Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

< Back to '4th May 2022' briefing

May 3, 2022

Can civil society assert itself?

At the height of the financial crash, when the Government was bailing out RBS and others, and when there was a real sense of public outrage at the duplicitous behaviour and shameless greed of the bankers, many felt that civil society was being far too accepting of a situation which had inflicted so much harm on the global economy. At the time, SCVO and others tried to galvanise ‘civil society’ interests into some sort of collective response. However, perhaps because civil society is so diverse, nothing of substance transpired. Common Weal’s Robin McAlpine warns of the dangers of such continuing passivity.


Robin McAlpine

Common Weal has been up at the STUC Congress this week. The range of issues discussed over the three days show that the trade union movement in Scotland remains as essential as it ever was with everything from the safety of railways, to a just transition, to a green future being matters on which workers’ voices are absolutely essential.

But it is impossible not to note that the public awareness of the trade union movement and many of the struggles in which it is involved is not what it used to be. If we think back to the 1980s and 1990s, the work of the trade union movement was influential in setting the political agenda in Scotland. It is difficult to argue that this is still the case.

This decline in influence can’t be placed on the head of the trade union movement alone (which is not to be uncritical of, for example, the impact of ‘super mergers’ among unions on the vibrancy and diversity of the trade union movement).

In fact the STUC has been making some powerful and well-judged interventions in the public agenda recently. But the decline of the influence of trade unions is a trend that can be seen across the western world since the Thatcher/Reagan revolution. As trade unions had their power restricted by legislation, the media (which is drawn to political power like a moth to a lightbulb) lost interest.

Were this just an issue for the unions, it might be less of an issue for Scotland – but it isn’t. The decline of the voice of the trade union movement has been paralleled by the decline in other voices in Scotland. If you again think back to the 1980s and 1990s you would recall a whole range of voices which have become quieter.

Think of that period and try to imagine it without the political power of and the agenda set by for example regional government in Scotland. Strathclyde Regional Council, and in particular the way it frustrated and resisted the Thatcher revolution, was a very significant influencer of the direction of public debate. 

Glasgow or Edinburgh City Councils make the news but only on fairly narrow local issues. They are not playing anything like the same role in public life that their regional predecessors did, centralising politics further in Edinburgh.

It is impossible to think of that period of Scotland’s history (the Tory years from 1979) without also thinking about ‘civic Scotland’. That in part means the trade unions but it also means the diverse range of big voluntary organisations. Those used to play a significant part in shaping wider discussion in Scotland.

Now? In the period since, many of the same bodies have been transformed into pseudo-consultants for government, delivering services on behalf of government and so keeping their head down and avoiding being critical. They have swapped public influence for insider influence and income.

And if you tried to explain to a young adult today the kind of influence that the Scottish churches had in the past (for good and ill) they would barely believe you. 

These are only some examples of voices which have declined in Scotland (academia, the cultural sector and the media have also lost prominence). But it hasn’t resulted in a vacuum – other voices have become more dominant over the same period. Perhaps above all, the arrival of the Scottish Parliament has boosted the voice not of political parties but of political leaders. Scotland has suddenly become a political culture dominated by individual personalities.

In fact if you count up the faces in the photographs on the website of a Scottish newspaper on any given day, subtract the sports figures and celebrities and then look at the balance between ‘this person is the leader of a political party’ and ‘this person is not the leader of a political party’, you will find telling results.

But it is not just the politicians who have proliferated – there is a distinct shift towards two other groups. One is what you might call ‘agents of government’. This is in part the flip-side of the number of NGOs which are now directly delivering aspects of public services but is also the result of the proliferation of government agencies and their significance.

Look at say the ongoing CalMac scandal. If you were arriving at this from outer space you’d think it was an extended debate between CalMac (a public agency), CMal (another government agency), Audit Scotland (not a government agency but a statutory government body), the now-publicly-owned shipbuilders (and the industrialist hand-picked to do that work before it was nationalised) with politicians arguing with each other and the media asking the difficult questions.

What we don’t hear as equal voices in this affair are organised bodies representing the communities impacted (their enormous ‘local’ authorities often have more interests in common with the Scottish Government than with the communities concerned), representations of the workers involved or many independent experts.

The other big shift in where Scotland’s voices come from is towards the commercial world. It isn’t like Scotland’s business bodies didn’t have a strong voice in the past – they did – but that voice has grown louder and louder as others have become quieter.

You can tell this from who is now on the average body set up by the Scottish Government to do, well, anything. This shows you whose voices are believed to matter. They got into trouble in the past for completely ignoring the STUC and so now a trade unionist often sits as a single token representative of all interests other than commercial profit on a working group.

It is the seemingly unstoppable rise of the Big Four accounting and consulting corporations (KPMG, PWC, EY, Deloitte) and their influence on public policy and the brazen relationships between the Scottish Government and the networks around the big commercial lobbying firms (particularly Charlotte Street Partners) which shows you where Scotland is really going.

Because if we set aside the ‘nicer, cuddlier, more lovely, less horrible’ rhetoric that dominates politics, in reality the politics of Scotland are shifting sharply to the right. The ScotWind auction is the case study outcome – a cut-price fire-sale of enormously valuable public assets as brazen and as dodgy as any of Thatcher’s privatisations of the 1980s.

In fact, we at Common Weal quite often wonder if the Scottish Government would have got away with it had it not been for our intervention. By the Sunday when the Herald ran a story on our report on ScotWind that sharply changed the debate, all the commentary in the media seemed to see this as a success story.

That is the point; Common Weal is one of the few organisations in Scotland which is able to look at public issues without having to look through the lens of vested interests.(Scotland’s trade unions are almost always on the side of the angels – until you get to say arms manufacturing where some big unions have influential members.)

If Scotland allows the continuation of this shift from civic values in a more decentralised nation to commercial values in a highly centralised nation, the gap between government and its doings and the public will grow larger and larger. 

With notable individual exceptions, some of the large organisations in civic Scotland shot themselves in the foot in the early days of devolution by failing properly to support the nascent Civic Forum. It was originally seen as an inherent part of the new devolved Scotland, a standing forum to sit next to the parliament precisely to ensure that this loss of civic and community voice didn’t happen.

Some powerful civic voices undermined this initiative because they believed it diluted their own influence and so eventually the McConnell administration pulled the Civic Forum’s funding and it died.

If Scotland cannot restore balance to the voices which are heard in its public debate, the nation will fall further into the grasp of the pinstripe suits which are mining it for commercial gain.