Indyref engagement can inform Scotland's post-Brexit brand

Written by Irene Oldfather and Richard Norris on 9 August 2017 in Comment

Scotland’s record of citizen engagement can shape its post-Brexit destiny, writes Irene Oldfather and Richard Norris

As the Northern Irish go full steam ahead on their White Dove Peace Building initiative to ensure that they have a strong brand and place in a post-Brexit Europe which is globally connected, it’s time to ask what could be Scotland’s unique selling point.

The nations of the UK are all facing questions as to what game-changing role they could continue to have both in Europe and beyond, and how to play to their strengths.

This question of course also faces the UK as a whole, but the particular circumstances and devolved constitutional settlements of Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, not to mention the mayoral cities of England, all create particular perspectives and the need for tailored approaches.


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The issue of how Scotland, given its vote for Remain, can continue to have strong links with the European Union, and engage in European Institutions like the European Economic and Social Committee, as well as the more pressing economic issues around trade and tariffs, are now a challenge to the Scottish political, civic and policy community.

Understandably there is currently a lot of focus on the negative, on the relationships that will be disrupted, the impact of leaving on our trade and industries, and consequently on jobs. But whatever one’s views on the European Referendum result, it is important that the civic and policy community coalesce around a common post-Brexit brand.

The Northern Irish are well advanced in their lobby of Europe and beyond around the White Dove as a ‘European Place of Global-Peace Building’ – they are well placed to do so.

Here in Scotland it is time to think about the ‘added value’ that we can provide. What it is that we want to say to the rest of the world as in ‘we do this well – we can share our learning with you”.

One strength we can play to in Scotland is our vigorous and innovative culture of participation and citizenship. In part kindled by the Scottish Parliament, itself the fruits of the innovative and ground breaking Scottish Constitutional Convention, we have a culture of co-production, citizenship, participation and rights which are streets ahead of most other nations. Not only can we talk the talk, we have the t-shirt.

The 2014 Independence Referendum produced levels of participation previously unheard of – 85.5 per cent of the voting population exercised their democratic right – the highest turnout in any UK vote in history. In 2016 Scotland led the way for the rest of the UK in lowering the voting age to 16.

Engaging especially young people in debate and discussion has become more than an aspiration and political parties across the spectrum have seen an increase in young people joining.

From big ticket issues like the referendum to community participation, Scotland has much to offer.

Participatory budgeting is a good example of devolving power and decision making to local levels.

A recent event in North Ayrshire attended by hundreds of local people dispersed £50,000 to local community mental health projects. Not only is this an example of participation but it also reduces stigma and raises awareness of the value of supporting vulnerable people and the positive outcomes that a small amount of money can make. The co-production agenda in Scotland is genuinely far advanced.

In terms of public participation, we have the newly enacted Community Empowerment Act, which gives new powers to communities to take control of local assets. We have well-bedded models of engagement in the NHS.

One example of this is that Scotland remains the only part of the UK with guidance on, and developing practice in, citizen involvement in option appraisal.

The 'Our Voice' initiative has produced ground breaking innovative practice, for example with the Scotland wide Our Voice Citizen’s Panel to respond to questions about health and well being that will inform future policy and practice.

And the Welsh Government is currently consulting on setting up a new body partially based on the Scottish Health Council.

The Consultation Institute, based in England and which works across the UK and internationally, recently said: “Public engagement in Scotland is different. It has innovative legislation, unique in the British Isles and requires more collaborative, participative working within and between public bodies than anywhere else in the UK. It has invested in pioneering work in Participatory budgeting and is promoting co-production as the standard methodology for service change.”

The voice of people with lived experience of chronic health conditions is built into our health and social care integration agenda at national, local authority and community levels. At individual level, the principles of Self Management which have been part of the health and social care landscape in the Third Sector for some time are well and truly becoming embedded in statutory sector activity.

The policy drivers around Realistic Medicine about shared decision making and people as equal partners will with leadership and innovation be a catalyst to greater involvement, in health and well being, in much the same way as Christie was for the public reform agenda.

In terms of rights Scotland has also been leading the way. In 2007 the Scottish Parliament unanimously endorsed a Charter of Rights for People with Dementia and their Carers – founded on an engagement exercise across Scotland to ask people living with dementia, what were the challenges and barriers that they faced and how could they be supported? The ensuing Charter of Rights supported by the Scottish Human Rights Commissioner and based on the UN Panel approach has been tried and tested.

The degree of consensus achieved around this agenda and the role that Cross Party Groups can play in raising issues and getting them on the political agenda, is just another example of the skills and expertise that Scotland can offer. Indeed the work of the Cross Party Group on Dementia was studied by academics in Washington DC as a model of engagement.

Now is the time to be bold and imaginative in terms of the Scottish ‘brand’.  We should be proud of our democratic traditions which have been invigorated by our devolved institutions and civic culture. We can share our learning and our values. Scotland can and should lead the way, be brave, bold and ambitious. Is it possible that if Ireland could be the Peace Broker, Scotland could be the Citizen Builder?

This can be part of Scotland’s new ‘brand’ in Europe.

Former MSP Irene Oldfather is presently Director at the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland and Scottish representative on the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in Brussels.

Richard Norris is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Edinburgh Academy of Government.

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