The Common Weal has big plans for the future: it has already appointed a 16-member board of prominent businesspeople, academics, activists and so on, and it is currently raising funds to set up some coffee shops and an app, among other things.
Whether any of this is of use to socialists and the labour movement is for another article, but we were disturbed to discover some inconsistencies, outlined below, in the way the organisation has been presenting itself to the public.
In a short article entitled “Doing It Right…” on the Common Weal website, McAlpine writes that “Common Weal Ltd is a Company Limited By Share.” However, a look at the company’s incorporation documents, signed off by Robin McAlpine and publicly available from Companies House, reveals that they are currently a Company Limited by Guarantee with no share capital. This is not just pedantry.
The next section of McAlpine’s article states:
The Board is made up of 16 individuals selected from Scottish society to reflect the purpose of the organisation, along with the Director. They have the full management and financial responsibility for the organisation. Each will be a Company Director and shareholder during their period on the Board. They have the full responsibility for setting and approving the work programme of the organisation and for its financial management.
But a Company Limited by Guarantee ordinarily has no shareholders. Legal responsibility lies with the guarantors/members, of which Common Weal Ltd currently has one. The article goes on: “The Board has full responsibility and as shareholders carry legal responsibility”. But to this date, as far as the Companies House records show, this simply isn’t the case.
Now to the constitution of the Common Weal, at the end of the same article:
The ultimate decision-making body of Common Weal will be its Board. The Board will normally consist of seventeen people, eight male, eight female, and the Director… Members of the Board will be Directors of Common Weal Ltd for the duration of their membership and will hold one share limiting their liability to £1.
This all sounds good. The “board” features leading lights of the Yes campaign like RIC’s Cat Boyd, Bright Green’s Peter McColl and National Collective’s Ross Colquhoun, among others. When the board was announced we had hope that as co-directors and board members these people would be able to influence the direction of the organisation in useful ways, against McAlpine’s will if need be.
But again, this isn’t the case as things stand. If we look at the actual incorporation documents of Common Weal Ltd, we see just one director, and one member: Robin McAlpine.
His organisation has advertised the appointment of a diverse board from across Scottish society and particularly across the activist community, and has already begun to take donations. Supporters’ faith in a board of that quality is surely a factor in the decision to donate. But Robin McAlpine, as sole member and director of the organisation receiving those donations, currently retains the power to unilaterally appoint – or exclude – any “board member” at will. Furthermore, the only person with legal and fiscal responsibility for those donations is currently Robin McAlpine, not the board as a whole.
It’s possible that they’ve simply not got round to updating the company’s status and membership with Companies House. But if that’s the case, McAlpine could and should have waited to complete the process before asking for money, rather than potentially misleading his donors and supporters about the nature of the company they’re giving money to. This, on top of his recent split from the Jimmy Reid Foundation, raises serious questions about whether he is truly committed to the values of consensus, mutual respect and compromise that his organisation espouses.
The central problem with the Common Weal’s slogan “All Of Us First” has always been the problematic definition of “Us”. Does it mean Scotland? In which case, does INEOS boss Jim Ratcliffe get to come “first”, or do his workers? What about postcolonial reparations: if Scotland is as wealthy as the Common Weal insists, how much of that wealth is dependent on our imperial legacy and our (inextricable) privileged position in a stratified global order? Surely if it’s nations (“all of us” within a given cross-class community) that are coming “first”, “we” are amongst the least deserving? These questions are the reason Roch Wind’s politics put class (perhaps best expressed here as “most of us”) before nation. But when it comes to Common Weal Ltd, there’s only one person who comes first just now.
04/10/14 – Update: we put these concerns to Robin McAlpine in an online Q&A, and his response is below. He doesn’t appear to answer the question, but does have some things to say about our motives. Alas, we don’t have the time, connections or resources to build up an organisation capable of producing long policy documents and so on, but that’s beside the point. For us, politics isn’t about a small group of people coming up with policies and asking the class currently in power to implement them; we think the first priority is to find ways of radicalising and empowering the working class so it can take power itself, internationally and nationally. What matters is who is in power; the question of how they use it comes second. This applies at the macro (the state, the economy, international institutions) and the micro (parties, trade unions, organisations, universities) level. And it’s much harder to analyse and criticise the existing distribution of power at a micro level when organisations like the Common Weal send such mixed messages about their own internal affairs.
9 thoughts on “Common Weal, Limited”
This has to be a case of getting excited and posting before sorting out the legal documents – ‘doing it right’ was such an unequivocal statement.
“The central problem with the Common Weal’s slogan “All Of Us First” has always been the problematic definition of “Us”. “… indeed. I’ve always thought of it more in terms of “who is going to be being defined as ‘them’? “. All slogans lend themselves being twisted – but “All of us first” has more potential to be used for ‘othering’ and being put really nasty use than most.
I think there are three seperate things here:
1) on the legal technicalities of the organisation – most of the quotes you have there are in the future tense. “Members of the Board will be Directors of Common Weal Ltd for the duration of their membership and will hold one share limiting their liability to £1.” etc. Having been through the process of changing the legal status of voluntry sector organisations a number of times, I can attest as to how long this takes. Obviously if Robin is just lying, and they aren’t going through that process, then that’s an issue. But I would be amazed if they had completed it yet, and I suspect we’d be better to wait and see.
2) There is a question about class vs national politics, which is a perfectly legitimate and interesting debate.
3) there is a catty undertone:
“But when it comes to Common Weal Ltd, there’s only one person who comes first just now”.
It’s an undertone I’ve seen in every social movement I’ve ever been involved with, which basically says “this person has a bit of an ego, and they’re getting above themselves, so let’s take them down a peg or two”.
In my experience, it’s usually said by someone else who also has a bit of an ego, and is deep down just a little jealous of the more prominent person. But it does raise a broader question. Modern social movements tend not to have any mechanism for choosing a leader. Which means that leaders emerge. They are usually people with a lot of ego/self confidence, or people with insecurities which make them want to push themselves to the front. Too often, I’ve watched as social movements turn on these people, and try to destroy them, because they’ve had the audacity to put their head above the parapit. Often, the individual criticisms of them are perfectly reasonable, but the sum total of the criticisms is a totally disproportionate attack. It’s how movements destroy themselves.
The solution to this is complex – it is important that no individual is given an unchallenged or unchallengable role in a movement. It’s vital that whoever ends up as a frequent spokesperson for a set of ideas can be challenged, questioned, and replaced. But the way that we choose not to elect leaders, then allow them to emerge, and then shoot them down, is deeply destructive, and has to stop.
Hi Adam, the thoughtful response is much appreciated.
1) As we say, it’s entirely possible that the legal documents simply haven’t been sorted out yet – or even that Companies House haven’t updated the status. But the trouble is that these things are *unknown unknowns* for most donors and supporters, and the unequivocal nature (as Alasdair points out above) of the “Getting It Right…” section is fairly misleading in that regard.
2) Agreed. It’s also implicitly about class v movement politics, and where nation fits into both.
3) Finally, we’re pretty concerned by McAlpine’s record – his full-steam-ahead defence of Wings Over Scotland, his split from the JRF, and most of his Bella Caledonia articles have been pretty troubling. It’s all very well espousing the virtues of leadership, and we’d generally agree – but when a very real concentration of power is obscured by organisation opacity (which affects the entire independence movement) and a massive outpouring of assertion that things are “grassroots”, then the necessity of taking people down a few notches is especially clear. As for the possible ego or insecurities of the author, we couldn’t possibly comment.
I think a condensed version of recent posts would be:
– Nationalism is evil
– Social democrats are deluded
– Common Weal is sinister
– Support the Labour Party
Have I missed anything?
Nope, that all seems about right. Nationalism is bad in all but its anti-imperialist forms, and even for the latter there are caveats. Of course, we believe the Labour Party is full of nationalists and social democrats too, and “One Nation” is at least as sinister as the Common Weal – we’re working on a general (it will probably be the most substantial to be published from within the party, if not the most substantial full stop) critique of One Nation ideology but that’s going to take a while longer. Nevertheless, we believe – for various reasons, which we’ve explained more than once but will probably explain more in the near future – that critical support for the Labour Party is important, as is thorough criticism of Common Weal. In fact, we seem to be the only people on the left making any effort with the latter.
Hi, thanks for the response. Just to go through each point:
1) indeed. In fact, I think that’s very likely. In order to get everyone else made a director, for example, you have to get them all to physically submit a form to companies house. I’ve known this to take months, and for companies house to then take a lot of time to respond. I suppose my point is that someone reading the above would likely infer that the organisation is practically defrauding people when, in practice, the most likely scenario is that it is going about doing exactly what it says it is doing. I think, at least, you should have given them time to reply to your questions about this before publishing allegations which I suspect many people will infer are quite serious when in practice, the most likely version of events points to a suggestion that the main allegation, as you say, is a slightly bombastic discription on the website (and I am sure that even his greatest defenders would accept Robin can be bombastic).
2) this is the interesting question here, I think. And I think it’s useful having you make this point.
3) I suppose my point is this:
i) Robin has been one of the most successful people in Scotland at promoting left wing ideas over the last couple of years.
ii) like everyone promoting left wing ideas, we will all find we agree with some, and we disagree with others of them. That’s healthy.
iii) where we do disagree, we should say so. But we shouldn’t confuse ‘man’ and ‘ball’.
iv) if the complaint is about the man, then we need first to ask ourselves “what’s the difference between him and me?”. If the main difference is success, then we should shut up. I’m reminded of a conversation I had in the pub a few years ago with two young activists/writers. They were complaining about Laurie Penny – as people were want to do in 2010 – that she was ‘speaking for the movement’ without the right to do so, etc. I asked them both “are you genuinely telling me that, given the opportunity to go on TV, you wouldn’t take it?”. Both said that they wouldn’t. Four years later, both are now prominent commentators in the national media.
v) if the complaint is about the style of organisation, then it’s important to be consistant. Very few organisations which claim to be grassroots have formal democratic structures. Now, as someone who used to work for an NGO which did, that frustrates me. And I think we need to change it. But most of what you say about Common Weal here could equally be said about, say, UK Uncut. And, as you say, the criticism is really of contemprary social movement politics – which I think is perfectly legitimate. But why focus your ire for a broad systemic problem on one encarnation of it? Why not make it clear what you really mean?
vi) If your criticism is of the structure, then why not focus it on what they say (and I have no reason to believe they are lying) they are going to make it. If you write a piece saying “Common Weal should have an elected board” then I might well agree with you.
vii) but why stop there? why not talk about National Collective? Or Bella Caledonia? or, while I’m at it, openDemocracy? we don’t elect our board. Perhaps we should, though I’m not sure who the electorate would be. Ultimately, democracy is about control of resources, and if the main resource people are giving is their time, then they can withdraw it whenever they like.
I suppose ultimately my point is that you are quite right to criticise people you disagree with. But you should be honest about why you are disagreeing with them. The article above is really saying, most likely “they haven’t got all of the complex forms filled in yet, or companies house hasn’t got round to filing them yet”. Which is a non-story. Why not focus your energy on what you really mean?
Hallo again, apologies for the length here:
1) We put these concerns to McAlpine yesterday, shortly after publishing the article – we hoped that those who read the article would be able to ask their own questions about it as well. Indeed, we saw at least one person doing just that on the Q&A. We’ve added his response to the bottom of the article with our own thoughts. “Things are busy and difficult, so bear with us” is a perfectly fine thing to say when you’re asking for donations, but making it sound like everything is done and dusted when it’s *not* is very problematic, particularly for those – ourselves, for instance – who are concerned about what all this money and energy is going into. As we say above, his split from the JRF (the details of which are notably elusive) didn’t inspire us with confidence in the way he manages CW.
Skipping the *real* issue and going straight to 3:
i) We don’t accept this all-encompassing “left” of which McAlpine is somehow the spokesperson. We’re communists, and – whether we’re right or not about it – we’d prefer a Labour government to an SNP or Tory one. McAlpine is a social democrat and supporter of “indigenous business” who has as good as explicitly endorsed the SNP for 2015 and 2016 – and even beyond. We view the SNP as the dominant political force in Scotland and a vague social-nationalism as the dominant ideology of devolved politics, and both have been clearly strengthened after the referendum. We are fundamentally opposed to them, but the Common Weal appears to be about reinforcing them, even if only to win them over.
ii) See (i). There are times when social democracy can be ok – when it’s unstable, and there’s a strong, dissenting labour movement, for instance, that wants to fight for something better. But Scottish “social democracy” is largely mythical, and yet simultaneously very powerful as left cover for social nationalism, which is more pro-business – and our labour movement is currently weak and pretty conformist. What we find very unhealthy is the *absence* of disagreement in Scotland. As far as we’re aware we’ve been the only people making any substantial effort to criticise the Common Weal, at least on the pro-indy left.
iii) As we’ve said, as things stand the Common Weal *is* Robin McAlpine, and based largely around his own idiosyncratic spin on a heterodox bunch of ideas.
iv) The difference between him and us is political. We no longer really consider ourselves part of the same “movement” as him, so not sure the point about Penny is relevant. We have no problem with getting publicity and telling other people what’s right and wrong – if we had his resources and connections we’d be making lots of noise as well, but in a very different way.
v) In what way are we being inconsistent? It would be impossible to apply this kind of scrutiny to every organisation under the sun – that doesn’t mean we don’t think it should be applied. We’ve got a particular interest in the Common Weal, so that’s what we focus on. That’s how all scrutiny seems to work unless it’s by a specialised institution. Also, CW’s project is far more expansive than most others. For instance, as far as we’re aware they’re asking local supporters to help fund, set up and run CW cafés, without bringing them fully into the governance structures (“more problems than possibilities in the prospect of a democratic membership organisation”) – governance structures which are, as we’ve said, currently unclear.
vi) This is kind of the point made above – unless they trust McAlpine much more than we do (and of course many do), people can’t be sure what kind of membership organisation it’s going to be, because they’re getting mixed messages. Who’s in charge *now*? Given what’s happened with CW in the past, how can we be sure the proposed changes will go through smoothly? McAlpine says they’re still in the process of *confirming* the board, never mind appointing them.
Ultimately we’re putting all this emphasis on CW because we think it’s a particularly important organisation – regardless of whether it’s a good or bad one for socialists. The power of the Yes movement had a lot to do with the diligence of its people in scrutinising and criticising its opponents’ every move. We’re not part of it any more, but we do think that its critical energy needs to be turned inwards as well as outwards. There are people still involved in nationalist politics who we like and admire, and we don’t want them to be disappointed by something they don’t properly control.
We put most of our energy into criticising CW on ideological grounds, and have loads of articles on that – but politics is about action as well as criticism, and there are very few organisations on the left that we can actually get involved with now, given nationalist dominance. We’re hardly purists – we’re in Labour, after all – and we wondered if there might be something democratic within CW that could be diverted towards useful ends. There are surely others who got involved expecting to get just what it said on the tin, in the hope of allying with certain folk on the board to pull things in a certain direction – but it’s likely they’ll have done so unaware that in its crucial early stages, CW’s structures remain pretty uncertain.
thanks for the response guys – maybe continue over a drink some time…