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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

What lies beneath: the strange, frozen world of Scottish politics

This opinion piece is over 3 years old

The national question has created a queasy state of stasis - Graham Martin wonders where civil society will be when things start moving again

Here we are then. The time of monsters. Or at least of strange morbidity. When the old world is dying and the new one struggles to be born.

This, I would suggest, sums up Scottish politics at present, where we face an election in May set against and defined by the twin, deforming poles of Scotland’s unresolved national question and the global Covid pandemic.

Just as Brexit came to dominate and distort recent UK elections – and look at the monsters it created – so our constitutional paralysis has played a similar role here.

Like whorls of solidifying lava, we have a politics reduced to a slow creep, becoming locked in place. Convectional movement is detectable but it doesn’t look like breaking the surface any time soon.

Dialectically, this is set against the backdrop of the most volatile situation in world events (the extinction crisis, the pandemic, the hollowing of the centre) most of us will ever have witnessed.

What will May’s election change? Possibly not much – we have a situation where the governing party, which looks set to win big despite centrifugal pressures and tensions that would have torn it apart in ‘normal’ times, will – in the likely absence of any serious opposition – claim a mandate for a project which it is clear will not gain assent from the larger polity it wants to break free from.

As it seems to me increasingly obvious that as our governing party does not have a way round this – or at least not any means it is willing to contemplate – we are looking at more deadlock.

So where does this leave us – the voluntary sector and wider civil society? Curiously, we may have the key.

The answer to the problems of democracy is surely found in finding better, more profound ways of practicing democracy.

Civil society stands in the tradition of the devolution of power – of radical democracy, greater and more meaningful means of participation.

Could a democratic pulse from below crack open politics at a ‘higher’ level? Can we play a part in that?

This might seem fanciful in the teeth of a crisis where charities have had to go into survival mode. And this is partly reflected in the pragmatic asks Scotland’s voluntary sector has been making of parties standing in May.

TFN has been compiling Scottish charity election manifestos – you can access them here – and the need for more to be done to properly recognise the contribution the voluntary sector makes is prominent, and correctly so.

But beyond this immediate need there is a breadth of ideas which could transform our communities and the world, from the local to the global. And which could renew our democracy.

I’ve always envisioned the voluntary sector and civil society as a sort of seedbed for progressive ideas which can, when the winds are blowing favourably, pollinate the rest of society.

Even TFN’s manifesto snapshot, limited as it is, shows that we are one of Scotland’s great ideas-banks.

At some point, Scotland’s politics will unlock, the pressure release sending out waves of energy. It will be a carnival of ideas and action. Questions will be asked about how best to run society – indeed, who runs society – and who better to answer them than us?

Graham Martin is editor of TFN.



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Lok Yue
over 3 years ago

Well written Graham. I do not always agree with you but your energy and positivity about the sector is always welcome

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