This is a Love Story: thinking globally during COVID-19

This is a Love Story: thinking globally during COVID-19

This is a love story. Forget what you’ve heard. It isn’t a war, it isn’t a fight. It isn’t a race, it isn’t a competition. This is a love story. 

Over the last few years, bringing international NGOs together to make the case for aid and development, we’ve been digging deeply into how people think (or, more accurately, how they hardly ever think) about the life-saving work their taxes pay for. We’ve captured that below, as dos and don’ts designed to help spokespeople from international organisations frame interviews, opinion pieces and social media posts in a way that will resonate at a time when families are worried about the impact of the coronavirus crisis on their own finances.

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Too many powerful forces are driving division – here are the seven trends you need to know about if you want to democratise and depolarise our common life instead

Lawyers, historians and constitutional experts will ultimately have the final say about whether last week’s decision to prorogue parliament is a democratic outrage or well within the bounds of our unwritten constitution. But however history judges prorogation, it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture: the seven ways in which a politics of ‘us’ and ‘them’ has emerged at precisely the time we need leaders to tell a powerful story of our shared humanity. 

Earlier this summer, we commemorated the bravery of the veterans who landed in Normandy on D-day, and in coming weeks we will be inspired by the active citizenship of thousands of young people who rally to avert climate catastrophe. But can those of us in the generations in between be proud of the political culture we’ve let develop, where we are encouraged to view fellow citizens as ‘enemies of the people’ and national treasures talk about our Prime Minster and ropes and lampposts in the same breath? Our children are watching – surely we can give them better examples of how to disagree well?

There is already plenty of research about how public opinion has become more polarised, people have become more isolated and hate actors have infected our shared online spaces. There are also many incredible organisations already working in community cohesion or at a grassroots level to counter loneliness. Sadly, these are critical but insufficient responses to the fractures in our society. So the four of us – two working with young people and two working on depolarisation – came together to think what can be done about the coarsening of public discourse and how to inspire the next generation about the value of our democracy. 

As activists we think there’s plenty of injustice to get angry about – none of us are hankering after a lost era of deference. But we do think there is still a role for political leadership in countering the following alarming trends: 

  1. The use of violent language and threats of violence not being taken seriously. Politicians and candidates receive appalling abuse from strangers and organised trolls, but we should also be worried when politicians themselves are talking about their colleagues being lynchedstabbed or bayoneted, threats to their safety are diminished by their leaders, and digital supporters threaten or abuse without censure.
  • The use of dehumanising language and imagery. Again this is something that is all too common on the street or online, but the striking thing is how normal it has become for elites to talk about each other as traitors or saboteurs, and how few long-term political penalties are paid for using language and tactics which have real world consequences for those already subject to demonisation and discrimination. 
  • The promotion of conspiracy theories. In many respects the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was the test case for how far conspiracy theories have penetrated the mainstream. Since then, Brexit coverage and the response to evidence of antisemitism has normalised them further still.
  • Swift rehabilitation after failures to tell the truth. One ex minister rejoined the cabinet in an elevated role just two years after resigning for misleading the then PM, another was in contention for her party’s leadership just one year after misleading MPs about Universal Credit and a shadow minister remains on the front bench despite misleading journalists about previous statements. 
  • Attacks on democratic institutions. From the civil service to the BBC to the judiciary, Britain’s independent institutions are increasingly under attack from senior politicians and media decision-makers.

There are, of course, plenty of brilliant ministers, MPs and councillors – politics remains full to bursting with people of phenomenal integrity and commitment. Likewise there are so many journalists and editors committed to maintaining our great national tradition of robust but civil debate through initiatives like Britain Talks. So ordinary people coming together to fight these seven trends aren’t setting ourselves against politicians or journalists – we are helping create a climate in which the best of them can do their best by us all. 

So what can you do? In the short term here are three things:

  1. Show there’s a reward for good practice. Write a letter to the editor, call in to a radio show, tell a candidate that your vote will be determined partly by who shows the most commitment to democratising and depolarising politics. Show your support online for journalists, judges, civil servants and activists who are making your country or community better.
  2. Extract a penalty for bad practice. Get involved with efforts to fight Islamophobia, antisemitism and other forms of hatred in our political parties. Support those, like Stop Funding Fake News who are fighting conspiracy thinking and join campaigns like this one from the Fawcett Society to put a stop to abuse in public life.
  3. Vote and register everyone you know to vote. Support Democracy Club and other efforts to make voting easier. 

And finally, even if you don’t care about politics at all, or feel that the seven trends are bad but not really your business, do take a moment to think about your kids (or those of someone you love) and decide whether you want them growing up thinking this is how powerful and important people treat each other. It’s hard to teach young people about respect if the example being set from the top is of anything but. The next generation are watching – it’s up to this one what they’ll learn from what they see. 

Heather Hamilton is the Founder of Shared Humanity: Countering Us vs Them

Roger Harding is CEO of Reclaim

Kirsty McNeill is an Executive Director at Save the Children

Will Somerville is UK Director at Unbound Philanthropy

A history of campaigning for the welfare state

A guest blog by Rebecca Falcon (@RFalcon_) on a talk given by Roger Harding (@roger_harding) as part of the #changehistory series. You can listen to all the previous talks here and read previous blog summaries of them by clicking on the #changehistory tag at the bottom of this blog. 

As a single mum, Sarah has to juggle three jobs at once to provide for her son, but her low wages mean that if it weren’t for housing benefit she could still end up homeless. Down her street, Brian has had a hip replacement on the NHS and today his wife Beryl collected her pension from the post office next door.  Beryl noticed that her neighbour is home during the day again. She suspects he is cheating the system.

We all benefit from the welfare state, but holding on to taxpayer’s support for the system is no simple task. Support for benefits is only slightly higher among people who receive benefits than those who don’t, Shelter’s Roger Harding explains, and concerns about fraud and excessive taxpayer spending have been issues since Clement Attlee’s day when it all began.

In the latest History of Change talk on the Welfare State, Roger walked us through some of the lessons we can learn from the work by political parties, trade unions and issue groups to maintain the welfare state over the last seventy years.

He describes the longevity of the welfare state as a victory against the odds thanks to smart campaigning. These, he says, are the key lessons:

1) Big Change Doesn’t Happen overnight

Popular opinion may say that the NHS burst into life at the end of the Second World War, but in fact, it was the product of decades of campaigning by political parties and trade unions from the beginning of the 20th century.

2) This was a deal, not a gift

To win taxpayers’ support, and fund the welfare state, Clement Attlee introduced contributory National Insurance. Framing the welfare state as a project that we all pay into, based on responsibilities – not just rights or charity – helped to win over working and middle class voters.

3) Patriotism can unite people in common cause

Patriotism is a powerful driving force that can be used for good or bad. Campaigners for the welfare state tapped into post-war patriotism in the 1940s, selling the NHS and social housing as the best of Britain and a core pillar of our new post-war national identity.

4) Build solidarity across classes

Labour knew that working class voters alone couldn’t win general elections. By broadening the welfare state’s appeal to the middle classes, with some universal services and a contributory model, the project gained mass appeal.

5) With great [campaigning] power, comes great responsibility

Next was a warning to campaigners to learn from some of the single issue campaigns of the 1960s and 70s. The Child Poverty Action Group’s powerful criticisms of the disparity between rising wages and benefits played into the opposition’s hands. The opposition Conservatives used the pressure group’s evidence in a very political way in the next election. On the other hand, Harding spoke about CPAG’s success in the 1970’s to improve the child benefits system, by leaking minutes from a government meeting. The lesson is to be aware of your power and to use it responsibly.

6) Resistance works, if the cavalry is coming

In the 1980s, many councils refused to co-operate with Margaret Thatcher’s Right To Buy scheme. They believed that a subsequent Labour government would repeal her legislation. However, Thatcher’s continued success meant that in fact, by staunchly refusing to engage, they lost an opportunity to negotiate and improve the policy. Resistance can work, but you do need a chance of winning coming around the corner.

7) Responding to public concern can increase public concern

In the 1990s the government tried to build trust in the system with adverts warning benefits cheats that they were being watched. Although the action by the government did reduce levels of fraud, they didn’t receive credit for it as people thought fraud must have been widespread if the government were putting so much effort into advertising about it!

8) Don’t trash the brand

Criticising a government’s poor delivery of welfare policies can make people want to throw the towel in on the whole project. Nuance can be lost in the public sphere, so be careful about publicly criticising a system you ultimately support.

9) Learn from successes – contributarian and majoritarian

The NHS and pensions are amazing successes of the welfare state that we can learn from – both of which have record levels of funding today. Universal healthcare means there is no stigma associated with using the NHS, while the strong sense that pensions are contributarian has upheld public support (even though in reality pensions aren’t entirely contributory and actually the closest thing we have to a basic income).

10) Less ‘Saints vs Sinners’, more ‘Boringly Normal’

Studies show that painting people who will benefit as saints (for example focusing on pensioners and disabled children who receive benefits, who few people would object to the state supporting) can actually reduce public support for your cause. People think they are being misled if your policy sounds too good to be true. Better to describe those who will benefit as ‘boringly normal’, like the single mum who still needs housing benefit despite working as much as she can.

11) So many ideas to steal

Finally, we were reminded that the issues we face today are not new. We have a duty to look at the work of previous campaigners to understand what worked and what didn’t.

Some further reading suggestions

Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 – Tales of a New Jerusalem, Daniel Kynaston

The Five Giants – A Biography of the Welfare State, Nicolas Timmins

Citizen Clem – A biography of Attlee, John Bew 

Shelter’s analysis of current drivers of attitudes to welfare, Jenny Pennington

Historical analysis of support for welfare (second doc in this link), University of York for Shelter

•How to talk about inequality in a way that might actually fix it 

•A series of blogs on Shelter’s current campaigning pilots on welfare, Paul Donnelly and Tilly Williams

Scotland and our movement moment

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.

Honouring Jo Cox by supporting women in politics

Jo Cox only used one qualifier when asked what kind of feminist she was.

“Massive”.

She believed in politics and the rightful role of women at the centre of power. She was forever pushing other women forward and was profoundly committed to supporting female candidates across the political spectrum. Inspired by her example and in her memory a few us hosted an event with Julia Gillard, designed to encourage women to consider a public life and give them the tools to change the world.

You can read Julia’s speech here and watch the whole event here:

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0EMt-B5cJ4[/youtube]

Before Julia spoke we heard from a range of amazing speakers about what they can offer women considering public life and what each of us can do. Suggestions ranged from getting involved in Campaign Bootcamp to amplifying the voices of other women (buying this book is a good place to start). There isn’t enough space here to do full justice to those speakers, so the most important practical step you can take is to watch and share the session as a whole. Then make a note in your diary, right now, to check in two months time how many of the things the speakers ask of you that you’ve done.

There is so much to be sad about in times like these, but much hope to be drawn from Julia Gillard’s message that power is not a dirty word and politics is not a dishonourable profession. Our Jo believed and embodied both those things and I hope this event helped set the next Jo Cox off on her journey. We must do all we can to support her on her way.