Open the door to a social covenant for care: a personal reflection.

I used to live in West Lothian and over the years walked across much of the countryside. Occasionally I would come across a marker stone commemorating events which had taken place in isolated and yet hidden parts of the landscape. Similar markers exist across much of central and lowland Scotland. These are memorials to a turbulent period of Scottish history, the time of the Covenanters.

In the numerous religious disputes of the 17th century thousands of Scots signed what was known as the National Covenant, in which they pledged to resist changes imposed by King Charles on the Scottish Kirk, and these disputes eventually led to violence and rebellion. After the 1660 Restoration of the monarchy, the Covenanters lost control and dominance, becoming a persecuted minority. During what was known as ‘The Killing Time’ hundreds died in a period from 1679 to 1688. Under severe persecution thousands gathered to worship in their own way out of sight, hidden in conventicles in the Scottish countryside. Attendance was very risky and a serious offence, and preaching at these locations was punishable by death. The memorials bear witness to their determination to resist and to re-shape a new way of being faithful.

All this came to my mind this past week when I read the Feeley Review or to give it its proper title the Independent Review of Adult Social Care in Scotland. The Review was published on Wednesday and has been broadly welcomed. I have read it a few times now and whilst a lot of commentary has been made on its central and core recommendation of creating a National Care Service there are some parts which, I would contend, are equally significant, but which have received less observation. One such is the idea of a social ‘covenant.’

The Report says:

‘One key factor in the realisation of [the aims of the report]… is the need for mutual commitment by citizens, representative bodies, providers, civic Scotland, and national government to set aside self-interest and each work together for the common good. Trust is not currently in plentiful supply in social care support and so we believe that there is a need for an explicit social covenant to which all parties would sign up. This will be particularly important if we want to achieve our aspiration for everyone in Scotland to get the social care support they need to live their lives as they choose and to be active citizens.

In their 2014 report, the World Economic Forum describes a social covenant as a vehicle for giving effect to a common set of values and beliefs:

  • The dignity of the human person, whatever their race, gender, background or beliefs;
  • The importance of a common good that transcends individual interests; and
  • The need for stewardship – a concern not just for ourselves but for posterity.

Together, these offer a powerful, unifying ideal: valued individuals, committed to one another, and respectful of future generations. Fostering these values, which we believe would serve Scotland well as guiding principles for improving social care support, is both a personal and a collective challenge. We must do more than just talk about them; we must bring them into public life and use them to guide decision-making.’

I think the above summarises both the vision and aspiration, the integrity and ethos of this hugely significant landmark report. I personally consider that the time is absolutely right for all of us to rally round the idea of a new national covenant – one of and for social care.

The concept of covenant is an ancient and rich one. Perhaps its oldest use is in religious communities, not least the Judaeo-Christian tradition and scriptures. There it is used as a description of the agreement between God and the ancient Israelites, in which God promised to protect them if they kept his law and were faithful. The everlasting visual sign of this Promise was in the form of a rainbow.

But covenant also carries overtones of law and finance. The word is used today to describe an agreement or promise to provide or do something, or the reverse. It is a legal and defined agreement. In finance and banking it is used as a formal agreement to pay a fixed amount of money regularly especially to a charity.

But in essence both the ancient and modern use of the word carries a depth which goes way beyond the concept of a contract or a formal agreement which can often be based on self-interest. It carries with it a sense of relationship and promise, fulfilment and commitment, solidarity and intent. It is this element I want to focus on in what follows. Much has been written about social covenants and the way they are evident in many societies, but Jonathan Sacks summarises the essence well when he writes:

Social contract creates a state; social covenant creates a society.

The vision painted of a new social covenant in the Feeley Review is one that many of us have been waiting to see articulated for a long time. It is one which puts the autonomy and priority of those who use care and support front and centre. It is one which seeks to embed structures and models, processes and frameworks within a robust human rights perspective. It is one where the direction, the focus, the energy is centred on the citizen. It is one where care and support are not seen as a self-perpetuating means to their own end, but the tool, vehicle and energy by which individuals are able to be part of their own communities and play their full role as citizens.

There will be time elsewhere to go into the detail – because after all that is usually where we find the devil – but for now I think there is an urgency to gather round and to commit collectively to the need not only to reform and change a system which lies in many parts corrupt and broken, but to take the vision, share it, build upon it and implement it.

It has been said that a people without a vision perish. Perhaps we have not literally perished over the past decades in social care, but we have at best stood still, unable to move from principle into practice, from vision into reality. We have allowed aspiration to die and wither away, frozen by the fear of risk and change. The time for day dreaming is well and truly over. The pain of the pandemic has left us with the necessity to heal and bind up, to reform and re-design, there is an urgency to come together and to seek collective agreement and commitment. The three essential characteristics of such a new invigorated social covenant noted above are a good starting point for such a movement.

  • The dignity of the human person, whatever their race, gender, background or beliefs.

The Feeley Review calls for a new social covenant where the dignity of the person becomes the cornerstone of all construction. Everything we do, say and implement needs to have the inherent inalienable dignity of a human being at its heart. Within those words is the necessity to change our systems of assessment and allocation, so that we truly listen to the needs and aspirations of those who need support in order to fulfil their lives. It necessitates an end to the iniquity of charging, the lottery of diagnosis, and the formation of equality of resourcing and priority. Dignity is about getting down on our knees to be in the chaos and hurt, the pain and distress that so many find themselves. It means the system and professional, taking off the clothes of authority and power, and re-learning the insights of empathic and affective listening and hearing. It means that we recognise the glorious diversity of individual human beings and not seek to squeeze the individuality of identity, whether race, culture, sexuality or age, into the strait-jacket of pre-planned and determined models and options. Each life grows gloriously unique, a social covenant of social care commits to feeding that growth.

Dignity presupposes a relationship. Dignity is beyond transaction and task rather it sits in the place of mutual learning and respect, it is led by the voice of the person not the sounds of the observer. Dignity is rarely seen in the duality of black and white decisions or statements but settles in the greyness and colourful vibrancy of contradiction and dialogue, of conversation and discovery. A social care system that is truly person-led needs to have flexibility, responsiveness, prevention and dynamic as core principles.

  • The importance of a common good that transcends individual interests

Social care at its best is always about connection, not just the maintenance of networks and neighbourhood, but the fostering and creation of new community and new purpose. There is an inescapable public and outward dimension of social care which takes it away from the closed privacy of self-interest. So the Feeley Review is absolutely right, I believe, in asserting the case for fiscal responsibility and transparency in the expenditure of public monies. In a co-operative society true entrepreneurship and economic wellbeing is best served when individual ambition walks alongside collective and societal benefit. The covenants of old were never individual contracts defined solely to benefit self-interest, they were always about a sense of enabling individuals to flourish within a community for the betterment of all. Good effective social care and support does not foster crude individualism but enables the person to achieve their potential in and through being in relationship and community with others. If one voice is not heard then the music is silent; if one person is not present then the community is absent; if one life is not flourishing, then the tree is dying.

  • The need for stewardship – a concern not just for ourselves but for posterity.

Stewardship is a concept with a not dissimilar ethical overtone to that of covenant. There is a spiritual and moral imperative to do well by what we have and receive, whether that is through the stewarding of the environment in which we live, or the stewarding of the shared resource we possess to create a better community. The Feeley Review creates a vision not only of a new system and model, but it posits the argument that when we use fiscal and human resources we have to have an intentionality of regard for others in such use. So it is that workforce training and development is so central. So it is that valuing the individual worker and manager by means of fair terms and conditions, by esteem and appropriate status is just as key to stewardship as a commitment to financial probity and transparency. Stewardship within a social covenant is a compulsion to create systems and structures not for the glorification of the moment, or for historical memory but for the inheritance of those who follow us. Short termism rarely creates that which lasts and on which those who follow us can build their own fulfilment.

Do please read the Report, catch a sense of some of its vision and aspiration. It is not all perfect – nothing ever is, but in its suggestion of creating a social covenant I think it is spot on. As people read and reflect, debate and discuss, not least in the next few weeks of political partisanship, I hope we can all find it in ourselves to gather round the need to hold to the vision that this report pulls us towards. I hope that we will have less rhetoric of defence and difference, less soapbox oratory, and more listening and hearing. That is why we need a social covenant for social care.

We cannot do nothing, so we must do something; we cannot sit still, so we must move, we cannot just be silent, so we must finally speak. The vision is there, the covenant is promised. In the glorious words of Miroslav Holub we have to open the door to our future…

The Door

Go and open the door.

Maybe outside there’s

a tree, or a wood,

a garden,

or a magic city.


Go and open the door.

Maybe a dog’s rummaging.

Maybe you’ll see a face,

or an eye,

or the picture

of a picture.


Go and open the door.

If there’s a fog

it will clear.


Go and open the door.

Even if there’s only

the darkness ticking,

even if there’s only

the hollow wind,

even if


is there,

go and open the door.


At least

there’ll be

a draught.

Donald Macaskill

Last Updated on 15th February 2021 by Shanice