When I asked recently for topics for future blogs, I didn’t expect one asking me to be nice to my opponents. It was only one, and it wasn’t quite phrased like that, but it raised a very important point I want to address: The nature of political discourse.
Let me start with the chief concern of the person who wrote to me. She said, “Don’t we make it harder to win over people if we simply insult them?” Well, yes we do is my view.
Let me be completely frank. I’m keen to persuade as many people as possible to support Scottish Independence and be future YES voters. That includes people who currently support the Tories, Labour, LibDems, other parties and none. Our movement needs to be wide and open. I say this as someone who has never been a member of a party other than the SNP. I am a critic of all “unionist” parties. But I don't “hate” people because they are unionists.
Yesterday, I was interviewed in Kirkcaldy by Glen Campbell of the BBC who is currently meeting with a range of people throughout Scotland to capture their views on how to move from strong support in opinion polls to actually achieving independence. I made the point that the people of Scotland’s rights must be central to all we do. Their right to self determination is not for others to deny. They have the right to the same respect as citizens in other nations. By that I meant all the people of Scotland: Not a faction, not only people who agree with me. Those fellow citizens who don't want an independent Scotland are there to be engaged with, there to be persuaded, not to be gratuitously insulted.
Now don't get me wrong. There are individuals I don't like either. There are times I too criticise individuals for their actions. But there is a big difference between criticizing someone’s behaviour or reasoning, and condemning the person.
Indeed within our party there are people who agree with some of my own views, such as the need for Scottish independence, but would also be critical of some of my other opinions. Many I like to call my friends such as George Kerevan and Michael Fry whose views on economic issues are very different indeed and different from mine in some areas too. I want more George Kerevans and Michael Frys supporting Scottish independence.
The same approach goes for opponents. When people say “I hate all Tories/Labour/LibDems (choose which dependent upon your prejudices)” I cringe. Why? Because they have no interest in moving people’s opinion, and moving opinions are the stuff of politics. Now you might say what is the point of engaging with people like, say, Baroness Davidson or Ian Murray. Surely their unionism is immovable. Yes, you are probably right about their unionism. But engaging in debate or challenging their reasoning has a wider audience. Think on when Joanna Cherry fought the views of Johnston’s government through the courts. Her audience wasn’t just law Lords, nor indeed the Johnston government, she was also speaking to a much wider audience with the Scottish people being foremost amongst them. She was highly critical in a reasoned way. She didn’t destroy her own arguments by simply saying “I hate Tories”.
While on this theme, I bet there are a good many readers of this blog who have relations or close friends with different views. You don't hate them, nor should you.
Let me give you a couple of glimpses too of how basic, decent humanity is not the preserve of any shade of political opinion. It is in us all. I still remember to this day my Dad telling me many years ago on more than one occasion that there is good in everyone. I end then with some reflections on two people I met at Westminster.
The first involves a Scottish Labour figure. He stood unsuccessfully for parliament as far back as 1964. He was a professional journalist. He became a long standing member of the House of Lords. He loved the House of Lords. Are your hackles sufficiently up? Ready to condemn?
He was Lord Jimmy Gordon, who sadly died on 1 April 2020 from a Covid19 infection. I met him, along with Ian Blackford and Michelle Thomson at the All Party Parliamentary Group for Corporate Governance. He was friendly, kind and considerate. We had dinner together on a few occasions. He provided advice that was always accurate and good intentioned despite being from a different part of the political spectrum. He was someone with whom you could have a civilized, informed and thoughtful conversation. Just because he fitted a particular stereotype - Labour Party, Journalist, Lord – didn’t mean he should be condemned. Indeed quite the reverse. He was one of the most decent human beings I met at Westminster.
The second was an archetypal Tory. Privately educated and entered politics after a career in the army. Meet Lieutenant Colonel the Right Honourable Tobias Ellwood MP. Just a few months after I was elected as an MP I secured from the Speaker a Westminster Hall debate on the subject of children being used as suicide bombers. The government fielded Tobias Ellwood as the minister to respond. When I led off the debate I started by saying how grateful I was that the minster had chosen to respond despite what must be difficult circumstances. Tobias’s brother had been killed by a suicide bomber in Bali some years before. Not just in his speech, but more so privately afterwards, I knew I had an ally for life in this area of concern. He was supportive of the all party group I chaired dealing with victims of landmines and IEDs. I welcomed the short time I was able to work with him. His humanity was no less than yours or mine because he had very different political views.
So the next time you are tempted (just like me) to take the easy route of launching a personal attack on an individual, I merely ask you to ask yourself, will it serve the cause of Scottish Independence? It’s probably a question I need to ask myself more frequently.