Independence Minded? at A Festival of the Common Weal

The Common Weal hopes to help shape a better Scotland through discussion and debate, and it held a celebratory event in Glasgow last month that featured music, art, comedy — and plenty of talk about what can be achieved in an independent country. We went along to find out more.

“The buzz is so strong that there can’t be a better place in the world to be just now than Scotland. There’s this thing happening, and when you put on an event like this, you’re knocked down with talent who want to contribute.

“It’s amazing, it’s really genuinely amazing.”

It’s fair to say that, when I speak to him, Robin McAlpine is feeling rather pleased about how this first Festival of the Common Weal has gone, the Director of The Jimmy Reid Foundation visibly buoyed by the buzz infecting the Arches in Glasgow.

As a multipurpose arts venue it was an ideal choice to host the mixture of events taking place that had attracted around 700 festival-goers on Sunday July 6, despite it being a wonderfully sunny day outside. The main arch featured a mixture of entertainment and had been curated by National Collective’s Yestival, while there were spaces for organised debates (the Talks Arch), less formal discussions, art, the stalls of various independence-focussed organisations present — as well a bar area for those needing a bit of a time-out from proceedings.

So what is the point of The Jimmy Reid Foundation, which has given rise to the Common Weal? Robin explained: “It was set up a few years ago to create a focal point for progressive thinking in Scotland.

“We wanted to do three things. To unite people through ideas. Also to professionalise politics. Left politics has not been good at using the techniques of effective political influence. The right has been much better, so we wanted to professionalise communication, and how we really campaign and how we lobby.

“But perhaps above all we wanted to lead by creating ideas. Lead through ideas: you never get change if you can’t show somebody what it looks like, what it feels like, and how it would work.”

And so it is with the Common Weal. If anyone coming along felt that the prospect of an independent Scotland feels fluffy and distant, with details scarce, then even a brief visit to the festival would have helped make the prospect feel like a proper going concern.

The ‘In Discussion’ area was arranged with speakers sat in the midst of attendees forming a circle around them, encouraging conversation. Subjects took in everything from security and foreign policy to housing and welfare, also encompassing areas such as children and family, investment and banking, and lots, lots more. Whether or not the ideas being espoused were new, there felt a freshness and spontaneity to proceedings, deliberately out of kilter to the widely perceived stuffiness of politics.

“What we’ve been trying to work on is a movement, an idea, which is about creating a collective and unified vision for how you change society, how you change politics, how can you get real change,” said Robin.

“One of the problems that I’ve found with modern politics is that you have a scaredy professional political class who shun, and are worried about and nervous about, creativity and imagination and ideas.

“What we’ve been trying to do with this is on the one hand create a solid policy programme that actually works, that is a realistic way of transforming society, but at the same time is saying nobody has all the answers — and the way that you create more answers and more thinking is to open up creativity and imagination and ideas, and not close it down just in case it goes wrong, or it’s embarrassing.

“So what we wanted to do here was create a day for people to come and hear both hard policy, and have fun and talk to each other, and be inspired and be creative.”

Talking to Robin was to get a sense of almost runaway momentum, especially when he talked about how much the Foundation had achieved over the past couple of years. Indeed, things have moved so far that since last month’s festival that the Foundation and the Common Weal have reportedly split with Robin leaving to “set up Common Weal as a standalone, non-profit enterprise”.

It’s telling that, when describing the work of the Foundation over the past few years, Robin said: “Some people say ‘and it’s important that The Reid Foundation consolidates’. No, it’s important that we accelerate.”

The Common Weal seems unlikely to be held back in the short term — even in the event of a No vote, Robin was of the opinion that another referendum would be held within five years, with the electorate having time to realise the consequences of “bottling it”.

“The vast majority of people want change. A lot of them are not sure — because of this massive fear campaign — are not sure if it’s safe to look for change by going out on their own,” he continued. “And there are a bunch of people who know that it’s the only way that we’re going to get change.

“In those last two months, all I hope for this vote is that we say to ourselves now: ‘If you want change you have two options, be feart or be ready.’ If we can get enough people being ready: great, I want 55 per cent Yes anyway. I want a 10% gap so that nobody is going to say it’s undecided.

“That’s my hope. What will happen? Not predicting that: far too scared!”

With people so enthused about creating a better Scotland, would a crushing result at the ballot box provide more than a temporary blow to their benevolent endeavours? It’s hard to answer that, but for now they’re certainly talking a good game, and that certainly isn’t at risk of letting up before September 18th.
My hope is for a Yes vote. I don’t think it’s going to be like the stake that kills the vampire, or the silver bullet. It’s not going to change everything radically overnight. But it gives us a huge opportunity to roll back trade union laws, get rid of Trident… The break-up of the British state I think is a hugely important thing, don’t underestimate the impact that that will have, the wedge that it will drive between the two ruling classes in Scotland and in England, and the opportunity that that could provide for the left in the future.

Sean Cumming, Musician, Do The Gods Speak Esperanto

Scotland’s mind has been stretched beyond all recognition by this campaign. We’ve talked about things we’ve never talked about, behaved and organised and functioned in ways that I’ve never seen before… It’s an amazing time. It seems impossible to me that Scotland can ever go back to being what it was before. The idea that we’ll go back to being a passive nation of people who sit around and wait to be told what to do by one of two tribal political outfits — I can’t see that ever returning. This has changed Scotland utterly and fundamentally.

Robin McAlpine, Director of The John Reid Foundation

Independence Minded? is a series of Scottish referendum portraits by Michael MacLennan. For more visit:, and