Much has been written about the need for a civil and civilised debate about Scotland’s future with a referendum on independence only 18 months away. (The Scottish people will vote in a referendum on September 18, 2014 on whether or not to become independent of the rest of the United Kingdom, of which Scotland is presently (and has been for over 300 years) a constituent part).
However, all too often, the protagonists use language which seems (unconsciously or deliberately) designed to provoke anger, inflame feelings and create more polarised positions.
It is creditable, therefore, that senior players on each side have publicly stated a desire to see more respectful discussion of such important issues. Allan Massie wrote recently in The Scotsman newspaper about being kinder to politicians. That may be a two-way thing. Given the public’s desire – we assume – for more mature and informed discussions, the challenge, for politicians and others, is to meet these aspirations.
Under pressure, it is all too easy to default back into reactive or defensive mode, allowing emotion to predominate over more reasoned and measured responses. But nobody gains if antagonism prevails. Perhaps a simple protocol for respectful dialogue is required. Such a set of principles could be committed to by all participants in the constitutional debate. The very process of formulating this protocol would stimulate, and indeed require, a degree of co-operation.
This could then be used to measure the conduct of discussions by individuals and groups over the next 18 months.
Indeed, the ability to benchmark how people are performing might enhance the discourse by encouraging, or even compelling, those involved to adhere to certain minimum standards. What an opportunity for Scotland to show the world how serious matters, about which there are deep differences, can nevertheless be addressed with civility. What might such a protocol include?
Here are some suggestions:
"We, the signatories to this protocol, agree that it is in the interests of the people of Scotland and the forthcoming referendum on the question of independence that discussions about our future are conducted civilly and with dignity. Therefore, we agree to:
- Listen carefully to all points of view and seek fully to understand what concerns and motivates those with differing views from our own;
- Acknowledge that there are many points of view and that these have validity alongside our own;
- Show respect and courtesy to all individuals and organisations, whatever views they may hold and however they may express them;
- Express our own views clearly and honestly with transparency about our motives and our interests;
- Use language carefully and avoid personal or other remarks which might cause unnecessary offence;
- Ask questions if we do not understand what others are saying or proposing;
- Respond to questions asked of us with clarity and openness;
- Support what we say with clear and credible information wherever that is available."
Of course, there is scope for debate about what these words would mean in a particular instance – refinement would be essential. But it is the spirit as well as the substance that matters. It would give a signal of good faith and best intention.
Who might sign such a protocol? Well, to start with, how about all political leaders and campaign officials? Then all who wished to do so could join in. An online protocol might encourage hundreds or thousands of Scots to engage – and to hold each other accountable.
Maybe it needs to start with the grass-roots so that our political leaders feel encouraged to participate. What a collaborative effort that would be as we try to develop a more mature political conversation in Scotland.
Assuming that it was conceived on a broad basis and in good faith, if a politician declined to participate in such a protocol, or departed from it, that could be the subject of legitimate comment by fellow signatories, observers and others engaged in the discourse – always following the principles of the protocol of course!
We are at a crossroads. As a nation, we face momentous choices. How we go about discussing them, and making them, may well determine how we work together in the future, which we will need to do, whatever the outcome of the referendum itself.
Our behaviour will also influence how we are viewed from the outside, and the confidence that others have in us, whatever future we decide to pursue.
This needs courageous leadership. A courageous leader in another country, Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident, intellectual and first post-Soviet-era president of the Czech Republic, confessed that he feared the deterioration in public civility more than economic decline.
He noted that the symptoms of deterioration were to be found in unrestrained ambition, unwillingness to recognise personal error, and a lack of tolerance, understanding, taste, moderation and reason. He argued that improving the civility of discourse in everyday life could accelerate economic development. We need that too.
In reality, there is no “us” and “them”. In our interdependent world, there is only “us”. Whatever else it has come to mean, we really are “all in this together” and we will be after 2014, whatever the result.
We need to find common ground and work collaboratively in the way we hold our discussions – and find the means to engage with each other with dignity, whatever our views on independence may be.