by Pablo Neruda
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve?and you keep quiet and I will go.


Director of DCA moves on to significant new Role in Creative Scotland

Clive Gillman-DCA

Dundee & the DCA will miss Clive’s significant talent & presence. He has made an outstanding contribution to the city and has led the DCA towards being one of the best arts venues in Scotland if not the UK.

The DCA has, under his leadership, encouraged new artists and opened up the world of contemporary art to many. Not just making art accessible, but engaging people to participate by taking workshops, watching great cinema or being part of wider events like Blue Skies.

I’m delighted for him that he has been rewarded with this significant role in Creative Scotland and I’m sure he will continue to make an impact on this new and larger stage across Scotland.

Congratulations to Clive!


Mingus on ‘awesome simplicity’

Real Creativity

A friend of mine posted a link to the brilliant short documentary on Radio Four where Courney Pine and other jazz musicians spoke about the incredible and groundbreaking album ‘A Love Supreme’ on the 50th Annivversity of the recording. See the link below to watch on BBC iPlayer Radio on catch up if you are in the UK. 

I recently re-listened to this amazing recording and I was reminded me of one of his great quotes which I’ve added to the picture above. 

“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

If you’d like to catch the BBC programme here on catch up, follow the link below.

Courtney Pine on Charles Mingus.png



The discovery of slowness

I listened again to Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations while ‘ripping’ my CD’s into lossless format for my new Linn streaming HiFi, and I took me back to an earlier post that still has relevance.

Discovery of slowness

Photo of Balgay Hill, Dundee, © Joe Lafferty, all rights reserved.

From the archives (original Post 2006).

I was facilitating a meeting the other day with a client group who were responsible for leadership development in their organisations. During our ‘check-in’, a number of folks shared on the frantic busyness they felt, and even more importantly, their internal clients felt. The pace and pressure, almost at a manic level, putting enormous stress on leaders.

We moved on from this and began to share on how valuable it was to create a space to reflect. To be out of the office. To only have one meeting, now, for the next 2-3 hours. Thinking time. Some commented on how this was a ‘treat’, which of course kicks in our Scottish mindset: who do you think you are to allow yourself such indulgence!

I’ve been listening a lot recently to Glenn Gould’s 1981 version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The sleeve notes inform that Gould has recorded this work twice, the first time in 1955. The difference between the recordings is considerable, exemplified externally by the timing: 38m 27s in 1955 to 51m 15s in 1981. Gould said he found much of his early work ‘just too fast’ and he expressed himself at length on what he called ‘the discovery of slowness’. He also referred to rhythmic continuity, not tempo, but one ‘pulse rate’. One constant rhythmic point of reference. His recording having an autumnal repose, some degree of perfection, not purely of technical order, but of a spiritual order.

Glenn Gould

As leaders, or as those that serve leaders to enable increasing effectiveness, it is vital for us to make space to think. To get out of ‘the thick of thin things’. This is not a ‘treat’ or a luxury we should feel guilty about. On the contrary it’s vital to our work and practice. How can we help our colleagues and clients if we merely collude with the frenetic pace they are under? Can we have the courage to make space for ourselves to think? To ‘slow down to speed up’.


A vital change in mindset: made the leap yet?

Photo of flowers after the rain.

Reflecting over this past year, one of the recurring themes I noticed was the importance of working systemically. I’ll use one of this years Reith Lectures to explain what I mean.

The lecture is by Dr Atul Gawande and is called ‘The Century of the System’.

In essence, as a Doctor he was keen to understand why, despite so many advances in medicine, there are still so many errors, mistakes and poor management of health conditions for patents. Paradoxically, he concluded that part of the problem was as a result of medical successes in the 20th Century. For example, with the discovery of penicillin, many lives were saved and many diseases eradicated. All by a simple injection. This great breakthrough also became a problem. It raised expectations that medical breakthrough would follow the same pattern. A magic bullet. A simple injection. For many of the health conditions that plague the globe now this is just not the case. Conditions like Heart Disease, Hypertension, Diabetes and Obesity all require a much more complex treatment with interdependencies across numerous systems. Gawande also highlighted the dependence on the brilliant individual. This dependence on the hero leader has been replicated beyond the world of medicine. The assumption in many complex scenarios is: get the ‘right’ leader and he (invariably he) will fix the problem, or the organisation. In a phrase he said that the twentieth century was the ‘year of the molecule’: breaking things down to their smallest components in order to fix problems and build solutions. Now, in the twenty first century, he argues we are in the ‘year of the system’: no one person can possible have enough knowledge to address the issues. Problems are much more complex and unpredictable. Ambiguity and paradox is endemic. Interdependencies are vast, and not all understood. If we continue to use ‘molecular’ thinking on these issues, we are doomed to failure. We need to think much more systemically.

Dr Atul Gawande

Working with individual executive leaders and with leadership teams at director and/or senior levels in organisations I noticed a similar issue. For individual leaders this results in a strange mix of outcomes. For some they feel like they are facing impossible problems. Wondering if what they are trying to do is even possible. Behind the closed door, they admit to feeling inadequate. Worrying about failing, for some in the first time in their career.

In the team or organisational context, people work with incredible commitment often putting in 15 hour days for long stretches, all to turn around a situation. And the result? Sometimes things improve, but often they don’t.

The problem here is that we have fallen into the trap of ‘molecular’ thinking when we need to be seeing the whole system. This requires a different mindset. A new leadership capacity that BOTH leads with decisiveness and courage AND is able to generate vision, provide hope and engage widely involving people in decision making.

So, in 2015, as you seek to move your team forward, or improve the performance of your organisation, or improve the outcomes for clients, what can you do to think and act more systemically? If you would like some support in what this might look like for you, drop me an email.



getting your ‘eyes’

This is a photo I took in New Zealand of the Milky Way over Lake Manapouri. It was a stunningly clear evening, and the very small village had few street lights, so little light pollution. We walked down to the lake side using our phones as torches.

We were rewarded with a stunning spectacle.  Moment by moment, as our eyes acclimatised we saw more and more stars. Eventually seeing the stardust of the Milky Way. Of course, our solar system is part of the Milky Way. so we were gazing on our own Galaxy.

An awesome and sublime moment.

This took me to thinking how hard it is to see ourselves. How easy it is to get caught up in the ‘system’: drawn along or driven by mostly unconscious drives and assumptions. That’s why its so important to slow down. To reflect. To get ‘data’ from other perspectives (feedback from others) to help illuminate my own blind spots.

But for so many of us, the light pollution and noise is significant. The pace is relentless. The pressures enormous. It takes real courage to take time out. To slow down.

I remember many years ago a client telling me about his early career in Kodak, the film maker. They had a dark working area, which was light sealed by two doors – like an air lock. You go though one door, then wait a moment before opening the other door into the dark work area. When you step into this area it feels pitch black. You can see nothing in the inky blackness. Even though you can hear activity, and people saying ‘Hi Joe’ as they walk past you, it’s still black. Then, as you wait, he told me, you ‘get your eyes’. Your eyes become accustomed to the darkness, and things emerge, and after a time, you can move around and see clearly enough to work safely.

As I write this, I’m in a spiritual retreat venue called ‘The Bield’ just outside Perth. I have committed to myself to take a day a month to reflect. To step back. To think about the work, and myself in the work. To ‘get my eyes’.

I have a phrase we use in our work with clients: ‘we need to slow down to speed up.’ To ensure effort is expended on the right priorities and not just run around like a headless chicken. To fix the right problems.

Why not consider how you make time and space to ‘get your eyes’ and see what’s going on around you (and within you) in your work and life?

1 comment

A response to Carol Craig

The paradox of a positive pessimist
(verses the sadness of a pessimistic optimist)

Two very late interventions have emerged in the #IndyRef debate. One from Carol Craig  and the other from Ewan Morrison. Why they are so late is interesting to me. Why have they not felt able to speak out earlier? Of course in Ewen’s case, he has. He spoke out for YES, but how has moved to NO. One of his friends Kevin Williamson has written an excellent response to this.

I have been hesitant to comment, particularly on Craig’s essay, because it deserves a thorough response and I have restricted time. However a number of people have asked me what I think as the vote is so close, so I share these brief thoughts.

I combine both because they have a common theme. I mainly focus on Craig’s work because it is more considered and presents a serious challenge to the YES campaign. There is much in her essay that I agree with. But I’m left with a nagging doubt…

Drawing back from the evangelical YES

They both seem to have drawn back from what they see as excessive or evangelical YES. This is something I partly accept as there is a passion and zeal that can overpower which emanates from some of the YES camp. But I have not found a caricatured YES as seen in these articles. I’ve seen diverse groups (there are many facets of the YES movement) of people from incredibly different background, mindsets with very different values and politics. There has been debates, sometimes (polite) arguments, dialogue with nuance, criticisms, doubts and concerns expressed. I wonder if this drawing back has lead them away from debate and discourse into the privacy of the study from where we can all write with certainty – of both the negative and positive kind.

Problems with the arguments

I think there are problems in some of the arguments. This is be overly simplistic, but here is how I read the logic.

1. Yes are over optimistic

I mostly agree

2. ‘They’ (the SNP, nationalists or YES) ignore the arguments and dismiss criticism as scaremongering

I partly agree

3. ‘They’ are wedded to a hidden ideology: for Craig it’s nationalism, for Morrison its close to a religious cult.

Now I’m getting a little worried…

4. The YES movement is caricatured (slightly) as naive: musicians, artists, celebrities, young, inexperienced – not ‘big business’

Partly true, though this is pretty jaded and possibly cynical. And ‘big business’ is inherently risk averse, wants stability and power structures they understand, and dare I say it, can manipulate. And there are a lot of business voices that argue Independence is good for Scotland, as well as intellectuals, academics, economists, lawyers, doctors and so on (of course these voices argue also for NO).

5. There are a lot of risks

I agree, but would argue there are risks both ways. There may be more risks with a YES. And it seems to me that there are also many more opportunities and possibilities. There are certainly more unknowns. Risk and reward is always a trade off. Is the risk you are embarking on worth the potential benefit, not just in monetary terms? And what is the risk of not choosing to take a risk?

6. These risks have not been addressed

I think I agree with this, but am feeling pulled along by a slightly pessimistic undertow, that may be about to become a rip tide. But I can’t be overly optimistic as that has been shown to be naive or blind so I’m sticking with it.

7. Selecting the negatives

The massive negativity and fear mongering of the NO campaign is not really brought into the frame. Craig mentions it in passing, but she majors on YES accusing NO of fear mongering as a negative tactic of the YES campaign. So paradoxically YES’s optimism can now be framed as ‘blind’ optimism because if it’s refusal to address the negative: the fears, the concerns, the risks. This is subtle. To me it kind of makes a negative a positive and a positive a negative.

Also, this tends to circular reasoning or a logical fallacy, I can ignore the criticisms of the consistent negativity of the NO campaign because the overly optimistic YES people have their fingers in their ears and they are the REALLY dangerous ones. You may have seen the cartoon front page in the Spectator where we YES people are all following a kilted Alex Salmond running over a cliff like lemmings!

Relentless negativity

Lets be absolutely clear. The ‘better together’ campaign has been relentlessly negative and focused on stimulating a contagion of fear amongst Scottish citizens. This is almost universally accepted by independent observers. I would argue they have not just fought a terrible campaign, but have been willing to use any tactic, no matter how pernicious, to intimidate Scottish citizens. As I’ve written elsewhere, there is a positive case for the Union, but this is not it.

Making YES a negative

So, if I vote YES it seems like I’m an over optimistic YESer blind to the risks and concerns. However, if I do have concerns, and think there are risks, the logical and pragmatic thing to do is vote NO. There is no middle ground. Where people can be either YES or NO with doubts, fears, concerns and hopes.

While Craig rightly critiques the dangers of an over optimistic approach, she undermines her case by falling into the trap of selecting her evidence. For example, she chooses to quote one Nobel Prize winning Economist (who says we should be ‘very, very afraid’ incidentally) but ignores another Nobel Prize winner who criticises the NO camp as being overly negative and says iScotland can be successful. Like so much in this campaign, each ‘side’ can choose their ‘expert’ to back their views.

She manages to make voting YES sound not just naive, but dangerous, making the optimism of YES a negative. She has subtly shifted the ground to make her version of pragmatism supreme. The trinity of ‘analysis, foresight and scepticism’ together have more weight than hope.

Ambiguity and doubt

David Grieg spoke brilliantly recently on the issue of doubt and ambiguity. He is a clear advocate for YES because he believes (as I do) that this gives us the best opportunity to create a modern social democracy. However he is not certain! He, like I, has doubts. However these doubts don’t paralyse him.

He said: ‘When I commit to YES, what am I silencing in myself? What is the cost to my spirit?’ I love what Gerry Hassan says about finding the no in yes, and the yes in no. This YES-NO is a binary choice, but the benefit of this is that it forces us to a decision point. Grieg said the vote is like the bomb under the table. He tells writers if things are getting stale, put a bomb under the table. It forces something for sure!

Ambiguity for beginners

Grieg, as a playwright, said that the best way to make a character unbelievable is to make him/her certain. I think this has been a problem for the YES campaign which Craig picks up on. However, she ignores the certainty of the relentless NO, the fear, the risks. In fact the NO campaign has sought to make some of these risks certain – for example by ruling out the currency union. One of my favourite movies is 12 Angry men. In it the most certain character breaks down at the end: the Hispanic boy was guilty. But his certainty came from his transference reaction about his son. Have you never wondered about the certainty of the NO campaign?

He went on to speak about how the polls are 50/50, half dreamy, sparkly, optimism, the other half concerned, doubt, fear, worry, love of past. He goes on to say that interesting: if you find that  in one person that is a recipe for a healthy human being! The other, overly optimistic or overly skeptical are in fact neurotic. I’ll come back to this later.

Doubts and the normal Scot

Some people see me as a YES zealot, and people that know me, understand that when I commit to something, I commit with passion.

Do I have doubts? Yes. Do I think things will be tough? Yes. But my considered view that, having looked at the evidence, I moved from NO to YES. This is a step I believe we must take. This is an opportunity we must embrace. Do I believe that a YES vote will lead to a utopia? No. But neither do I take the pessimistic view that “If Scotland gains independence then for decades most of its political and intellectual resources will be channelled into becoming another, largely inadequate, European state.”

Why do I think this? Not because I believe the Scots are some super race better than the English or others. But neither are we worse, or somehow genetically determined to be unable to manage our own affairs. What’s inspiring is the level of engagement in the YES movement. The awaking of people not just to voting (although that is amazing: 97% registered to vote), but becoming activists and engaging in all kinds of self organising groups. NO groups are also engaged, albeit without the creative diversity of YES and mostly through normal party mechanisms.

I reject Craig’s pessimistic view that we will just end up with the same old (usually) men in suits running things. Or that the SNP will dominate. Where’s my evidence? My own thoughts and many I’ve spoken to. The evidence is that a majority voting YES are not actually nationalists. In 2016, they will move towards the party that best articulates their values, their hopes and aspirations. And I have it from solid sources that there will be at least one new party emerge post YES, possibly two. How exciting. And with proportional representation, we will end up with a diverse group who will have to agree common ground to govern. Our experience of coalition politics in the UK has been pretty chronic, but that is within the bounds of a broken westminster system. In the Netherlands, coalition politics works very well indeed. With the government able to plan much longer term than till the next election in five years.

Negative optimism and the dismissal of hope

But where I take most issue with Craig is in her focus on a negative optimism and her dismissal of hope. One of her headings in her essay is ‘the limitations of hope’

I have learned, working internationally with leaders and teams, that one of the key breakthroughs in leadership is the ability to work with paradox and ambiguity. And working with polarities, has been at the core of my work for the last ten years. What do I mean by polarities? These are two things, which seem opposite or opposed, but are both essential. Think of work and rest. We clearly need both. If you focus on one to the exclusion of the other you will be unhealthy and ineffective.

The danger of polarisation is that we focus on only one aspect of a polarity and we end up in serious difficulty. Craig does this in her essay with an overbalanced focus on reality/pragmatism to the exclusion of vision/hope.

Hassan, in his book ‘Caledonian Dreaming’ touches on hope with some insight. He quotes Barbara Ehrenreich in saying: ‘Hope is an emotion, a yearning, the experience of which is not entirely within our control. Optimism is a cognitive stance, a conscious experience, which presumably anyone can develop through practice.’

He goes on to say that this mental position of optimism is very congruent with a capitalist mindset. And I agree with Craig that telling people to be optimistic and forcing them to shut out negativity is very unhealthy, and this may be ‘sold’ as optimism, which is dangerous.

However aligning optimism with hope is deeply flawed. If optimism is of the head, hope is of the heart. Marcel speaks of the epistemology of hope. Of hope as a ‘creative ethic.’ This is completely different from optimism. Hope is deeply connected to being human. That is one of the things that some people have not been able to grasp in this movement, and some of the more cynical have dismissed or even mocked. People have found hope, and this hope has inspired them. Has lifted their spirits. Has generated the belief that something different is possible. Marcel also highlights that hope is often fashioned in the face of adversity and is intimately linked to community. Many people have found community in the hope that working with others for YES has brought. At times that has almost felt like a religious fervour, but to critique it simply as a kind of cultish mindset profoundly misses the point.

We all see what we want to see. Recently in a piece of very difficult work, a trusted colleague challenged me that I had made my mind up about a situation. And, as a result saw everything a certain way. She said to me ‘Joe, everything is yellow to the jaundiced eye.’ That was a difficult for me to hear. I’m sad to conclude that, despite her attempts at balance, I think that Craig is looking at YES though a jaundiced eye which affects her judgement.

‘Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It needs no courage, only a certain naiveté, to be an optimist. It needs a great deal of courage to have hope’ (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)

This hopeful, courageous, pragmatic optimist is voting yes.


My slow journey to YES

without bloodshed

I remember the ’it’s Scotland’s oil’ campaign by the SNP in the 1970’s. At that time I was young, left wing, and saw this as an opportunistic bid of some narrow nationalists – I was an internationalist after all. Wasn’t nationalism some kind of poison? At the time, the campaign seriously misjudged the mood of the Scots, by appealing to them simply on a selfish economic level.

At the same time, I was an ardent supporter of devolution, as I saw that Scotland needed government in Scotland that would better be able to address the issues and opportunities unique to Scotland.

I also remember that bitter day in March 1979 when, despite a majority voting for devolution, Scotland was denied its democratic right to a devolved Scottish Parliament by Westminster chicanery. This being compounded two months later with the election of Thatcher, and her Orwellian speech on the steps of Downing Street quoting a paraphrase of the ‘Prayer of Saint Francis’:

“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”

She promptly went about doing the exact opposite. I’ll not go into the hugely negative impact that Thatcher and Thatcherism had on Scotland, this is beyond the scope of this short essay. However, this legacy has meant the almost total demise of the Tory party in Scotland in relation to Westminster elections, currently having only one solitary MP.

Footnote: Alec Douglas-Home urged Scots to vote ‘no’ to Labour’s proposal in 1979, with the promise that a Conservative government would offer a “better” bill. (Via And we got Thatcher and Thatcherism. We were also subjected to eerily familiar scare stories by Unionists/British Nationalists urging us to reject a Scottish Parliament in both referenda.

Fast forward to the late 2000’s, and we have a Scottish Parliament. Created with a fair electoral system, a mix of first past the post and Proportional Representation, designed to ensure no one party would achieve an outright majority, but would have to share power. The kind of system Westminster would never countenance, but that’s another story…

So the SNP are elected as a minority government in 2007 – ‘Scottish’ Labour is beginning to loose its foothold (some might say stranglehold). And for the first time in my life I put an X next to an SNP candidate. In this case for the list seat. I voted Lib Dem for the main candidate as I was, like many others, totally disillusioned with ’New Labour’ and the enshrining of PR, ’spin’ and aggressive bullying at the very heart of government.

The SNP minority government handles itself with some maturity, even if I was not in agreement with some of their policies.

Moving forward to 2011, and the polls are predicting a labour majority. Labour run a very negative campaign, attacking the SNP and Salmond. At the same time, Salmond is taken aside by key aids and colleagues and challenged about his own negativity. The message of positive psychology has an impact and Salmond, an seasoned and wily campaigner, listens. Why attack Labour when you can paint a positive picture of a future Scotland? The SNP moves to the positive ground and begins articulating their positive vision for Scotland.

The polls are stacked against the SNP, and even eleven weeks before the vote, Labour are predicted to win with a 14% lead. Then comes the shock. A very late swing to the SNP gives them an OUTRIGHT majority! Remember the Scottish Parliament was designed to prevent an outright majority with a mix of ‘first past the post’ and ‘proportional representation’. Now the SNP had a majority and with a key plank of their manifesto a referendum on Independence for Scotland.

Both my votes this time go to the SNP. Fully disillusioned with Labour, although still voting for my Dundee Labour MP as it’s better than the alternative, and believing a tactical vote for any other party would have limited impact. On of the severe limitations of a first past the post system, the ’wasted’ vote that makes no difference.

If there had been a question on the ballot paper on independence I would have voted NO. I believed at that time in being part of the UK. I still had a residual prejudice against nationalism and nationalists. And, were we not better in the Union? Why would we not stay together for solidarity with our English, Welsh and Irish cousins. Why break up something that was working, and had worked so well for 300 years? And, if we were independent, would that not condemn the rest of the UK to perpetual Tory rule? At the same time, was Scotland not dependent on the UK? We needed them to prop us up, we had higher levels of public spending, and we got a generous grant from Westminster through the Barnett Formula which was to Scotland’s advantage. Also, the brightest and best went to London: from business men and women, ‘creatives’, media types and politicians. We didn’t have the talent or intelligence to run things ourselves.

Of course, this was not all consciously thought, but it was certainly part of my psyche as for many in Scotland. We too quickly believe what I have now discovered to be a lie – that we are ‘too wee too poor and too stupid’ to run our own affairs.

So, what changed my mind? What moved me from a convinced anti-independence NO to a YES? A mix of things. Listening to people with different views. Actively engaging in research on the issues from multiple sources. Talking to people, and exploring options. And reviewing all this with an open mind. The more I listened, spoke, debated, dialogued and researched, the more I moved away from NO…

My day job involves working with leaders in the context of the organisations they run. I’ll not bore you with the detail, but suffice to say that one of the issues I have researched in depth is decision making. And, I’m very aware of the fact, as Swift pointed out, that:

‘Human beings are not rational beings, but beings capable of rationality.’

Sara Sheridan, the author, in her ‘journey to yes’ speaks about our decision making processes mainly being made up what the psychologists call ‘retrospective accounting’. That is, we make a decision intuitively then look to justify it. There are a lot of other psychological theories that also contribute to this – conformation bias, hindsight bias, recency bias and so on… In a nutshell decisions we make in life are rarely rational, though we like to imagine they are.

I also teach masters in leadership and decision making. Some years ago there was some research done by a famous car manufacturer to see which ads were most successful in attracting potential buyers for their cars in the glossy magazines. What they found was that the people who most read the ads were people who had just bought the car! In other words, they were seeking to convince themselves they did the right thing.

So how to wade throughout he propaganda and spin? Nothing was neutral. Blogs and articles always had a bias, from both sides. This was not going to be easy, but I felt compelled to seriously consider this and not just vote with my current view – which may have been prejudiced, or influenced by other irrational forces.

Along with speaking to a wide range of people and asking questions, I also began going to a series of events in Ullapool called “Changin’ Scotland”. These events hosted by Jean Urquhart at the Ceilidh Place and organised by her and Gerry Hassan, the writer and commentator. There I met a range of diverse thinkers from all ’sides’, and had wide ranging conversations on important aspects of life in Scotland. No one tried to ‘convert’ me, of even ask me where I stood on independence. I did a lot of listening, asked a lot of questions and engaged in intensive dialogue. I learned a lot. I grew in respect for men and women who stood for nationalism and the SNP. For example, a friend of mine from way back, Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh the Gaelic poet from Inverness, whom I love dearly, but previously had always dismissed his politics (sorry Fearghas!).

I also read a lot, and began to see what was for me the quite shocking distortions from Westminster that I had swallowed… That Scotland was to weak, too poor to run its own affairs. That Scotland was a public sector junkie, and dependent on a generous ’grant’ from Westminster via the ’Barnett Formula’ all of which have proven to be untrue. I only believed this because such thoughts found fertile ground in my mindset of Scottish inferiority (I’m not alone in this mindset!). We have been the victims of the Tories, and particularly Thatcher. Drinking this toxic mix of inferiority and victimhood is a cocktail that results in an inability to take responsibility leading to ongoing disempowerment. But at least we can blame others for our woes!

I read Arguing for Independence by Stephen Maxwell. This is an important contribution, where Maxwell makes the case of why independence is important across all areas of life in Scotland: democratic, cultural, environmental, economic, defence, and international. However, the part of the book which had the most impact on me was the chapter on ways of arguing. Maxwell, without getting too philosophical, clearly identified to me the nature of so many of the fallacious arguments of the NO campaign. It is not a serious argument or debate, but simply a series of “straw men” that are put forward, and when the issue is addressed, lo and behold, another “straw man” appears. Take for example, “there are too many unanswered questions.” This could be true, what about X or Y? Then the Scottish Government produce the white paper “Scotland’s Future” – 670 pages of detail, including 650 questions and answers over 211 pages going into significant detail on a wide range of important questions. The response of “better together?” Alastair Darling, within a few hours of the launch, when he clearly had no time to read and consider the document, dismisses it out of hand saying it “hasn’t answered any of the big questions.”

Does the white paper have it’s weaknesses? Yes. Do I agree with all of it? No. But it is a very serious and comprehensive attempt to map out what an independent Scotland might look like. And I still see people saying (on Facebook for example) that “there are too many unanswered questions”. I think this is due to either their mindset being stuck as mine was, or they have accepted the line which has been promulgated by an (up until very recently) a Media overwhelmingly negative towards Independence.

The problem for the NO campaign is that they keep coming back to their straw men, as if they are living in some parallel Orwellian universe whereby repeating the same accusations, they somehow become true. Have you heard them? A series of soundbites on the Pound, Pensions, and the EU. The Pound and Pensions deliberately targeted to install fear and uncertainty. Now both these issues have been addressed to a reasonable degree with a number of responses. The response of ‘project fear’ is what? ‘Ah, but you can’t be CERTAIN.’ Or to raise another scare story. For me, its not only about the money, but humour me for a moment because having a sound economy is very important.

I also began reading widely on social media sites. I found Newsnet Scotland, Bella Caledonia and Business for Scotland very useful sources of information outwith generally pretty biased media. I also came across National Collective, “Artists and Creatives for Independence.” Behind this excellent website is a small team of volunteers, working on a shoestring with no financial backing (unlike the votenoborders attempt to clone NC but set up and funded by a London based Tory millionaire). And I got to know some of these great people who have since become friends. There are dozens of other sites and blogs – for example,,,

The Business for Scotland group, which I have joined, has a wide range of articles on their website which gives the economic and business case for an independent Scotland. This group has people from all political parties and non party (like myself) and is only unified on their belief that an Scotland will prosper and business will thrive most if Scotland becomes independent.

So, I’ve had my eyes opened. The numbers are clear – even opponents of independence (like David Cameron) admit that Scotland could be a successful independent county. I’ve been impressed with the depth of thoughtful people who have decided to vote YES. I’ve been swayed by the wide range of people from diverse backgrounds and political leanings. I’ve appreciated the open minded conversations with positive people who have, like me, come to see the best way for Scotland to thrive is by voting YES.

At the same time, I’ve been increasingly disappointed by the negativity and scaremongering of the self titled “project fear”. They have singularly failed to come up with any positive message, or positive reason for Scotland to stay with the UK.

We have seen a recent backlash from Westminster, with an unprecedented alignment of Labour, Lib-Dem and Conservative all agreeing that ‘Scotland cant keep the Pound.’ A clearly orchestrated strategy to seek to derail the SNP, put them on the back foot, demand a ‘plan B’ and then attack the plan B. They underestimated Salmond however, and more importantly, the Scottish People. This plan has spectacularly backfired, swaying some undecideds to YES. Why the NO camp didn’t foresee that a Tory Chancellor flying into Edinburgh to lecture the Scots would not raise our hackles escapes me. The origin of Osborne’s ‘lecture’ had all the hallmarks of a PR exercise. I can imagine the ‘brainstorming’ session, the flip charts, the strategy. Fly in, ‘lecture’ release the civil servants letter of advice (another unprecedented move) to add braces to the belt of the argument. It’s not just the Tory Chancellor, not just the Lib Dem supporting act of Danny Alexander, but the heavyweight Ed Balls – labour shadow chancellor. And add to that, the senior civil servant speaks. Surely it must be true?

At the same time Osborne took a few token questions, then fled to his people carrier slamming the door on a hapless Bernard Ponsenby of STV asking ‘What about the costs to English businesses chancellor?’ Of course none of this is relevant in Osborne’s mind, as now he’s dealt the death blow to independence. He’s reframed the debate – that the vote on Sept 18th is now a vote to keep or loose the pound. Project Fear on steroids. That’ll teach them. They’ll vote no, so there will be no impact on English Business, or the rUK balance of payments from removing the Scottish Exports – seriously threatening the rUK economy and currency.

But this has backfired big time. Salmond has stated there is not just a plan B, but a plan C, D and E – and they are all in the Fiscal Report published by the Scottish Government. The writers included not just one but two Nobel prize laureates.

But why this tactic? The NO campaign has realised that the polls are getting close, and they are worried. At the very outset, they ruled out a second question on the ballot paper: yes-no and ‘devo-max’. This was the preferred option of the Scottish Government, but it was refused. Why? the assumption was that there would be a resounding NO and this would but Salmond and the SNP back in their box. What’s happening now? Despite the main UK parties complaining that a two year campaign for the independence referendum was excessive, they are all now scrambling to come up with their own plans of what they will do for/with Scotland if there is a NO vote. This smacks of hypocrisy and the worst of politics. The tide is shifting we need a different boat. Not born of principle or belief, but pragmatism. As a result, you can be assured that if the tide turns in another way, these ‘commitments’ can just as easily be abandoned.

Along with all the campaign heating up, I have been considering the trajectory of the British State. Something that has been obvious to others, I’m now seeing a lot more clearly. Steve Richards, The Independent’s chief political commentator, said at a ‘Cultures of Independence’ seminar in the Glasgow School of Art, that Scotland and England have been on a very different trajectory for some years. Exacerbated by the Tory-LibDem alliance coming to power. He argues that England (and Wales by default) are experiencing the most radical transformation of public services and public finance since the creation of the welfare state and the NHS. Driven by a neo-liberal ideology, we are seeing increasing privatisation and hollowing out of the public sector. And this is happening at an alarming pace.

Cameron criticised (rightly in my opinion) New Labour’s ‘meddling’ with the NHS and promised ‘no top down reorganisations.’ yet as soon as he was elected, he begins the process of privatising the NHS. And this will continue if they get re-elected as UK government as it seems likely. Richards said that public services will be unrecognisable within 5 years. The English NHS is fragmented and market driven. Compare to the Scottish NHS which, though it has it (significant) challenges, is taking a more integrative approach. Also education. Gove, when he was education secretary (and one of the most hated Tory politicians at the moment) took education to more testing and examinations. More top down manipulation of the curriculum. Privatisation of schools, undermining the quality of education by allowing ‘Free Schools’ to use non qualified teachers. Compare and contrast to the Curriculum for Excellence. Again, not without its problems, but a more integrated and systemic approach to educating the whole child.

Scotland is not ‘leaving’ England – ‘England’ has been drifting away from Scotland for some years.

At the same time, we are seeing a resurgence of nationalism, not Scottish, but British. The NO campaign statements often begin with ‘I’m a patriotic Scot but I’m also proud to be British’ or words to that effect. We get celebrations of the START of World War One – and the British Media and political classes wallowing in nostalgia about the greatness of ‘Great Britain.’ Are we witnessing the death throws of the British State?

And, we are seeing unprecedented interest in this debate. The levels of engagement on social media, the numbers of public meetings (both mostly energised by the YES campaign) has astonished commentators. This level of engagement has been unseen in the UK for 40 years or more. At a time we have Russell Brand calling for a ‘revolution’ of not voting (Brand has since come out in support for Scottish Independence) we have a groundswell of young people getting involved and active in the YES movement as Greens, part of the Radical Independence Movement, or the National Collective. These young people want to be involved in creating the kind of Scotland they believe in and want to live in.

Which brings me to my main reason for moving to YES. It’s not the numbers, although any open, unbiased and independent (sic) investigation would show Scotland has more than it takes to run its own economy. What makes for a successful country is the resourcefulness of the people. In Scotland, we have this in spades – and now we know it. Not only do we have fabulous natural resources, and a strong economy (greatest growth in the UK outside London), but we have the belief we can do it.

It’s not just the fact that an independent Scotland would be able to be rid of nuclear weapons, although that is very very important. It’s not just that an independent Scotland would be able to create an even healthier economy and enable our inherent entrepreneurial flair to be nurtured and unleashed, although that is important. It’s not just that we would be able to take our seat in the family of nations at the UN, and round the table at the EU, although our voice for maintaining peace rather than projecting power is very important. It’s not just that Scotland who has an estimated 25% of Europe’s tidal potential and 10% of its wave potential and 25% of offshore wind resources, as well as world leading ambitious climate change targets seeking to be a role model in climate change globally – important though that is.

No, its because I believe Scotland is ready to take responsibility for its own destiny. And we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to create a modern social democracy. Westminster has show itself pretty impervious to reform. The power elites in Westminster and London have too much too lose. I want us to seize our opportunity. To begin to create the kind of country that is considerate of the weak and vulnerable, and at the same time releases our entrepreneurial flair. Facing tough challenges by taking responsible decisions based on the most important priorities for our democracy.

In short, the kind of country I want my children, and my grandchildren if I’m blessed with them, to flourish in.

without bloodshed

The key point of my move to YES was articulated when I took up the challenge to enter a competition run by Creative Stirling and the National Collective. A 140 character tweet about Scotland beyond the referendum. My tweet was among those chosen to be screen printed and exhibited. The discipline of having to write concisely and nail my colour to the mast was cathartic for me. And I’m proud of my winning entry.

without bloodshed or revolution
can we navigate the fraught narrows of independence
to enter the ocean of possibility

Will YES be the answer to all our problems? No. Will being independent be a panacea? By no means. We will have significant challenges to navigate. But we will be at the helm. We have the opportunity to reinvigorate democracy in Scotland, both at a national level and at a local level.

One of the amazing things about this campaign is that it has become a movement. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my lifetime. We have so many young people actively involved in politics. They are engaging and agitating for what they believe and want to see in Scotland. And this energy is what gives me hope. That we will not just be changing the grey suits that run our country. But we are creating something new and different. I believe that if we get a YES on September the 18th, that this marks the beginning of the real work. The next Scottish election will likely see a wider rainbow coalition as it will be unlikely the SNP will again have an outright majority. Some of this depends what spins out of new political groupings like the Radical Independence Movement, and how the newly engaged young people position themselves politically. Do they join the greens or some other party? Will Scottish Labour manage to come through the trauma and rebuild itself as a truly Scottish party independent (sic) of London party HQ? I even think that we will see a resurgence of conservatism (with a small ‘c’) in Scotland, freed from British Nationalism and the legacy of Thatcher.

Gray said that ‘we should work as if we live in the early days of a better nation.’ I believe, with the YES movement, we are already seeing this in action. I urge you to vote YES with me so we can continue this task. And together we can build a fairer, more democratic and just society. A society that cares for the vulnerable and gives it’s young people the best possible start in life. A country that nurtures entrepreneurial talent and inventive flair to build a strong and sustainable economy for the twenty first century.


Caledonian Dreaming by Gerry Hassan – Book review by Joe Lafferty

Caledonian Dreaming-book image

On the eve of a historic referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014, Gerry Hassan’s Caledonian Dreaming is a landmark book. He articulates, with incisive political and historical analysis, the landscape of what has taken the UK and Scotland to where they are today. And at the same time, this is a profoundly human book.

Hassan is no stranger to serious and heavyweight political analysis with a number of books under his belt from The Strange Death of Labour Scotland to editing the collection Scotland 2020: Hopeful Stories for a Northern Nation. Also, Hassan was behind a major project in Glasgow that resulted in a book – The Dreaming City: Glasgow 2020 and the Power of Mass Imagination – where many people across the city articulated their dreams for their city. His desire to create opportunities to connect people to their dreams, where they may find their voice, is a continuing passion for him as a writer and activist.

To be picky, the book feels at times like a collection of essays, rather than a cohesive whole. However, when he comes back to a topic, Hassan takes the opportunity to deepen his analysis and comment so it does not feel repetitive.

Also his attempt to make the book readable by avoiding academic referencing and footnotes can be frustrating. Hassan uses a number of terms which are not always well defined and can be confusing. For example, “Civic Scotland”, “High Scotland”, “Missing Scotland” and “Professional Scotland”. He does define these terms later on in the book, but this requires the reader to stay with him a bit.

Having said that, he draws on a wide range of sources for his writing, and manages to pull off the tricky feat of creating a readable book while at the same time enriching his narrative with quotes and perspectives from a diverse range of thinkers down the ages.

In his opening chapter, Hassan sets the scene for his book. He attempts to write something that is not an “answer” but rather he opens up possibility which becomes the beginning of many conversations.

Firstly, he argues that independence is not a yes/no binary question but rather a process. Scotland is becoming more independent, and has been for some years. He draws on “tumultuous events” with the pillars of public life in the UK crumbling, and how people are losing faith with old elites and traditional bases of power and authority.

He critiques much of the debate in the referendum: it’s black and white or too negative or overly optimistic. The debate is amongst narrow elites with a presentation of two “accountancy versions” of Scotland, or defined by a politics of naming and labelling – a tribalism that excludes most of us. If you have been following either camp on social media you will have seen the extremes of this “chatter” – where the camps are essentially speaking to themselves, leaving most undecided voters disinterested and disengaged.

Hassan argues that the conversation cannot be divorced from what people in Scotland and the UK are living through now. He confronts the reality behind the stories we tell ourselves. You may disagree with some of his list of six “Scottish myths”, but you can’t miss the challenge. They lead us to blame others for our woes, and idealise ourselves: a kind of perverse mix of self-deprecation and pride, like the old Scots saying: “Here’s tae us, fa’s like us? Damn few and there aa deid!” In reality we are not more democratic, more egalitarian or better educated. Nor do we hold power more to account. Nor are we more socially democratic or have a more open society in Scotland according to Hassan’s evidence.

This is what O’Toole touches on in his excellent introduction – Hassan is challenging Scots to face their own self-deception. This is a call to be part of a maturing nation, to grow up and take responsibility.

At the same time Hassan is aware that the combination of the negatives lead some to collude with the “too wee, too small, too stupid” caricature of Scotland. He provides a sound perspective on the fact that “Scottish culture encompasses a profound, deeply embedded sense of loss, and because of this, of melancholy and pessimism”, and why this mindset has developed and become ingrained.

This is also a book where Hassan is present, while not making the book about himself. This is illuminating and helpful and supports a key part of his thesis that the personal is political. He tells of how growing up in Dundee shaped his world view, speaking warmly and honestly about his communist father and activist mother.

Gerry Hassan

As well as painting a landscape to help readers consider where we are now at this vital stage, he also carries out wider historical and political analysis of what shaped us and what took us to where we are. Articulating this is not a narrow debate about esoteric constitutional matters, but a vital development in how we citizens in Scotland see ourselves and consider the possibilities for the future, no matter what the outcome of the vote in September.

I was particularly drawn to two elements Hassan focuses on in the foundation of his writing: empathy and hope. This takes the book beyond a mere political analysis to something more human, more real. He exhorts us all, and endeavours himself, to get beyond ourselves; to seek to understand the other, with respect, even if we disagree – a vital point in what has been at times a fractious and aggressive debate.

He distinguishes hope from optimism. Optimism is a cognitive state which may be linked to self deception: a blind optimism. He also shows the links between optimism and the mindset essential for capitalism. Hope, however is something much deeper. Hope is at the centre of the human experience. Hope requires courage.

He concisely outlines the origins of the British state giving a powerful rationale for why it has been pretty impervious to reform, nimbly synthesising what made Britain “great” and how some “narrow elites” perpetuate core myths that retain this narrative and their power. This ignores much of the rich historical and political development of the countries of these isles.

Hassan argues that the UK has gone from being a pre-democratic state to a post-democratic state without ever being democratic. This may seem like an extreme view, but reading his analysis of “The Slow Non-March of British Democracy” it’s hard to argue with this. He also concludes that “the British Empire state in its hyperbole, sense of its own importance and unreformed nature at the centre is with us to this day”, demonstrating the power of this mindset and the impact on UK politics and Scotland in particular.

At the same time, “Britain has changed in dramatic ways in the last three decades”. Hassan draws a metaphor moving from the TV shows Yes Prime Minister to The Thick of It. We have moved from an elite civil service which has to thole and manage incompetent ministers to a centralised, power mad, PR-dominated, foul-mouthed, aggressive inner elite that are ruled by non-elected “spin doctors”. If you watched the Danish TV series Borgen you will have noticed that the English term “Spin Doctor” and the role itself has even crossed over to Europe! While this may seem mildly humorous, it points to a centralisation of power in the hands of a different kind of narrow elite, with the values of self-promotion and self-preservation and not service.

He argues that there is “an existential crisis of the UK as a geo-political entity” and how all unionist parties seek some form of “restoration” to a kind of “Fantasyland Britain”. This can be seen with all the celebrations of the “glorious past”: World War 1, World War 2 and next year Osbourne announcing a 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. Hassan shows that the rationale for this narrative is to demonstrate that “this union offers the protection, security and shared risk, which being a smaller, self-governing entity just doesn’t offer.” However this leads to “Britain as Disneyland” which ignores the chasm between these stories and the “stark reality” of what is facing much of the population with “diminishing welfare and social provision, and diluting or privatising the public nature of public services and public goods” initiated by the acts of Cameron’s government.

I imagine Hassan will stimulate criticism in some aspects of how he approaches gender issues in the book. I don’t feel qualified to make a considered analysis on this, but think it is important to offer a view.

He frames the impact on Scottish working class masculinity by Thatcher’s destruction of Scottish industry as a gender issue because Thatcher is a woman. I’m not sure about that. She was commonly addressed as “the best man for the job” and not always ironically!

Just in case you were rubbing your hands in glee at the critique of British nationalism, Hassan also analyses Scotland, drawing the stark conclusion that “Scotland is not a democracy.” He points to the growing “centralisation and standardisation” of Scottish public life which has “accelerated under the Scottish Parliament” and has led to an increasing feeling of “burgeoning democratic deficit”. This highlights a problem for Scotland, and also explains why much of Scotland is missing from the political debate and activism which shapes our society.

Scotland joining the union was a marriage of convenience between two elites. This left “a Scottish identity and public life which was depoliticised and about administration and bureaucracy, and where imagination, innovation and boldness were left to the numerous inventors or the Scottish imperialists who went off and ran the British Empire.” We can see this replicated today with political “heavy hitters” going down to Westminster rather than remaining in Scotland, and to a lesser degree, the “London Scots” in the media, and BBC journalists coming back to Scotland to “commentate” on the referendum.

He deepens his analysis outlining the impact of Thatcher and Blair and exploring “The rise and fall of Civic Scotland”, and “What went wrong with Professional Scotland?” Hassan also has an honest reflection on “the stories of radical Scotland”. The tapestry is widened by some discussion that “A Different Kind of Politics is Possible” drawing on creativity and imagination. This, and “the Emergence of ‘the Third Scotland’”, gives us the opportunity to go “beyond labels and the official story”. Hassan argues we can “become the change” if we can connect and release “the power of dreams”.

Caledonian Dreaming is about grounded hope. This is a book that will inform, educate and illuminate. Alasdair Gray said: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”. While this is engraved in the Canongate Wall of the Scottish parliament building, Hassan has brought it to life in this wonderful book.

Joe Lafferty’s day job is leading Lifetree, a Scottish and Swiss based consultancy focusing on developing responsible leadership. He works across public, private and not-for-profit sectors. He is also a passionate adopted Dundonian, a member of the board of Dundee Contemporary Arts as well as being on the board of a number of charities.

This review by Joe Lafferty is published in Perspectives 40 (autumn 2014), the magazine of Democratic Left Scotland

(Photos by Joe Lafferty)


Leadership dilemmas

Impossible problems?

We’ve noticed that a number of our clients have wrestling with what feels like impossible problems. Leadership dilemmas. And there are no easy solution to these paradoxes. In fact, looking for a ‘solution’ in itself can be counter productive. My friend and colleague Peter Koestenbaum has seven steps for navigating such dilemmas.

The Burghers of Calais

The Burghers of Calais

1. Do not rationalise but feel the pain.

Don’t hide, run or deny. Neither intellectualise and escape into your ‘head’, or busy yourself with manic activity, but embrace the experience.

2. Polarities need each other.

It’s the genius of the AND. Do we need great team work or outstanding personal responsibility? The answer is YES-to both. These are polarities. And there are many more. Organisations often fail by emphasising one polarity to the exclusion of the other, sometimes at great cost.

3. Alternation beats prioritising.

Know which polarity, and which side (upside/downside) needs the most attention RIGHT NOW, and be flexible. Know that another element may need more attention tomorrow, next week, next month.

4. There is power in dialogue.

Dia-logos: through meaning. If you stay in your head, you are subject to your own self deception and blind spots. Get a coach. Find a mentor. Develop trusting relationships in your team. Engage in dialogue, genuinely listening, exploring with depth with others. New solutions will emerge.

5. Paradoxes provoke the mind to breakthroughs.

You can only ‘solve’ paradoxes with a step change in attitude and commitment. Move from negative evaluation of the situation to positive. From lethargy to energy. A decision-a breakthrough. Learning to leverage polarities is the KEY leadership skill for moving from problem solving to transformation. Leadership 2.0.

6. Each choice changes your environment.

When I begin to exercise my own free will and chose to approach, or interact with people differently, that changes things, and generates more possibility and further choices.

7. Practice democracy.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but this is a vital element. Democracy requires us to navigate real challenges together. To embrace diversity. To listen, learn, compromise, generate new solutions and approaches. So seek to engage people, draw from people who think differently from you.

About Lifetree

Are you wrestling with what feels like an impossible situation?

We’ll help you develop the right mindset to make sustainable growth and innovation happen.

We’ll show you how to inspire commitment, build trust and shift whole systems.

Staying internationally competitive has never been so difficult….or critical.

Work with Lifetree and master the art of making the impossible, possible.

Email me for my full article if you want to go beyond these headlines and go deeper than the list.

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