Are we radical yet?

George Kerevan reckons the First Minister needs “a wider range of radical thinkers” among her advisers. It’s a popular, not to say fashionable, term in Scottish political discourse – ‘radical’. We hear it a lot. Indeed, one of the more prominent groups in the Yes movement was/is the Radical Independence Convention/Campaign. It often happens that when words become ubiquitous we stop thinking about what they mean. We use the words casually. Even unthinkingly. It may even be that people throw the word into conversation or debate for no better reason than that it has vague associations with ‘different’. They use it to impress rather than to express.

Not that I’m suggesting George is guilty of such careless use of language. I mention this tendency for words to lose their power – and even their meaning – through overuse only to convey that it is often a good idea to refresh our understanding of terms such as ‘radical’. We think with words. If our appreciation of their meaning is diminished then so must be the clarity of our thinking.

It is particularly worth bearing in mind that words can often have more than one meaning. And that the sense of a word is contingent on the context in which it is used. When George Kerevan says the First Minister should surround herself with more “radical thinkers” he clearly intends us to understand that she should be open to opinions that are outwith the bounds of conventional thinking. That she should be receptive to ideas that are markedly novel and proposals that conceive of fundamental change. His reference to Common Weal’s Robin McAlpine and Andy Wightman MSP leave little room for doubt as to what George means by ‘radical’. It may well be thought that he could hardly have drawn a more stark contrast with Benny Higgins and Willie Watt – both prominent appointees who might blush at being described as radical.

But there is another sense of the term ‘radical’ which I would argue should inform our thinking as we consider the options for Scotland’s post-pandemic ‘recovery’. That is the sense of ‘radical’ as relating to the nitty-gritty of a thing. The kernel. The very nub of the matter. In linguistics, a radical is the form of a word stripped of all affixes. It is this idea of something pared to its essence that I suggest should be part of our thinking and a starting point for our planning for the post-Covid recovery. It is vital that we first define the issue. It serves our purposes and our interests not at all to think of recovery as a process of restoration. Rather, we must think of it as a process of renewal. It is as important to rid ourselves of the old as it is to contemplate the new.

Radical thinking begins with asking the right questions. Do we want to go back to where we were? Or do we want to go somewhere new? And if we choose to go somewhere new, what are we prepared to risk in order to get there? What really is the core issue here? How do we focus on that core issue and avoid the temptation to address symptoms rather than causes?

Are these the kind of questions Nicola Sturgeon is asking? How radical is she prepared to be? Come to that, how radical are we?

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