Ambassadors of conscience: care and elections

I enjoy going to vote and I always have. I am looking forward to taking time on Thursday to go and physically exercise my choice by walking to my local Polling Station. It is an exercise that has been drilled into me from youth.

I have mentioned my great aunt Effie quite a few times in this blog and one of the things she was always passionate about was the importance of voting. My great aunt was a young teacher in the early 1900s firstly in Lewis and then Skye. She was inspired by the work of the Stornoway Women’s Suffrage Society which was one of many women’s organisations campaigning for equal treatment of women. So often the story of the Suffragettes is seen through the eyes of middle class and urban, even metropolitan, women but there was a rich and vibrant women’s movement in the islands of Scotland. The struggle for suffrage meant that for women like my great aunt the physical act of voting was a debt of duty and honour owed.

I will be especially motivated to vote this year because social care is such a prominent issue in this election. The experience of the last year has been hard beyond reckoning not least for residents, families and staff in our care home sector. We have a very real opportunity on Thursday in exercising our vote to ensure that any new Parliament, regardless of any specific government, prioritises social care. It is a pandemic election which owes a debt to those lives lost, diminished and harmed.

That is one of the reasons that I am fully behind the Oxfam Scotland campaign to have care recognised as a national outcome.

In December 2020, Oxfam Scotland, Scottish Care, One Parent Families Scotland, the Scottish Women’s Budget Group and the seven National Carer Organisations, including Carers Scotland, launched a joint call for a new National Outcome on valuing and investing in care.

Together, they are urging all political parties in Scotland to “make a generation-defining commitment to care and all those who provide it across the nation by putting in place a dedicated National Outcome… [to] help ensure that welcome statements of support for carers lead to meaningful and long-lasting change while ensuring that progress towards better valuing and investing in care is transparently monitored.”

This is critically important. Care has to come from the margins into the centre of our society; it needs to be not solely the object of occasional clapping but the conscious commitment of those who govern and deliver public services.

A few days after Thursday we will know the shape and form of the Government which will guide us for the next five years. Some of those canvassing and campaigning will start a new life as representatives of the people. It is a daunting task. Never before have we needed women and men who are able to be ‘ambassadors of conscience’.

One of my favourite poets Seamus Heaney was approached by the chairperson of a local Amnesty International group in Dublin in 1985 and she asked him to write a piece to mark Human Rights Day and the 25th anniversary of Amnesty. He created what would become one of his most famous poems, “From the Republic of Conscience”.

The poem imagines a Traveller arriving at a destination called the republic of conscience. Met by silent welcoming staff, he is not required to prove his identity, but rather is affirmed as part of the community. It is a place for self-exploration, all he is required to do is examine his own baggage. The poem depicts the character of this republic and describes the quality of those who lead and the obligations upon the Traveller as he leaves to return home from the republic. Have a read of it – its haunting allure is irresistible.

But one stanza always stays with me:

‘At their inauguration, public leaders

must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep

to atone for their presumption to hold office –

and to affirm their faith that all life sprang

from salt in tears which the sky-god wept

after he dreamt his solitude was endless.’

Heaney’s poem ends with the narrator being told that he is now an ‘ambassador of conscience’ – someone who in all they do needed to be the voice of those who suffer, to challenge injustice, to act and do what is right. It is a duty which they are told will never end, they will never be relieved of this commitment. It is perhaps fitting that Amnesty International’s most prestigious award is called the ‘Ambassador of Conscience Award.’

In the last few days, I have read commentary to suggest that people are not that interested in the election and that they are more focussed on returning to their normal lives of non-pandemic times. But democracy is a precious gift. The ability to vote achieved by women like my great aunt needs to be cherished and renewed. This year I think we all need to renew our democracy with a commitment to have care at the centre of this election and the next parliament.  Care should be both the coracle of our coming and the cradle of our hope as a community. It is the spirit of conscience which should enthuse our dialogue and decision, our motivation and aspiration.

Care needs to be at the heart of our new parliament, both in its priorities and outcomes, its focus and soul. But it also needs to be at the centre of the lives of those who would seek to govern. They need to be a group of women and men more open to listen that to talk; to learn than to espouse. Elections are set up to create opposition and distinction, difference and alternative. Government should always be a space for collaboration and conversation, agreement and acceptance. A parliament enthused with a focus on care gives a place to conscience and in turn moulds a wider community which becomes a space of tolerance, integrity and authenticity.

I look forward in the hope that our next Parliament will be occupied by women and men who are ambassadors of conscience first and representatives of party second. But regardless I will in duty and optimism walk out and vote on Thursday and I hope you will too.

Donald Macaskill

Last Updated on 10th May 2021 by Shanice