After months of speculation, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed that she will seek a second referendum on Scottish independence. At a time when Brexit is dominating the political landscape (not to mention the parliamentary schedule) at Westminster, the prospect of a fresh independence vote now promises to consume the political agenda at Holyrood.
Given the likelihood of MSPs becoming (or continuing to be) occupied with all things constitutional, the space for charities to engage with them on issues of importance to their beneficiaries may seem narrowed. With the country’s future up for grabs, many charities might shy away from political engagement or campaigning, both out of a fear of being seen to lose their non-partisan reputation or out of a belief that the all-encompassing nature of the independence debate will rule out any space for achieving policy change.
So how should charities react? Here’s some of our thoughts:
Don’t let the referendum be used an excuse for inaction
‘Purdah’: the word that causes more annoyance in campaigners than any other. Yet as a second referendum looms closer, there is a risk that “sorry, we can’t because of the referendum” could be the new “sorry, it’s purdah”, and that it will be used as an excuse for policy stasis. Don’t let it! With the referendum still years off, there is much campaigning to be done and plenty of change to be achieved. Push at the closed doors and don’t accept being brushed off.
Don’t be scared of engaging with the debate
While the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator gave the green light to charities taking sides in the 2014 referendum, any charity doing so runs the risk of alienating potential supporters. So while nailing your colours to the Yes or No mast may not be the savviest move, the expected second referendum does offer the opportunity to engage with both sides on their vision for Scotland and the potential impact of the final decision on your beneficiaries. What will independence mean for health funding? What does voting No mean for welfare? The third sector has a role to play in the debate, so ask questions and get involved.
Seek cross-party support, always
There’s no getting around it – the Scottish political world can be a divided and fractious place. The hangover from the 2014 referendum is proving difficult to shake off, and can still have a polarising effect on political debate in Scotland. With a second referendum being sure to re-open old wounds (and likely cause a few new ones), the importance of charities campaigning on a cross-party basis will be made even more essential. This can be tricky to navigate, and requires a nuanced understanding of political motivation and personalities, but is achievable. We worked with The Hepatitis C Trust in 2014, for example, to garner cross-party support for a commitment to the elimination of hepatitis C. With the independence referendum as a backdrop it proved challenging, but in 2015 the campaign culminated in then Public Health Minister, Maureen Watt, confirming the Scottish Government’s commitment to the goal; proof that, even in the factional world of Scottish politics, policy change can still be achieved by bridging party political boundaries.
So while the initial reaction to another referendum may involve concern about its impact on charities, there are opportunities to be had and policy wins to be won. Our message? Keep calm and carry on campaigning.
Neil Cowan (Account Manager, Principle Consulting)