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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.

Whatever the independence outcome, the third sector’s time has come

This opinion piece is about 8 years old

​Martin Sime, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, argues the third sector must seize the initiative post-referendum

Given the scale and diversity of the third sector in Scotland there was always going to be a wide range of views about the merits of independence among our trustees, staff, volunteers and supporters.

Although we don’t do party politics, many of our people are heavily involved in public life and public services so it should be no surprise to find passionate advocates for both sides of the argument. That is how it should be.

What we haven’t done so well though is to bring our third sector experiences and values into the public debate.

How will the things that matter to our organisations and causes be affected by the result? And what conclusions can we draw about how best to move towards the kind of society, economy and democracy that many of us want to see?

A thriving economy and higher levels of personal wealth may well be at the top of the issues that we are told matter most to the general public.

Will independence make us £500 better or worse off? These traditional arguments about economic success and personal wealth should fall on deaf ears in the voluntary sector. Our priorities are different.

Martin Sime, chief executive, SCVO

We need an honest appraisal about the strengths and weaknesses of the third sector’s role in this unique event. What have we learned? If there is ever a next time, what would we do differently?

Martin Sime, chief executive, SCVO

What we can do together for ourselves and each other is what matters. By our nature, voluntary organisations stand as an antidote to individualism and the pursuit of self-interest. Will independence help those who need it most?

Of course many of our causes come in to their own when things aren’t going well - as a sector we are meant to be counter-cyclical, more active when the economy is failing and more people need help.

We also tend to the view that sustainable economic growth can’t be the sole objective. How wealth is shared really matters to how well we perform as a society and the evidence is clear that a more equal distribution helps everyone. Unfortunately, we are heading in the opposite direction.

Which side of the debate offers the best route to the kind of society we want to see?

At least in part thanks to the heroic efforts of Harry Burns, now retired as our chief medical officer, much practice in our public services is being re-orientated towards supporting people to make their own choices and to take responsibility for their own lives.

We know that empowered people and communities can make a real difference - in many circumstances it is the only successful strategy because doing things for and to people can create dependency and helplessness.

The third sector has led the way in terms of practice - from self-help and self-directed support through to community development trusts and land buy-outs. How does all of that play into the referendum? Or, more importantly, why doesn’t all of that play into the referendum?

Perhaps the most depressing feature of the campaign so far has been the almost complete absence of any visions for renewing our democracy, whatever the outcome.

Aside from the referendum itself, our political culture is in steep decline. To make matters worse this decay is in sharp contrast to the health and vibrancy of civil society.

There have never been so many people involved in so many causes, issues and organisations yet only half of us can be bothered to vote in elections to the Scottish Parliament and membership of political parties is at an all-time low.

As a sector of joiners, activists and, hopefully, some troublemakers we ought to be leading a debate about democratic engagement.

Of course this is actually about empowerment too and about how power is distributed and shared and used for the benefit of all. Otherwise the referendum is merely inviting a choice between locations for our political elite.

With only days to go before the vote, the post mortems have already started. We need an honest appraisal about the strengths and weaknesses of the third sector’s role in this unique event. What have we learned? If there is ever a next time, what would we do differently?

And then the show moves on to whatever post-referendum situation emerges. Amidst all the uncertainty, one thing is for sure - the third sector will play a bigger role in the future. The momentum is with us.

Martin Sime is the chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.



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about 8 years ago
Have to say I fear for the 3rd sector if there's a No vote. A lot of mightily disappointed people and not a great deal to keep people motivated or give people a sense of hope.The contrast with the sense of empowerment and possibility that would arrive with a Yes vote is stark.