Mark McKergow: Why Scotland should begin shadowing the UK cabinet in preparation for indy

Management consultant Mark McKergow says shadowing UK ministers would be a sensible step for an independent state-in-waiting

FOLLOWING the recent disappointing General Election results, Common Weal director Robin McAlpine wrote on CommonSpace about the benefits of getting away from talking about referendums and onto the meat of developing ideas about how an independent Scotland can work. 

This is surely good sense – people on all sides can be forgiven for being fed up with the current string of votes. If the prize – a well thought out, achievable, sustainable independent Scotland – is clearly visible, then the referendum takes its proper place as a key enabler, rather than being an end in itself. 

One way to develop our thinking is in developing ideas about a shadow Scottish state.

People are much more open to change when they see it as making progress along the road rather than turning our backs on everything we’ve done in the past. 

The concept of 'shadowing' is familiar from standard governmental practice, here and around the world. A party looking to become the government assembles a shadow cabinet, with shadow secretaries of state, ministers and so on. These people then keep track of the situation within their portfolios, gather information and research, propose policies and hold the actual government ministers to account. 

They don’t, of course, have any actual power to implement anything (other than by influencing the government), but they are seen as a legitimate part of the political process.

The Scottish Government has responsibilities for devolved matters, and naturally each opposition party has a shadow cabinet in line with the principles above. But what about areas reserved to Westminster, such as international relations, international trade, defence, home affairs (including immigration, drug policy etc) exchequer, energy policy, social security, broadcasting and so on? 

If the Scottish Government is intent on winning an independence referendum at some point in the future, perhaps it’s time to start thinking about beginning to shadow these areas. After all, not having responsibility (yet) doesn’t mean not being prepared and not having a view.

The key words in this suggestion are "start thinking about beginning to" shadow. Actually appointing a shadow Scottish foreign secretary is not for now. However, there are preparations that could be carried out quietly and cheaply behind the scenes to lay the groundwork. 

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This is more about starting to look at what is there already and then very gently beginning to build on it, with a view to starting to shadow these functions, perhaps initially in a reduced form.

The excellent Common Weal White Paper Project Version 1.0 talks rightly about the need to do things like create a Scottish civil service. This does not, of course, mean starting from scratch.

What do we already have in the way civil servants? What are the steps towards making a Scottish civil service out of the existing British one? And so on.

In my work as a management consultant helping organisations and managers to build progress in tough situations, I find that people are much more open to change when they see it as making progress along the road rather than turning our backs on everything we’ve done in the past. 

They are also more inclined to back things that build on what’s already working (rather than seeking to totally overturn current practice) and then proceed in small steps (rather than huge leaps into the unknown). This way of thinking could well be a route to greater acceptance and support.

We don’t have to tackle every area at once - starting with the easiest, the quickest, the clearest, even the cheapest, would be a start.

One step to get this exercise underway might be to do a survey for each Westminster portfolio along the lines of:

- On a 1-10 scale, where 10 is "fully ready for independence" and 1 is "nothing in place at all", where are we right now?

- How come it’s that high and not lower? What is already in place, even in a reduced or alternative form, that could help? (Make as long a list as possible. It doesn’t matter how extensive the list is, this is about noticing existing resources and building possibilities.)

- What might be signs of progress that we are moving up the scale, even given current legal and other restrictions? This alerts us to potential next steps to build on, and add to, what is already in place.

I suspect that the range of answers gathered to such a survey would surprise and encourage supporters of an independent Scotland. Some of the things already in place – a distinct legal system, banks issuing currency, a well-developed international identity – are obvious. 

It doesn’t need the SNP to be doing it – this could be started with a few people around a table from all sides of the movement.

Other things may well be less obvious, and indeed there could be important connections and synergies to be discovered.

For example, Scotland has significant sources of 'soft power' and influence internationally – how can this be further harnessed to build a diplomatic service? 

We don’t have to tackle every area at once - starting with the easiest, the quickest, the clearest, even the cheapest, would be a start. Surveys like this would do much to raise awareness both of how far Scotland already is down the road to independence, and of how we can carry on down that road in small ways without waiting for either permission from Westminster or for the referendum trumpets to sound. 

It doesn’t need the SNP to be doing it – this could be started with a few people around a table from all sides of the movement. And, more importantly, it would be a move towards Scotland taking seriously our responsibilities as a state-in-waiting.

Picture courtesy of Number 10

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