Another guest post today from April Cumming, vice-chair of the Scottish Fabians, who previously wrote for us on the opportunities for Labour to be more radical on transport. Thanks April!

eiggEarlier this year, on a gloriously sunny day in Holyrood, Judith Robertson, the head of Oxfam Scotland, addressed a packed room at The Scottish Futures Forum. I listened to her wise words as I watched the crows swooping and soaring over the craggy peaks of Arthur’s Seat, riding the swell of warm spring air as the hill stood watch over the city. I am often struck by how such simple pleasures as the humble appreciation of natural beauty can make our day a little less mediocre. As I turned to continue watching the presentation, I was struck by how Judith’s words resonated with my thoughts. She was speaking about how the Humankind Index, Oxfam’s measurement of what we really value in Scottish society, provides a basis for moving forward with policy in a country where the political paradigm is shifting. She was discussing the ethereal concept of happiness.

The focus on looking at value beyond a simple measurement of GDP has become an increasingly prevalent element of left-wing thinking, and I was enthused to hear that Oxfam will soon launch a new tool to make the Humankind Index of measurement a practical way to assess the equalities impacts of policy. The new ‘Oxfam Humankind Index Policy assessment tool’ will look at recently published Government policy in order to measure the impact of policies on the real wealth of Scotland – the things that really matter to citizens. I like to think of this as the ‘wealth of humankind’; the accumulative benefit that does not focus on profit margins but instead measures worth on the basis of the real physical and mental benefits to the community and on the ability of members to support, be supported, and to contribute.

A number of experiences throughout my life and also more recently in my time at Holyrood have reinforced my firm belief that we must, as a nation and as global citizens, urgently reassess how we measure success in society. This is what the Humankind Index attempts to do and their findings chime not only with more radical thinkers like Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett but also with Nobel Prize-winning economists like Joseph Stieglitz. While we do need a basic level of income to provide the essentials of life, the index demonstrates through their large sample that, after these basics are achieved, what makes us most ‘happy’ is not our accumulated list of possessions but instead the quality of human relationships around us and our connection to our environment, both internal and external. Nothing is more detrimental to our quality of life than loneliness. We do not wish for a ‘brave new world’ where individuals spend their time alone, staring at various forms of screens, in isolated boxes for all of their days. And yet the policy decisions of western powers over previous tens of decades have led in exactly that direction.

My decision to write this piece came after a small group of close friends and I visited the island of Eigg in the Inner Hebrides. What we found there was a community of equals, resolute in their determination to achieve self-sufficiency and a cohesive sense of ‘oneness’ in a changing world. This was not about denying progress or trying to recapture some ethereal myth of crofting life. This was no Brigadoon in the mist. Here we found a modern commune with a pervasive sense of positivity and direction unlike any I have experienced before. The individuals I spoke to in our travels in no way wished to cling to tattered threads of tartan, the remnants of past grievance and the hallmark of the politics of grudge that has become so characteristic of discussions around land ownership on Scotland. They had accomplished change through the buyout, through determination and working with a shared vision to create something that was workable and sustainable. In doing so they have achieved an island that, while still facing many challenges, has recovered something of the commune; a reaffirmation of the value of human relationships and the self-determination to direct change in a manner that benefits all. The challenge is to ensure that this equilibrium is maintained.

As the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill comes forward for consideration this year we must look to examples of best practice and embrace the need to be radical in our thinking. A cohesive community is not one where the gross output of the individual is the only hallmark of success. The ability to work with and influence our external environment so that the local economy is more responsive to the needs of the locality is essential. While brownfield sites lay vacant, while children do not have space to grow vegetables, while the elderly remain alone in sedentary boxes, while access to community halls remains insufficient, while our civic spaces take second place in the priorities of successive local councils and while our central policy fails to reflect the real human value in our society, we shall remain in a state of great mass disillusionment. The time to embrace a new paradigm is now. Listen to Oxfam, they know what they’re talking about.