A short trip to Scotland provokes three connected thoughts:
I asked a number of people this question: Is the looming referendum on independence crowding out and diminishing other conversations about the future of Scotland or is it provoking a deeper debate about alternative Scottish futures? Answers were generally closer to the former. But the most interesting response was that the former is true of the political class and the national media, but the latter of the conversations taking place in civil society. The idea that the public might be having a more sophisticated debate than the expert political class might seem surprising. Perhaps, on reflection, it is not.
The politicians are transfixed by each other as they compete for victory next September. They are, as is the way with political debate, spending huge amounts of energy disingenuously caricaturing their opponents' position. Ordinary citizens have much less interest in this point scoring and are much more capable of a conversation which focuses on exploring their own attitudes and aspirations.
A number of reports have considered the implications of an independence vote for UK third sector organisations. The RSA can be pretty relaxed about this. Not only is the Society registered as a separate charity anyway in Scotland, unusually for the sector, we combine a substantial commitment of resources to member (Fellow) engagement with a highly permissive framework for activity. Whilst the greatest synergies are achieved by Fellows picking up on the intellectual and human resources offered by the RSA's work and the skills and enthusiasm already on show in the Fellowship, ultimately it is up to each region, nation or other network to determine how best it can contribute to the RSA's broad charitable mission. Therefore, since we exercise minimum control over the decisions made by RSA Scotland, independence holds no threat. After all one of our most active chapters is RSA USA and as far as I know there are no plans in America for a referendum on rejoining the British Empire.
Things would of course be further complicated if the RSA had physical assets north of the border: which brings me to my third point.
Under the calm but ambitious leadership of our Chair John Naylor, and with his strong group of active and committed Fellows, the RSA is going from strength to strength in Scotland. Meanwhile, I am increasingly convinced that the Society as a whole is starting - as I always hoped it would - to reap the synergies which emerge from the unique combination of our platform for ideas, our action and research and our increasingly engaged Fellowship. Put these two things together and you come up with the challenge I threw down to the Fellows at a well attended and enthusiastic gathering yesterday in Edinburgh.
Could, and how could, Scotland be the first place to replicate, albeit on a smaller, more focused scale, the full RSA offer (events, externally funded research and innovation, Fellowship engagement and empowerment)?
This is a big ambition but if I am right that the fulfilment of the RSA's potential comes when the combination of its parts generates energy greater than their sum, this is surely the objective we should aspire to wherever we seek to make a significant impact?
The public are ahead of policy-makers and, indeed, most of the business world. COP26 is an enormous opportunity to catch up. Global leaders should take it.
Al Mathers Anthony Painter
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