Scotland needs popular politics

News Dec 05, 2013 2 Comments

Robin McAlpine, Reid Foundation Director, explains the purpose of the Common Weal Launch Party this Sunday. The event is free but spaces are limited, click here to register.

We are often very suspicious of popular politics. Evidence of this is our conversion of the word populism from its original meaning. Populism is derived from the word populous and literally means dividing a bigger section of the population against a smaller section. But we use it as an insult of any political policy that has widespread appeal. So we’ve heard in Scotland that universal public services and free education and medicine are ‘populist’. Nope, they’re popular – not the the same thing at all.

You’d almost think the British political establishment wants us to believe that only things that they care about (trade deals, spying, weapons manufacture, protecting financial services) are ‘proper’ and ‘important’ politics. You might get the impression that things that citizens care about (affordable housing, decent pensions, decent jobs, reasonable electricity bills) are self-indulgent whimsy, far removed from the appropriate concerns of a ‘proper’ system of national management.

You might even conclude that the self-important pompousness of Britain’s professional political class is designed to turn off and turn away ‘outsiders’. And by ‘outsider’ I mean ‘citizen’. Yes, how comfortable a position to be in a room with all the power but to have pushed the people you’re supposed to serve out into the corridor.

So is there a place for popular politics, a politics which an average person can have a considered view about? Hell, a politics about which an ordinary person might even get enthusiastic or excited? Well, if there isn’t this isn’t a democracy of citizens. A politics that includes those governed is neither a luxury or a fantasy.

But is it possible? Well, I can certainly give a perspective now that I might not have been able to a year ago. I am probably talking in three or four meetings a week, some academic, some high-level policy but mostly it’s been town halls (hi Kirkaldy, hi, Cumnock, hi West Calder, see you next week Blantyre…). I’ve been talking about how an industrial policy, better use of shared natural resources and a strong welfare state can deliver social and economic outcomes like better jobs, higher pay and better public services. I explain how it is affordable, how it delivers virtuous social and economic outcomes and how we can build a strong national consensus around a different type of politics.

One of the most common reactions I get afterwards is ‘nobody talks to us about this stuff’. Another is ‘I actually understood that’. Good. Economics and indeed social policy is often presented in deliberately obtuse terms, the better to confuse the punters and keep them in the corridor. Well, I’m with Einstein – if you can’t explain it to a seven-year-old you probably haven’t understood it yourself. It is certainly possible to talk to an audience of citizens about economics and it is certainly possible to get them excited about it. It is definitely possible to get them to support a better model for our economy and from what I’ve seen so far you can get them to do more than sit back and endorse it. I’ve had so many people saying ‘I never thought I’d ask a question about economics at a public meeting but could we…’ And honestly, many of the ‘could we’ ideas I’ve heard beat the hell out of anything I can find about Scotland’s economic potential in an IFS report.

So is this just another utopian hope that will come to nothing? Well, not without at least a decent shot at it. On Sunday afternoon in the Arches in Glasgow we are launching a new ‘visual ID” (sorry, I just can’t find a better term). Yes, it’s a logo. But it definitely aims to be more than that. It is an image that represents a hope for a better society (it is an image to represent balance) and it is designed to be able to live outside the realms of professional politics (if you wanted and if you weren’t breaking the law, you could spray it on a wall in under 15 seconds). It is designed to work as a way of creating excitement – it is designed to work with words and images that can inspire. So to kick off we’ve got t-shirts with inspiring slogans written for us by Alan Bisset, Liz Lochhead, Louise Welsh and James Robertson. We’re launching a film that explains how politics can give people hope again.

And we’re launching a new website for Common Weal. We’ve tried to find a way to say ‘not neoliberal, social democracy’ or ‘not free market capitalism, Nordic welfare economics’ because too few people understand these terms. So we are using ‘not me first, all of us first’. And that is set to become our message: Common Weal: all of us first. Handily, no-one seems to have wanted those domain names so on Sunday morning (hopefully, if we all don’t sleep…) you can see what a popular politics might look like on

We’re all very excited about this. The people at Tangent design agency (who have done everything for this for nothing) have created something that I think really can live beyond and outside the politics pages of the Herald or the Scotsman. Bluntly, the media establishment have barely noticed what is really happening out in Scottish politics just now anyway. If we can build a movement that speaks to ordinary people and which ordinary people want to speak about, we can all – between us – take control of the political agenda in Scotland.

We’re nearly full – more than 600 of our 750 places are already booked. If you want to come click here to register (it’s free). Bruce Morton is doing some jokes, Karine Polwart is singing a couple of songs, Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai is DJing and there will be more. Plus you can get a drink and buy a t-shirt.

Personally, I’m tired of pleading with the mainstream to allow a debate about politics which is not wholly-owned and managed by them. If we can reach people who want change but are sick of politics-as-usual, if we can get them talking, we may no longer have to plead.

Imagine that. A nation run by its citizens. It could catch on.

2 Responses to “Scotland needs popular politics”

  1. John Scott says:

    Robin McAlpine believes there is popular support for more radical politics in Scotland today; ie politics to the left of the SNP and Labour. His belief is based on the response he gets at public meetings. This may be misleading. Michael Foot famously thought he would win the 1983 general election since his public meetings were so well supported.
    The vote for the left in Scotland does not support his view. In 2003, at the Scottish General Election, the left (including the Greens) won 14.7% of votes. By 2011, after a major crisis of capitalism, it was down to 6.5%.
    It is not just down to the ‘Tommy Sheridan’ effect. The Greens went from 6.9% to 4.4%.
    By the recent Dunfermline by election, there was only the Green candidate, who won 2.5%.
    The left is failing to participate in electoral politics. If there is support for radical policies, why does nobody on the left seize the moment ?
    Common Weal’s key proposal, to emulate Scandinavia in creating a high wage – high productivity economy, does not resonate with the public. Further, the recent BBC documentary, Our Friends in the North, made it clear that high skills come first. Any attempt to do likewise in Scotland would have to face up to the very poor levels of educational attainment amongst the least able pupils. Very few on the left are willing to accept that there is a huge problem of attainment in Scottish education.
    The relaunch of the Common Weal project is further evidence of the weakness of the Scottish left. The new logo, T shirts and endorsement by literary figures is reminiscent of New Labour. What is different is that New Labour had a party and a tradition behind it.
    Having made the decision to opt out of electoral politics, the Scottish left may find it difficult to opt back in.

  2. Craig says:

    John Scott believes there is no place for progressive forward thinking politics in Scotland. He believes that the destruction of the welfare state is a positive move, and that equality is a ridiculous notion. He loves the fact that there is no left nearly as much as he loves the lack of democracy in the UK (please note; Robin didn’t mention ‘left or right’ once).

    He feels that creating high paid jobs for Scottish residents is a bad thing, and that most Scots agree.
    John watched the same programme as me. I watched how the Scandinavian Countries in question moulded an economy to suit them, how they went through hard times to create this, and how they constantly thrive to retain this. John thinks they were somehow born with high skills and the Scots were not.

    John there is no weakness in the Scottish left, the Scottish left has never had an opportunity like this. The Scottish electorate has never had an opportunity like this. Hell, I’m commenting on a political article, that’s news enough to me that things are changing.

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