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Following on from Matthew Taylor’s call to arms, Head of RSA Scotland Jamie Cooke explores the role that RSA Scotland must play in meeting the opportunities and challenges which this period of uncertainty offers the country.

We live in interesting times.

There are reams of articles being written on the place we find ourselves in today and the reasons which have led us to them, many of them written by people with far more intellectual capacity than I (I’d highly recommend you check out these blogs from my RSA colleagues Anthony Painter and Ian Burbidge, and our Chief Exec Matthew Taylor if you haven’t already).  So I’m not going to try and digest this from a global, or even UK-wide perspective.  Instead I’m going to focus in on the key aspect of my role with the RSA, namely RSA Scotland, particularly in light of Matthew’s call to arms over #RSAFuture.

I believe that the RSA has never been more relevant to Scotland than we are at this point.  Scotland stands on the cusp of another period of huge constitutional, economic and societal upheaval.  Scotland voted yes to remaining in the EU, by a clear margin, yet faces the likelihood of being taken out against its stated intentions. Independence, having been turned down in the referendum of 2014, is now, in the words of the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, most definitely back on the table.  Options are being mooted around federalism, a ‘reverse Greenland’ or even the Scottish Parliament bringing down the proposal by refusing to give legislative consent.  At this turbulent stage following the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, I think it would be foolish to attempt to guess what the future is going to look like in Scotland.  However, the need for elements within civic society, such as the RSA, to stand up to the plate by contributing ideas, analysis and challenge is urgent.  Bridging political divides, we offer a neutral and safe space to pull apart the issues which confront us, and to bring to the debate varied and nuanced responses.

During the first Scottish referendum on independence, which culminated with a huge turnout and a hint that the foundations of a democratic revival had been kicked off across the country, RSA Scotland took a markedly neutral stance.  Recognising our non-partisan heritage, an independence which we fiercely cherish, and the diversity of views across our Fellowship, we stayed apart from the conversation, a position many other organisations took.  I firmly believe that our neutral stance on the preferred outcome was correct and will not alter; however in hindsight we missed a chance to help build upon the energy developed during the campaign.  We talked internally of being an organisation focussed on “the day after the referendum”, regardless of the result, yet we did not put this into practice.  This is not to denigrate the excellent work which has been happening under RSA Scotland banners since the result, or to overstate our own importance.  It is a chance to recognise that we have a role, indeed a responsibility, to help chart a direction forward for Scotland through the turbulent times ahead.

 As Matthew said in his blog on #RSAFuture, “The future is ours to create”.  He highlights the fact that actually the majority of the population share a vision for the conditions that the country should have, even if they disagree on the constitutional character it should have:

“A country which offers opportunity for the ambitious but also decency for all; a country that combines tolerance with a strong sense of belonging and shared purpose; a country where leaders in all sectors earn and receive trust; a country that is a force for good in the world; a country where the quality of our lives and relationships matters more than the quantity of stuff we consume; and, most of all, a country where everyone has a chance to become the best person they can be.”

The period of flux we are in just now offers uncertainty and threat to our citizens, and an opportunity to dangerous forces to try to harness that chaos for their own ends, as we have sadly seen with the upsurge in racist, far-right abuse and attacks since the EU referendum.  However, it can also offer an opportunity for the people of the country to take control of the future they want to see, and to create the space for the shared goals Matthew outlined to be brought to fruition.

We are making serious steps around this at the RSA through the work of our Fellows and staff.  Initiatives such as the Inclusive Growth Commission and newly-launched Citizens’ Economic Council offer opportunities for new models to be created for an economy that works for all.  In Scotland we have a newly-launched Fellow-led network Building Inclusive Growth in Scotland, and significant interest in the Basic Income work we have been undertaking and its potential ramifications for Scotland.  We are engaged in discussions and partnerships in Scotland across academia, government, voluntary and civic sectors, international organisations.  Each of these strands of work, and the many others taking place, offer a combination of thoughts and action which can and do empower society.

We need to make this a future that we create together.  In Scotland, I want to hear the ideas that Fellows, supporters and like-minded organisations bring to the table that we can collaborate on for the benefit of society.  At a time when the RSA is working towards a strong, vibrant, devolved RSA Scotland, the last thing I want us to do is to recreate the wheel or feel we have to lead things just for the sake of it.  We have the ability to add value to existing work and drives, to bring the strength of our Fellowship (over 1,300 in Scotland, over 27,000 worldwide) to these ideas and, where appropriate, to fill in the gaps where they exist.

To do this, I need your help.  I need you to bring those ideas which are linked to our core areas of work and which can have real demonstrable impact.  I need you to open the doors to conversations that can shape the country and to direct us towards funding opportunities which will help support and drive our activity.  I need you to bring new Fellows into the RSA who are committed to that vision of a better world, who can increase our capacity and reach, and help us drive forward as an energetic organisation.  I believe that RSA Scotland can be a vital contributor to the discussions to come in Scotland and the impact that they will have. 

Now, more than ever, Scotland needs the RSA and the RSA needs its Fellows – will you join me in making sure we rise to that challenge?

Jamie Cooke is Head of RSA Scotland.  You can contact him at to discuss any of these ideas further, connect with him on LinkedIn, and follow him on Twitter @JamieACooke


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