Scotland and our movement moment

by | Mar 19, 2017


This weekend was the inaugural Adam Smith Festival of Ideas in Kirkcaldy and I was asked to speak about how Scotland could change the world in the years ahead. This is what I said.

Our world needs movements – and movements need Scots

I want to tell you a story about who we are, where we’ve been, and where we could go. A story about the Scotland we could become – if we first understand who we are.

I came of age politically after the fall of the Berlin Wall and during the highpoint of a global order based on shared rules and human rights. From the Arms Trade Treaty to the responsibility to protect doctrine to the cancellation of third world debt, I got kind of used to the uninterrupted march of global justice.

And then the darkness descended.

Just take the last three years.

2015 was the year of the refugee, with global refugee figures reaching their highest point since World War Two.

2016 was the year of populism, with surging support for nativist political forces across the Western world.

2017 is set to be the year of famine, with more than 20 million people at risk of starvation across Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia in the worst crisis of its sort in more than three decades.

Something has gone very very wrong and I’m here today to ask you to join me in helping to put it right. My argument today is three fold.

Firstly, that this particular moment in history is a ‘movement moment’ – it demands of us a willingness to join movements in unprecedented numbers, because the problems cannot be fixed by politicians, public policy or public institutions alone.

Secondly, my argument is that Scots in particular have special responsibilities here, because we believe in cooperation not only in our communities and in our country, but across the world. And thirdly that Scots not only have a duty to be involved in global justice movements, but actually have a very distinctive contribution to make, by virtue of the quirks of our historical experience.

A movement moment

Let me begin by saying a bit more about where we are, and why I think this is a movement moment.

By day I work at Save the Children and each day I try to remind myself of the good we have done together. Since 1990, we have halved the number of children dying before their fifth birthday. Anybody who has ever suffered any form of bereavement knows that each loss is shattering, leaving a hole in a family that can never be filled. That we have halved the number of families experiencing the depths of that sorrow is a good reason to get up in the morning. And if you’ve ever given to an international charity like Save the Children, or happily pay your taxes and support that money being spent on aid, then these are your achievements and you can be very very proud.

But at the same time I cannot say, hand on heart, that I am optimistic about the way the world is moving. I despair every time we release a new report charting the catastrophic failure to protect the children of Syria. Last week we published a report in which a child said “when friends die my chest hurts and I can’t breathe so I sit alone because I don’t want to scream at anyone”. These are words that no child anywhere should say.

In the report before that parents in a besieged area of Syria told us what it was like to raise children in a town where all the doctors had fled or been killed. They had resorted to taking their little ones to the vet when they got sick.

All across the world, from Paris to Mosul, ordinary families are terrorised by extremists and a medieval barbarism is encouraging people to target and torture those who disagree.

Meanwhile here at home the mood has soured and something ugly and sinister is on the march. Jewish friends receive abuse from the swamps of history, Muslim friends report a surge in the most vulgar and blatant Islamophobia, while my friend Jo Cox was murdered doing her job.

Behind all these trends is the same basic story: frightened and frightening people are obsessing about what divides us. We have lost the art of seeing each person as precious and unique, as an irreplaceable and perfect version of themselves, without whom our world would be irrevocably impoverished.

None of these are problems which politicians, however honourable or gifted, can be expected to solve on their own. If we want a different kind of Scotland, Britain or world, we’re going to have to get involved.

For me movement thinking is exactly what we need now because we live in what I call a 3D world – a world characterised by distrust, division and disruption.

Distrust, of both the motivations and the competence of institutions. Division, between people of different backgrounds and opinions. And disruption, of old ways of thinking, doing and being. Those 3Ds all add up to people feeling overwhelmed and alone, and movements hold out the prospects of an answer.

A movement can be the answer to distrust – because movements are strengthened by their perceived authenticity. And it can be the answer to division, because by definition movements involve more than one person (there’s never been a movement of one). And it can be the answer to disruption, because movements are defined by being for change, but giving us the sense that we’re more in control of which change we choose.

This word movement gets bandied around a lot at the moment, so I want to be really clear about what I mean by it. To me a movement is not the same thing as an organisation. To me a movement is a tribe – a really, really big tribe, but a tribe nonetheless – which coalesces around a shared view of how the world could be and which commits not simply to taking one action but instead to a lifetime of service to an ideal.

My friend Alex Evans has just published a book in which he quotes an American organiser as saying ‘what makes a movement is simply enough people feeling part of it – sensing a shared culture, and forcing those watching to take note and take sides’.

That seems about right to me, because movements do force us to take sides, and decide where we stand on the big moral questions of the day. This isn’t a new thing – we’ve had movements for the abolition of slavery and for women’s suffrage and for civil rights. But just because we’re sympathetic to the most famous movements, we shouldn’t assume that movements are always the good guys. There’s a global far right movement too. And a global jihadi one.

So there’s nothing new about movement thinking, and nothing inherently honourable about it either. But my argument today is that there is nonetheless something about it which makes it uniquely well suited to the demands of the hour.

Scots as movement-builders

So why am I talking about this here in Scotland, and suggesting that Scots have a special obligation to fight hatreds which seem so much bigger than us, so big in fact that they could overwhelm the world? My answer is a simple one: Scots have a calling now, because we know better than anybody that none of us have to be put in boxes not of our choosing.

For three centuries we have been simultaneously Scottish and British and there are plenty of people who want to campaign for us to be Scottish and European. The fluidity of our identity is why we can talk of people being Scottish by birth, choice or aspiration – because we have long accepted that there’s nothing binary or closed about being a Scot.

And so my second argument today is that there is such a thing as Scottishness and that it leaves us well placed to be the movement builders that this movement moment demands of us.

The nature of Scottishness has obviously been a source of some controversy, so let me share a little about where I’m coming from.

Given the mesmerising range of choice – the grandeur of our Munros, the mysteries and histories of our lochs and the breathtaking beauty of our islands and our glens, it might surprise a visitor to Scotland to know that two of my favourite sights here are stones. They are both small, both plain and both can be seen within an hour of where we are now.

The first is the one bearing a circular inscription on the floor of the National Museum in Edinburgh, the one which says ‘Scotland to the world to Scotland’. The motto is chiseled in a circle so that, depending on how you look at it, it either says ‘Scotland to the world’ or ‘the world to Scotland’.

The second is embedded in the wall of St Giles’ Cathedral and says simply ‘Thank God for James Young Simpson’s discovery of chloroform anaesthesia in 1847’.

It seems to me that it is in these two small slabs – even more than in our poetry, plays, novels, songs or political speeches – you find the essence of the Scottish national character.

In the National Museum stone, you learn of our sense of Scotland the Good Samaritan, unwilling to pass by on the other side. There is much to be proud of here, from the disproportionate numbers of Scottish volunteers in the International Brigades to the phenomenal demonstration of people power on the eve of the 2005 Make Poverty History summit in Gleneagles. Whatever our views on the constitutional question, we can be proud that both nationalists and unionists, Yes and No supporters are united in their support for Scotland fulfilling our obligations to those beyond our borders who need our help.

In the St Giles’ Cathedral stone, you see a very Scottish combination of intense pride in our temporal talents, combined with a beautifully understated trust in providence, and a reminder not to get too cocky – it’s all very well being the most inventive people on the face of the earth, but don’t go thinking you did it on your own. The reason I love this stone so much is because it really encapsulates what I feel about my obligations as a campaigner – life isn’t about being ‘nice’, about having good intentions but not a real strategy for change. On the contrary – life is really about each of us straining to fulfil our potential so that the talents of each of us are used for the benefit of all of us. Our time on earth is supposed to be a succession of periods of hard thinking followed by periods of hard work.

We don’t have a Scots word or phrase that describes precisely this mix of social duty and determination to apply rigorous thinking to big problems, and the best I’ve come up with is ‘strategic service’.

I should say at this point that I don’t consider these national traits of ours an unalloyed good. The same overwhelming sense of obligation which can lead us to great acts of courage and self-sacrifice can tip all too readily in to an oppressive puritanism and self-righteousness. So I’m not suggesting here that Scots are superior to other peoples, just that we’re not entirely in the wrong when we ask ‘wha’s like us? Damn few’.

Movement thinking

So my second argument today is that to be a Scot is to have a particular take on the world, bound up in our sense of connectedness to other peoples and also in our obligation to give the best service it is in our power to give. It is for historians and anthropologists to tell us how we came to be this way, and for the philosophers to tell us if the downsides I have just described are a price worth paying for our gifts, but for our purposes today I hope we can take it as a starting point that there is something real about Scottishness, and our cultural distinctiveness is to be found somewhere in this area.

My third and final argument is that – if I am right, and our world needs movements and, if I am right that Scottishness is characterised both by its richness as a porous identity and by its internationalism and sense of strategic service, then Scots have a particular contribution to make to building movements in the years ahead.

Let me just say a little about what that would look like.

Firstly, great movements don’t buy great man theories of history. That doesn’t mean movements are leaderless – it means they are leaderful. Just think about Black Lives Matter, or the women’s marches on the inauguration weekend, or the refugees welcome movement. I don’t know who is in charge of any of these things, because nobody is in charge of these things. They are full of leaders, people who identify themselves through action.

And that brings me to my second point about movements. Movements are only as good as the activism they inspire and that should be our aim – providing inspiration, not giving orders. Brilliant movement builders rally people around a vision and then let people decide how they are going to contribute, creating the space for a whole range of creative tactics to emerge.

If we take a look at just the refugees welcome idea for a minute, it is clear that no one person could have come up with the range of activities people have done. Let me be clear here – I’m incredibly proud of Scotland’s response to the refugee crisis, just as I want to celebrate the contribution of communities across the UK. But I’m not naive – my point is not to suggest that everybody is welcoming or that Scots are inherently more progressive on these questions than folk down South.

But I do want to look at how people in Scotland were able to link up with a wider movement in a way that should make us all proud.

To take just two examples. How brilliant that ordinary folk from Glasgow set up Refuweegee, a charity which offers new arrivals to the city not just essentials like toiletries and nappies, but ‘letters fae the locals’ introducing what we love about our city and explaining treats like In Bru and Tunnocks Tea Cakes.

Or when Syrian families were first resettled in Bute, how amazing that locals went to speak to the church about giving a space for Friday prayers and to the local co-op about making sure they had halal meat for sale.

All of these things were just people finding different ways to contribute, the same way a QC in London decided to set up the billable hour campaign where he encouraged all his pals from chambers, and then all the solicitors they worked with, to each give what they would bill in an hour to Save the Children’s child refugee appeal. All at the same time as Belle and Sebastian decided to put on a gig for us, and Caitlin Moran organised a single, and a member of the public set up a petition which ended up forcing David Cameron to agree to take 20 thousand Syrian refugees, while another ordinary woman invited a few of her friends on Facebook to a protest and ended up leading a march of 10 thousand people through London.

There wasn’t a mastermind behind all of these things – but there was a movement, and the movement is delivering real change, right now.

And here’s the final point I want to leave you with, and it brings us full circle as to why we’re talking about this in Scotland. Being a movement builder means connecting with people on the very deepest level of their values and their identity. Something can have mass participation and still not be a movement – after all nobody says they are part of the movement for iphones, or converse shoes or AirBnB. These communities are all massive, but they are just organised around things we use, they don’t represent who we are.

Likewise even if we feel a very strong attachment to one political party or one charity, our loyalty to the movement of which it is part tends to run even deeper. Nobody has a twitter bio saying ‘supporter of the Fawcett Society’ – we say feminist. We don’t say ‘Hope not Hate donor’ – we say anti-fascist. And we don’t say ‘Amnesty member’, we say human rights defender.

And that, of course, is the same idea we started with. My experience of being Scottish – in part I am sure because it’s been an experience of being Scottish and British, not Scottish or British – has made me feel incredibly comfortable with the idea that I’m part of more than one community of action, of mutual obligation, and of identity.

Movement thinking is a new buzz phrase around the world, but it’s actually something Scots do instinctively, because whether we like it or not, duality is part of who we are. There will be plenty of people here – and there are certainly plenty of people among my own nearest and dearest – who want another referendum, and will use it as a chance to vote for independence.

It isn’t my place to pass judgement on that one way or another today. But I hope it is my place to ask you to weigh very carefully whether the rich, multi-layered nature of Scottish identity is something you value and, if it is, whether you’re prepared to put that special perspective to good use in this movement moment.

Over the course of this weekend and in the months and years to come the status of Scotland in the Union will no doubt continue to dominate. But if that is all we talk about I fear we are missing the chance to make our mark on questions of truly global and historical significance.

Scotland’s national question is a complex one, but my argument today is simple: our broken world needs movements, movements need Jock Tamson’s Bairns and they need us now.

Author

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    Kirsty McNeill is Save the Children’s Executive Director of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns. She leads teams to galvanise the public and influence policymakers on humanitarian action, global development, and help for children here in the UK. Previously, she founded a consultancy advising some of the world’s leading charities and spent three years as a Special Adviser in Number 10. She came to Downing Street having led the policy and influencing work of DATA, Bono and Bob Geldof’s advocacy organisation, in Britain, Germany, France, Italy and the EU institutions. Before joining DATA she was on the board of Make Poverty History and managed the Stop AIDS Campaign, successfully negotiating a commitment to universal access to AIDS treatment from the 2005 G8. Today she is on the boards of the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Center for Countering Digital Hate and the Coalition for Global Prosperity and is a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.


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