Most Scottish charities supported independence. Next time, they should say so
Let’s pick that title apart. First, next time? Can I be sure there’s a next time? Maybe there won’t be a referendum again for hundreds of years. My suspicion is that there will be another in my lifetime, but that conversation’s for another day. For the moment, let’s assume there is, and move on to what I assume will be the more controversial claim.
Most Scottish charities supported independence. What does that even mean, given that most charities in fact took no position? What I mean is that I am almost certain that most people working for and on the trustee boards of Scottish civil society organisation voted yes in the Scottish independence referendum.
Can I be sure of this? Not totally. They weren’t all polled. However, What I do know is this. I have friends working in the disabled peoples’ sector, the elderly peoples’ sector, the sports charity sector, the environmental sector and the international development sector. Each of them, separately, in the last few weeks before the referendum, told me the same thing: that there was an astonishing level of consensus across the people in the various civil society groups they worked with that they would all support independence. That, pretty much every meeting they went to, pretty much everyone was voting yes.
There were, of course exceptions. And, what I was told again and again was that these variants were long term Labour (or, sometimes, Lib Dem) activists. Beyond that very specific crowd, pretty much everyone, I was told, had ended up on the same side of the debate.
It isn’t remarkable that this is true. Charity staff tend to be in exactly the demographic that was most likely to swing to yes in the last few months: the middle class left. They are the people most likely to see, day to day, the differences between Westminster governments and Holyrood governments. Charities pick up the pieces of the failures of government, and, whichever party has been in power over the last 15 years, they’ve largely learnt the same lesson: Westminster makes the mess, Holyrood helps clean it up.
What is remarkable is this: despite this astonishing consensus across the voluntary sector, no Scottish charity I can think of backed a yes vote. Barely any organisation in the voluntary sector did. That isn’t to say that those whose day jobs are in the third sector didn’t spend their time campaigning for a yes vote – quite the contrary. Many of the key organisers of the yes movement worked in non-profits. But few of the organisations they worked for did. And that matters. Because it’s the organisations which carry authority. It’s the charity names which mean something to anyone, not the faces of the individual staff members who work for them.
Now, I should be clear. I worked for a charity with a base in Scotland when the referendum campaign kicked off. And, despite my passionate hope for a yes vote, I believed at the time that the organisation should take no position. So my point isn’t to point fingers, but to highlight something that I have learnt.
As Liz Murray of WDM Scotland has written about, in the final few weeks of the referendum, a number of significant global corporations stepped into the debate and made it clear that they wanted a no vote. The state was, in effect, split, with the Scottish government behind a yes and the UK government behind a no. The third sector could have rebalanced the conversation – in practice, it was largely yes. But because it didn’t say so, whilst the private sector made its position absolutely clear, the scales were tipped.
It’s also important to think about the history here. Devolution was delivered in the first place by Scottish civil society. And I wish I meant mass mobilisations of the people, but I don’t. I mean the staff of charities and churches and so on. I mean Scotland’s civic elite. If independence is to be secured, it will likely not be because of the SNP or the Green Party – though parliamentary representation will be vital. It will be because of whatever civil society emerges from the post-referendum period (which I hope is significantly more democratic than that which went before).
It’s no surprise that this didn’t happen this time around. At the start of the referendum debate, many of those who ended up enthusiastically voting yes hadn’t yet gone through the process of the debate. Many assumed they would vote no, or were unsure. And so there was no way that most charities could have, without causing major splits, got a proposal to call for a yes vote past their boards. But this is a different era. These people have now been through that debate. Overwhelmingly, they have voted yes. And they should remember that, and act accordingly.
After all, if you work for a poverty charity and you believe that independence will reduce poverty, if you work for an elderly charity and you believe that independence is best for elderly people, and you fail to say so, you are failing to do your job.