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.