered in foam. In the run up to the referendum my mums and toddlers group barely spoke about anything else and some of us were there at Common Weal carrying on and vowing to keep fighting.

      Looking forward to the next meeting locally and to lots more to come from Common Weal. Thanks so much for this event.

  2. ah, christ, back to nescafe, eh? know what, you could use those “volunteer” baristas to train young folks to be “baristas” and they could then go out and be baristas and tell the chattering folks who visit the cafes how great it was to get the opportunity to train to be a barista WITH NO FEES!

  3. What a fabulous vision presented in this article. Robin, you should be proud that Common Weal has inspired groups like this one in Inverness. Ignore those who cannot see this as positive. Well done.

  4. Meh. The haters are going to hate, the trolls are going to troll, and the usual supsects are going to…. errrm…. be usual and suspicious.

    Not every worthy endeavor has to be about paying everybody a living wage, thank heavens.

    Good luck 🙂

    PS Thanks for writing a thoughtful post 🙂

  5. “Should we expect people (many of whom are getting involved in active politics for the first time) to never make mistakes?”

    I think this is the crux of the matter, and social media is particularly unforgiving of honest mistakes, since there’s little room for nuance and subtlety, and it doesn’t take long for a shit-storm to arise. Mistakes are going to happen, things are going to go wrong, people are going to disagree or fall out, and we’re just going to have to accept all that if we’re serious about getting away from robotic, soulless politics controlled by vested interests. The establishment media will be looking out for any chance to try and bring people into line – the Mail is apparently already digging around for stories about various fundraising projects – so days like today are inevitable.

    There are so many wee projects going on that some are bound to fail, either through bad planning or just folk totally underestimating how much time and work is involved – both simply because of inexperience. People learn from their mistakes, though. But perhaps the one thing to take from today’s episode is the importance of clarity in communications and being able to second-guess the kind of criticisms you might get if you word things a certain way and so on – maybe press officers can play a positive role in society after all 😛

  6. I love this article! there may be some precedence in ‘allowing’ in the wonderful Ubuntu Contributionism movement Robin. Have a wee look if you haven’t already http://www.michaeltellinger.com/ubuntu-cont.php You may find some common ground there. I love Common Weal – it expresses what I feel so well about my wishes and dreams for Scotland – it resonates with common decency and what’s right, which is why it will gain wide acceptance. Thank you for what you are doing.

  7. What Doug Daniel and Susan Kemp said!

  8. “Should we expect people (many of whom are getting involved in active politics for the first time) to never make mistakes?”

    Sarah Beattie Smith is hardly someone who is getting involved in active politics for the first time, she was an college student president for 2 years, sits on the the edinburgh university court, is active with citizens advice at Holyrood and also with the green party for a considerable period of time.

    There’s no easy way to say this, but we really don’t need people on board who have no awareness that people need to be paid – the time for re-wording the adverts and understanding about how nice the person is has to end at some point.

    It either ends now – or at the next point someone discovers that another volunteer is going to get absolutley nothing, whereupon we will get yet another reworded advert by a very nice,popular middle class person.

    The example of the Forest cafe was used as a defence of volunteering – they were very well off people who could afford to do that and both Ryan VW and Rachel McCrum were paid for ‘managing’.

    I get what you’re doing with the groups, but you should make it clear they are autonmous (a sort of CW version of the traditions) before you roll them out – however, they can of course be de-listed as well, you can change openers and so on …..there is actually action you can take.

  9. the only way to learn to be an independent thinker and doer is to have a go for yourself..hands-on is the only way…trust your ability to learn from your mistakes..Common Weal is one of the best thing that’s come out of the Independence campaign…just be true to their principle of All of Us First and you wont go far wrong

  10. The problem is that Commonweal’s constitution does not allow for local groups in any way, shape or form; there is no constitutional relationship there. That may sound like it shouldn’t be a problem, but in years to come it will be.

  11. Well done, Robin and the people of the great yes-voting city of Inverness! I am so proud of the Scots getting organised like this. There is nothing like this going on in England; I very much hope we can set an example to the rest of the country and there can be similar stirrings there… especially in the Celtic parts!

    • For which I thank you, Chris – otherwise I would not have seen this excellent post!
      I also echo KennyM’s observation.

      Remember Lao Tsu 700 BC:
      “Go to the people, work with them, learn from them, respect them, start with what they know, build with what they have. And when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say, ‘we have done this ourselves’. “

  12. I thought that this article was great until I read the line “we’ll need to get used to every action from every local group being used by opponents to attack us”.

    Oh dear.

    Criticism isn’t attack. Critics should not be labelled as opponents.

    Commonweal is now a big venture. It matters, not just to its own members and activists, but to anyone who cares about creating new possibilities. One of the most important possibilities is the creation of a type of movement which sheds both the defensiveness of the political parties and the managerialism of so much of the third sector … and welcomes open dialogue.

    Much of today’s critical commentary seemed to come from critical friends, people who share many of Commonweal’s ideals but have concerns about how some things are done. Commonweal can thrive if it welcomes and celebrates this sort of criticism, and thanks those who helped it rectify a mistake. But if it chooses to label the critics as opponents and the concerns as attacks, then it will become a defensive and inward-looking movement. Please don’t allow that to happen.

    • But mischief-making journalism does constitute an attack.

      • Brian Fleming makes my point very well.

        If CW makes a mistake, and gets criticised, there are two ways of responding:

        1) Thank you for pointing out our mistake. We are grateful for the help in getting things right.

        2) The criticism is mischief-making.

        Like Robin, Brian chooses the second, defensive response. That’s the pathway to an inward-looking organisation, rather than an open one which welcomes public scrutiny.

      • Regardless of all the qualifications others have made abesto’s basic point is right. We might think that we are open, but criticism deflecting mechanisms are present in all organisations. Seeing everything as an opportunity to look again disarms critics who are hostile.

    • One thing we’ve learned very clearly from the Referendum is that the media is not interested in constructive criticism, but is entirely based on an agenda of maintaining and bolstering the establishment.

    • There’s a wee hint of the pot calling the kettle black in this comment, because Robin doesn’t actually say “everyone who criticises us is an opponent” – he’s merely pointing out that those who are opponents will use whatever they can to attack CW.

      Anyway, there are two ways to raise concerns about the way an organisation is doing something.

      The first is to email or message the organisation, telling them your concerns and suggesting they make changes.

      The second is to air your concerns publicly, sometimes without even including the organisation you’re criticising in the messages, making sure everyone sees how outrageous you think the action you’re complaining about is, and hoping to create enough pressure to shame the organisation into modifying their behaviour.

      The first is the proper way of doing things if a person is genuine about wanting to offer friendly criticism that improves the organisation rather than damaging it, but unfortunately we’re all so used to reflexively tweeting about right-wing outrages in the media etc that our immediate response these days is to go for the second. It’s human nature to lash out when you feel you’re being attacked from all sides, so putting the two together, instead of criticism being aired constructively and gratefully received, you get a “dirty laundry aired in public” situation.

      So things to learn on both sides, perhaps?

      • My experience has led me to firmly believe that in both practical and ethical terms, it is a very big mistake to try to problematise the complainant. I have been in a similar situation myself, as part of the national leadership of a small voluntary organisation which took a high profile, albeit in a narrow field, so I comment as someone who has been in the firing line.

        The bigger the organisation the more likely it is that concerns will be aired publicly. When a friend screws up, it’s cruel to go public; when a local voluntary organisation screws up, it’s still most helpful to go private initially; and when a bigger entity (say a political party) screws up it’s probably foolish for the average individual to think that they can achieve anything without going public.

        In my own work, I initially found that most people would raise their concerns privately, but that as our profile rose, so more of the criticism became public. I think there were two reasons for that: more people spotted our errors, and any errors had a bigger impact.

        As our profile grew, more of our work and successes became visible to people who had no personal contact with us. I was still working alone in a corner with an old PC few resources, but to folks who didn’t know us, the organisation appeared to be big and powerful. If we were making that much noise and impact, we must surely be some big team in a big office. The reality was that we were still the same small group of activists, just learning how to do our job better. The upside of our growing experience was increased impact; the downside was that this increased impact also raised the stakes on any errors we made, and made us appear less accessible.

        In the early days, what we said and wrote was circulated in community newsletters, but as our words began to appear regularly in the MSM and to reach government and parliament, they mattered a lot more. The same mistake had much bigger consequences, visible on a bigger stage.

        Criticisms which used to come in a phonecall or email from someone I already knew; but increasingly they came from people whose names were unfamiliar, who in many cases had already gathered others to get steamed up about my perceived failings. It hurt that people hadn’t made a direct approach, and once a grievance gets legs it is much harder to address (whether or not it is well-founded).

        I learnt that hard way that there was no point in getting hurt by way in which concerns were raised. What mattered was that where possible, we resolved them and regained trust; and where there was a clear difference of policy or values, we were clear about why we took one path rather than another.

        The interesting thing was the action required was much the same, no matter how the complaint was made. If we had screwed up, the only morally decent response was also the only practical one: to openly acknowledge the mistake, accepting responsibility, and setting out how it would be fixed. In other words, the problem is not the complainants(s); the problem was that I and/or my colleagues had screwed up in our public responsibilities.

        In doing so, I found something interesting. If my response was that problem was acknowledged and fixed but that the complainants had been unfair, then the complainants remained hostile. My defensiveness perpetuated the animosity, rather than ending it. But if I took care to thank everyone who had raised the complaint, then I gained support and trust; I increased the likelihood that future concerns would be raised sooner and less confrontationally, so that they could be resolved with less damage. And the people who were implacably hostile, merely looking for an opportunity to criticise, became marginalised.

        In this case, the Commonweal local group is part of a national organisation with big ambitions and a high profile. It’s unsurprising that its actions get public scrutiny, and local CW groups need to be aware that as part of something so much bigger they too will be held to high standards. Any perceived failings will be scrutinised much more widely than if they were purely local.

        There are many benefits to being part of something bigger, and I hope that Commonweal’s goals and values help it grow into something much bigger, something which will change Scotland in many positive ways. But with each step upwards, expectations of high standards are also raised, and local groups will need increasing levels of guidance and help in how to reach those standards.

        There will be more errors such as this one, and I hope that Commonweal doesn’t become staid or cautious for fear of criticism. I hope that when future errors produce a barrage of criticism, whether friendly or hostile, the response will be simply be: thank you for holding us to high standards we aspire to meet.

  13. I support CW and I still critiqued the ‘job’ ad. To state that attacks came from ‘opponents’ isn’t really true – the people I saw sharing and commenting on this were CW supporters. It was the defensive apologism CW display that I found more worrying – and thats been further illustrated in this post. Decentralism can’t be used as was to spin out of any accountability. Any organisation that can’t take valid critique, no matter how decentralised, isn’t pushing forward.

  14. Great little piece…and the 2 critical comments are anonymous….oh, well…..same old etc…

  15. Love the title! The pretence of certainty kills possibility!

  16. I think it’s important not to start seeing enemies where there are none. I, too, was critical of the original ad on social media, but not to ‘attack’ CW. In fact I’m very much in favour of the work & philosophy of Common Weal and one of the many who have committed to ongoing financial support. Friends will be honest with you when you need them to be – that’s a virtue, not a vice.

  17. people who do not want change or do nothing, criticise; people who do things and want change, make mistakes, develop and succeed – thus making a difference – that’s life

  18. Like many of the comments I see Robin’s article as his way of moving forward. Of course things have changed since the referendum, the MSM now very much are gearing up for the next election and we in the yes movement are the enemy. So seeing the threat of one sided criticism is only realistic.
    I have worked as an independent therapist for 30 years and have seen so much unwarranted criticism hurled at therapists that I take it as commonplace and expect it not fear it.
    You have to have a very thick skin but see the road you are on as worth the effort.
    Hopefully most enlightened people will see past the critics and their motives.
    Stick together and flourish !
    I personally think the commonweal makes common sense and people will come no matter what.
    Can we open one in Lanark?

  19. The Common Weal is a source of inspiration and it should not be the voice of authority. People will make mistakes and there will be moles whose goal is to destroy what is good. But there will be dynamism and Scotland surely needs dynamism. Move forward without undue fear Robin. All the indy movement doesn’t need is to be subjected to the dead hand of those who think that there is only one way to do things.

  20. Common Weal has a mission. Should the Scottish Gov make an offer to buy into that mission as a policy of social economic development and community empowerment would Robin & CW cooperate?

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