Building a think-tank for Scotland — with a little help from Yo-Yo Ma

On Saturday 20th September 2014, my husband and I sauntered along Edinburgh’s George Street. Just two days after the independence referendum we, like many other Scots, were sweating the small stuff while occasionally pondering on the existential elephant that lumbered along beside us.

We’d left the polling station having placed our crosses in different boxes. Heads hurt, hearts tugged and souls searched. We’d reached contrasting conclusions about what was in the best interests of the country we call home — the place we share our lives together.

‘So however you voted on Thursday, seek out a friend this weekend who went the other way.’ wrote Chris Deerin on the morning after the night before. It was good advice and easy enough for us to take. We had no further to look than for each other.

Chris was a pretty strident no voter and I was still trying to grapple with the bumpy ride from No to Yes I’d just been on. So I was relieved that a commentator who’d taken a different view was appealing to our common humanity.

A few months later, Chris and I became Twitter pals. It turned out we had a shared interest in writing about death. Mutual appreciation and respectful disagreement between us ensued online. But our paths contrived not to cross in the Scottish village until just last week.

Back in George Street, where Chris now heads up the think tank, Reform Scotland, we blethered about our respective journeys since. And I reflected on the article and why it had spoken to me even though, as I’d confessed to a friend we bumped into that day back in 2014, I’d voted the other way.

As I came away from our meeting I mused some more. What might the sentiment Chris expressed four years ago mean for his new role? I’ve always fancied working in a think tank. It’s never happened but that hasn’t stopped me chewing over what they’re for.

‘The trouble with think-tanks’ another friend remarked on Twitter earlier today ‘is that they seem to do all their thinking within very small, very ideologically enclosed tanks.’

Too true. Interesting spaces though they might be, think-tanks all too often fail to get beyond the fault lines that bedevil political discourse. Invariably that’s some version of a left-right thing. But in Scotland, there’s another rift that sucks up our energy. We get two for the price of one. Or a double whammy.

But what if the guiding mission of Reform Scotland was to be to hold true to the plea Chris made in the rawness of the referendum’s wake. To seek out those we disagree with and work through some big stuff — together. Our disagreements are, after all, something we undeniably and unavoidably share.

Is a think-tank for Scotland that transcends all that too lofty an idea? If your benchmark is the screechings of social media, it probably is. But given bindweed that politics has become, you’d have to hope that if we care about our small country’s future, we can find it in ourselves to create and contribute to such a space.

If we could, what might it look like? A few thoughts went through my head as I gazed out at the Firth of Forth from outside my front door in Pittenweem this morning. The world always looks different from there. Like a place where anything is possible.

In no particular order, and intended as neither exhaustive or prescriptive, here’s what came to mind.

  • Differences on the constitutional question would be a given. For as long they exist we just need to get on with disagreeing a whole lot better.
  • Dedication to courteous dialogue would be a prerequisite. Courtesy isn’t for wimps, it’s for grown-ups. Plain speaking and respect are not opposites.
  • Nuance and ambiguity would be the order of the day. Dogmatism is no use in an age of profound uncertainty. If it was simple we wouldn’t need to think about it.
  • Inclusion would be the watchword of involvement. The only requirement would be a willingness to leave preconception and prejudice outside.
  • Labels would be shown the door. Left, right. Nationalist, unionist. Binary thinking doesn’t help. Common purpose stands a chance.
  • Complexity would be embraced. Achieving consensus depends on exploring contradiction not denying it.
  • Diversity would be celebrated. Not least, gender and age. Thinking is thoughtless if less than half the country is in the room.
  • The future would be queen and king. Learning from history is great. Old solutions for new problems aren’t.
  • It would be relentlessly outward focused. We don’t need to look far to understand that inward thinking isn’t working.

If this all feels pie in the sky, I make no apology. The solutions to wicked problems won’t be found in the places we stubbornly inhabit but in the spaces in between. And we all need to get out more.

The purpose of a think tank is surely not to replicate the differences in the polity at large but to look beyond them. And a think tank with the widest possible bandwidth might just stand a chance.

The centre ground may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Fanatics would have us all sup rather stronger liquor. Yet it’s actually the world most people inhabit, not because we all think the same. But because in the everyday it’s the place we converge. It’s zeal, not zealotry, we need a dose of.

And goodness knows there’s some big stuff to sweat. Pick’n’mix between social care, the public realm, infrastructure, education, mental health, the environment, migration, homelessness. That’s just for starters. The list is as broad as it’s long. And the economy straddles the lot.

Before I went outside to stare at the sea this morning, I turned on the Marr Show. I don’t normally bother, but thank goodness I did. There was the mighty Yo-Yo Ma offering words of wisdom and majestic chords to accompany them.

Yo-Yo regaled us with the objectivity and compassion of Bach. He spoke of the idea of music as personal and universal, as something we invented to be a service to our environment, ourselves and others. ‘It is’ he said ‘the table at which politics and economics can thrive because its currency is about trust.’

Maybe Yo-Yo should be Reform Scotland’s unofficial patron and his rendition of Bach’s Cello Suites its anthem?

But meantime, it’s over to you, Chris.

Chair @SAMHtweets, Non Exec @socsecscot & runner @EdinburghAC, Views my own

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