Scotland desperately needs vigorous discussion of policy that doesn't descend into political point-scoring

There has been some discussion in the SNP depute contest about the role of policy. Nowhere near enough, and we need to think way bigger. Politics is, surely, about ideas, and we need more of them. New ideas, testing them out in a vigorous debate then implementing whatever works best, learning whatever needs to be learned in a constant cycle of improvement.

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First published in The National, 2 August 2016

Somehow, Scotland has forgotten the quote often attributed to David Hume: “Truth springs from an honest disagreement amongst friends.” We need to get a bit of that spirit back into Scottish public life.

There has been some discussion of how the SNP discusses and makes policy and the need to involve members more in that process. I agree that some branch meetings can be dry, dealing with the vital stuff that must be done to keep us in business, and I can see why some members don’t feel into it. I would suggest branches implement a schedule of branch business one month, and political business the next. This would let branches bring in speakers, engaging the membership in discussion. There’s scarce a branch up and down the country I haven’t been to, to speak on European stuff. But there’s nothing in our rules stopping branches doing that now. If your branch isn’t doing it, you’re a member, speak up, make a suggestion.

On a national level, I think we already have all the structures we need, we just need to use them and resource them better. We have our excellent National Political Education Convener, Julie Hepburn, with some great ideas on fleshing out the structures we have. 

We firstly need to make a clear distinction between discussing and deciding policy. We’re the government of Scotland, what we’re thinking about matters, and we should be responsible in that. There is a media climate that is all too keen to present a discussion as a decision: look at the front-page furore over the entirely unremarkable revelation that some of our Westminster guys are researching currency options. Surely it would be more remarkable if they weren’t? The fact that we’re looking at something doesn’t mean it is, or is about to be, policy. In the Standing Council on Europe our explicit remit is to look at all the options from all the angles – we need everything on the table to test it on its merits. Surely that’s the grown-up way to do things, and every journalist I’ve spoken to understands and respects that.

But Scotland is too risk-averse. In political Scotland, across all the parties, there is a timidity to embrace new ideas, to admit that an idea might need work and invite input, because it usually comes as a barrage of criticism, or, worse, a story about a party split. It is a soul-crushing, corrosive climate and Scotland is the poorer for it. There are good ideas in all parties and none of us has the monopoly on wisdom. Together we might just find it though.

We need to open up a new space, near the parties but not of them. Happily, the SNP already has a provision to hold a National Assembly to discuss and debate, but not decide on, policy (as distinct from National Conference or Council, which sets policy by vote of the membership). We have not had a National Assembly in a while. I suggest we need two a year, with the branches feeding in ideas for discussion, not decision. Setting up a big policy tent and inviting the membership in to work on how to make Scotland better. After discussion at National Assembly, branches or spokespeople could bring forward actual proposals to conference in the usual way for decision.

But that is just the SNP: I think Scotland needs to think bigger yet. It staggers me how few think tanks worth the name there are in Scotland. According to 2015’s Global Go To Think Tank Index, Denmark has 41, Finland 28, Norway 15, Ireland 14. In Scotland I’m struggling to get to five. This despite our world-leading universities, and internationally recognised policy community. We have the David Hume Institute and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, though they barely resonate beyond two Edinburgh postcodes and certainly don’t touch EH99. The rest are trying hard with little support, Common Weal has produced some good stuff with little resource, likewise from the other end of the political spectrum Reform Scotland is at least coming up with ideas, but there’s not much else. It is a poor show for an aspiring independent state and it needs fixed.

In Germany, every major political party has a foundation, a Stiftung, attached to it, funded 95 per cent by the public purse to come up with policy ideas. I think Scotland should do the same, with public money allocated to all the parties in exactly the same way as Germany, proportionate to the number of seats won at the last election. The SNP would presently do well out of that, so maybe some other formula should be found. There are plenty other examples across Europe to follow. The creation of Party Foundations would create a policy community that political Scotland sorely needs, as opposed to the lobbyist community we have now, giving a space for the discussion of new ideas and a forum for them to be tested that was close to but distinct from the political process.

It would allow the academic community, often a bit wary of day-to-day politics, to interact in a way we do not presently see. It would give Scotland’s journalists a story to cover about energising possibilities rather than Holyrood point-scoring, and Scots something to think about, a way to test how we can all make Scotland better. All this for real a really pretty minimal slug of cash. Our future is worth the investment.