Martin Sime: Speak up now and shape Scotland’s future

Today a different kind of debate begins on the future of the nation and its diverse people, writes Martin Sime

AN AWKWARD squad of more than 200 people will descend on the SECC in Glasgow today to begin a different kind of debate about the future of Scotland.

Some will be members of political parties, but many will not. There will be some who know how they intend to vote in the referendum, but most will have more questions than answers. All will be committed to doing their bit to spread understanding about the issues at stake.

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Older people with a lifetime of experience will be joined by youngsters who do not yet know if they will be able to vote; voices from rural Scotland and the islands will share their thoughts with those from our urban heartland; we will hear at first hand from public leaders and from those without a job; professionals will join with volunteers, trade unionists will debate with members of the business community. It will be a broad church.

People there will be supporters of many causes and of none. University professors, students, teachers and community educators will make sure that learning is well represented. Mental health workers will rub shoulders with those who commit time and energy to eliminate homelessness. Environmental campaigners, developers and industry regulators will have much to say. A rich students’ conversation is guaranteed.

All will bring different perspectives. For some, the very top priority will be that we tackle the growing gap between rich and poor, because an unequal society does no favours to anyone. Others will argue that economic growth is the only way forward. There will be those who think reviving local democracy is what really matters. Will they find common cause with the many who think that climate change is the biggest threat to our future?

We are a non-aligned group of think-tanks, faith groups, voluntary and business organisations, and young people’s networks. We welcome all contributions to the debate about the future of our country. This week saw the launch of a political campaign for devo-plus by Reform Scotland, a member of the Future of Scotland campaign steering group. This latest addition will add further momentum to the lively debate, and we need to see much more of this kind of activity. We hope to promote further understanding and participation in the debate and in the referendum itself.

This will not be about options and process – we have heard enough about that for the moment. The campaign will instead connect the issues and challenges, the opportunities and choices which people face in their daily lives to the big decision we all have to make about the future. We will put purposes before powers.

This is an event which prioritises listening, learning and participation. There will be no leaders to set the agenda. Instead, we will hear video clips of voices from across Scotland, with people talking about their challenges and hopes. They will be encouraged to talk to their neighbours and to the plenary in similar vein. They will tweet their thoughts to the world outside the hall. Live streaming will mean that those who can’t be there can still join in.

The audience will hear short inputs from organisations who have already committed to carrying the debate to their members, supporters, employees or congregations. Plans are already afoot to get young people involved, to ensure that voices from our ethnic diversity are heard and that the finer points of tax raising powers are fully understood by small businesses.

Many of those in attendance today have huge networks and strong affiliations around issues, geographies or responsibilities. The commitment we will ask them to make is to animate these connections, and to carry the debate about the future of Scotland to every community, in every organisation and in every way possible.

Almost all of the public debate so far has been dominated by those who profess to know the answer they want from the referendum; everything they say from here on in is contaminated by that certainty. Party politics is often restricted by a need to stand for some specific policy, to have a manifesto. By contrast, this event will bring diversity and pluralism to the agenda.

Scotland has a vast array of civil society organisations, from bowling clubs to professional associations, from churches to trade unions and voluntary groups. This is our big society, but we would resist any government plan to direct it. Active citizens follow their own instincts; they hope to make a difference to the issues and causes which matter to them, from the local playgroup to the fate of the poorest people in the developing world.

So I doubt whether personal gain will figure as highly in our debate as we have seen in the media. Yes, we will all want to see our country flourish, but there will be many ways to get there and all will have validity. Our delegates will be unlikely to be swayed by promises of being better off in one or other option; our big tent, as it has been called, will want to focus on the bigger picture and the inheritance, in a societal sense, we will leave to our children and their families.

The Future of Scotland campaign will bring together all of its work to inform the political debate about questions and choices. But today is just the beginning – an opening salvo from the awkward squad to remind everyone that these issues go beyond party politics and Yes/No campaigns. The referendum belongs to us all.

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