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.