Labour Hame editor Duncan Hothersall says third sector organisations in Scotland are doing their noble causes untold damage by remaining hitched to one side of the constitutional debate.
Saturday’s edition of The Herald carried an opinion piece from Dr Richard Dixon, the director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, which opened with a bold claim: “There is no doubt that being part of the UK has been a problem for Scotland’s ambitions on climate change and energy.”
With the slick choreography which is depressingly familiar to observers of Scottish nationalism, Dr Dixon listed a series of policy failings by the current UK Government and then deftly pirouetted to present them as structural failings of the union instead. The Conservative policies of cutting onshore wind support and reducing solar incentives became “the system” against which “Scotland” was struggling heroically and from which independence would free us. Of course the author’s vision for energy generators in this free Scotland also included them not being allowed to sell energy to the English, but perhaps he didn’t expect many people to read that far past the headline. He was probably right; paywalls can be handy things.
There are many holes in the argument presented – not least that Scottish generation has had a significantly more than its population share of the UK’s green subsidies for decades thanks entirely to the redistributive public spending at the heart of the union – but I will leave them for another day. Because my overriding concern when reading this article was that here we have yet another important Scottish campaigning organisation which has capitulated to the ideological strictures of nationalism, and done itself and its cause a great disservice in so doing.
Climate change is one of the critical causes of our time. Indeed it is the ultimate global cause, transcending the lines on maps that are so often the preoccupation of political debate. It makes absolutely no sense for an organisation like Friends of the Earth to align itself with one side of a divisive constitutional debate in Scotland when it is, according to its own website, “part of the largest grassroots environmental network in the world, uniting over 2 million supporters, 75 national member groups, and some 5,000 local activist groups”. Uniting people? Opponents of independence are just as likely as its supporters to want a “just transition to a sustainable society”, so why on earth would you actively exclude them by organisationally endorsing the division of the UK?
Friends of the Earth is far from the first Scottish campaign group to fall down the nationalist rabbit hole. I remember attending a Scottish CND anti-Trident demo in Glasgow in 2013 and realising with sadness that it had become little more than an independence rally, with the once noble champions of a world free of nuclear weapons reduced to cheerleading for the prospect of them moving a few hundred miles south if we voted Yes. Many in the Scottish Labour Party have been fervent supporters of CND in the past, but few have been able to thole this opportunistic and hypocritical shift.
For some organisations the alignment has been more subtle, but no less significant. The Electoral Reform Society exists to campaign for democratic reform and proportional representation across the UK, and proudly states that it works “with everyone” to achieve those aims. But in Scotland it has made little secret of its sympathies with the independence cause. At the 2019 SNP conference it ran an event looking at how to “help create the vision for an independent Scotland” with the director of ERS Scotland, a prominent independence supporter, on the panel. The irony here is that the claimed impossibility of meaningful electoral reform in the UK is cited by many independence supporters as a key driver of their support for separation.
Right across the third sector in Scotland a process of policy capture that started in the run up to the 2014 referendum has turned important campaigning bodies into partisan bastions of separatism that today are as likely to repel potential supporters as attract them. Like much of the politics of that tumultuous era, what seemed like smart strategy at the time has proved to be the opposite. It made enormous sense for the then Yes campaign to flex every sinew and bring as much of the third sector as it could into its orbit. But for those organisations targeted, in the long run it has proved a terrible bargain, trading away trust and integrity for the patronage of the current political establishment. Perhaps some grants have been procured that might otherwise not have been, but trust is not a renewable resource.
Scotland is a country that remains almost evenly divided on the topic of independence eight years since our decisive referendum. It suits the forces of nationalism to keep us divided, but it cannot possibly be in the interests of our key civic campaigning bodies to inhabit only one side of that divide. I realise that for some there may be a risk to funding from diverging from the establishment line. But the far greater risk is to the causes espoused by these groups – society-defining causes which are far too important to be left hamstrung by a leftover bit of political game playing from 2014.
It’s long past time for the third sector to break its links with nationalism.