What do you want?
By Robin McAlpine [Director, Common Weal].
“What do you want?”. It can be the jovial offer of help from a cheerful shopkeeper or the terse suggestion that you should probably go away as uttered by a harassed parent or a deep, existential question about your hopes for the future asked by a friend in the wee hours or the exasperated cry of a partner weary of ingratitude. So how you ask a question can be just as important as the question you ask.
These are exciting times in Scotland. Whatever side you took during the referendum, the act of being asked the question ‘what do you want to be’ opened up a million conversations that stretched well beyond a Yes or No to independence. Many of us, activist or not, got into the habit of asking big questions of ourselves and our friends about the kind of society in which we want to live, the kinds of values we want to shape our nation and so on.
This felt so refreshing in part because asking big questions of ourselves and each other is not something the political culture of the West has encouraged over recent decades, a period dominated by politicians-as-managers and citizens-as-consumers. A lot of people in politics and in the media came to believe that people didn’t really want to talk about or think about the big issues of the world, that people just wanted security and comfort (possibly with a dash of greed and self-interest) and a big, father-like state to ‘just do it for us’.
Consultation sort of took over from involvement, so rather than be involved in shaping your community or your public services or the debate about how government should operate we were instead given questionnaires to fill out. Then, when what happened as a result didn’t match up to what we said we wanted when we filled out the questionnaire, we began to believe that no-one was really listening, that our views weren’t really wanted, that the whole thing was not about helping us to shape government but about helping government to manage us.
This does none of us any good. It does us no good to distrust how our society is run because we become cynical and we expect the worse and then come to accept it. It does government no good because it becomes alien to the people it is supposed to govern on behalf of, becomes mistrusted.
So we have to change how we do things, and I believe the idea of a ‘participatory democracy’ is our way forward. There are a whole range of ways that we can give people control over the decisions that are made on their behalf, or get them deeply involved in designing the services they use, or let groups of citizens provide advice on which direction to choose. However we move forward a democracy that sort-of assumes that its citizens are either disinterested in how their lives are run or are somehow incapable of making decisions for themselves is bound to fail in the long term. We’re not idiots and we don’t like being treated like idiots.
So we should very much welcome the question being asked by the Scottish Government. ‘What do you want?’. It is, I’m reassured, being asked because everyone involved really wants to know. So it is a question being asked honestly and openly. I want a society which is based on mutual respect and sharing, which provides us security from fear and anxiety (of ill health, of economic distress, of hunger and cold, of our personal safety), which encourages us to be better and more engaged citizens, not just more avaricious consumers, which values social spaces where we can meet and share (from your community hall which should be just round the corner to the children’s play park which ought to be at the end of your street), which really tries to leave our environment in a better state than we found it, that tries always to reduce violence, that lives peacefully in a world family of nations. I want to be happy. I want my family and my friends to be happy. And I want the many people I don’t know to be happy too.
So how you ask a question matters – but so does how you answer it. If the Scottish Government comes to your town and asks you what you want, and if you don’t take the chance to tell them – really tell them – then that’s your fault. If they don’t listen, that’s their fault. So don’t let anyone off the hook. It is time for us all to talk about how we want to live, what we want our nation to be. And its time to state that answer in such a way that we can’t be ignored again.