End the toxicity in politics and learn to disagree well

By Alan Roden

*This article first appeared in The Herald on 02/07/18*

AMID sweltering temperatures, the eruption from a botched Cabinet reshuffle, and the ongoing inferno of constitutional rows, it’s time for everyone to cool down.

The summer recess has finally arrived at Holyrood, and not a moment too soon.

For nine weeks, MSPs – and weary political observers – will be able to enjoy something of a ceasefire before battle recommences in September.

Politics is a contact sport. But the toxic atmosphere of Scottish politics today should worry us all.

There’s a phrase my friend Kezia Dugdale uses a lot. It’s to ‘disagree well’.

She uses it when she’s asked how she can possibly date an SNP MSP given their opposing views on Scottish independence. They know how to ‘disagree well’, she says. And they do – I’ve witnessed it.

It’s a principle that should be made a recess resolution for everyone in politics.

One politician who has riled his critics for many years is the SNP MSP for Glasgow Cathcart, James Dornan. His social media comments often seem designed simply to entice fury, recently writing that he ‘truly despises’ being part of the UK.

I’ve exchanged blows on Twitter with James in the past, yet although we have worked in the same building we’ve never really spoken face-to-face.

Last week, I took exception to his criticism of the Scotland Office’s decision to fly the flag of St George when England play in the World Cup.

I’m a huge England fan. It’s the country of my birth, but I also support all the home nations: Scotland because it’s my home; Wales because my mother is Welsh; and Northern Ireland because my favourite cousins are Northern Irish and it’s where I spent many happy family holidays. Also because I’m British.

I’d like to see the flags of all the home nations flying from government buildings across the UK when the teams are performing on the world stage, starting with the Women’s World Cup next year.

James disagreed with me. He said he didn’t share my ‘particularly instinctive affiliation to the other home nations just because that’s what they are’. That’s absolutely fine. We’re allowed to disagree, and I’d like to think on this occasion we disagreed well.

But while we had a civil conversation online, we were drowned out by screeching fury from Twitter trolls. James was branded ‘pond life’ and pretty much every swear word you can think of.

I’ve received plenty of abuse over the years, some of it so vile that it left my family distraught, but rarely anything on the scale that James received last week on such an innocuous subject as a flag on a government building. It’s not just politicians and commentators who must learn to disagree well – it’s all of us who engage in political discourse.

My recess resolution is to meet James after the summer because I suspect we’ll have more in common than we imagine, not least when it comes to his views on addressing the stain of sectarianism.

‘More in Common’ is the phrase that Jo Cox used so beautifully in her maiden speech to the House of Commons.

Earlier this month, I was involved in a Great Get Together event in her memory, which was hosted by Glasgow MSP Anas Sarwar. Watching representatives of the Muslim community engaging with the inspirational team behind the TIE campaign for LGBT-inclusive education was a particularly special moment.

Anas is someone who has been the victim of racism throughout his life. I witnessed it up close during last year’s Scottish Labour leadership campaign.

When I watch Anas bringing people together like he did at the event in Jo’s memory, I’m proud to call him a friend. Shame on those who see the colour of his skin before the man.

Anas has received a lot of personal support from the SNP MSP Humza Yousaf. It was a momentous moment last week when Humza was promoted to the Cabinet – the first ethnic minority person appointed to such high office in Scotland.

In a previous job, I gave Humza a torrid time over the state of Scotland’s railways. He knows I was responsible for much of the criticism he received. But on a personal level we have always engaged with each other and he has been generous and kind towards me, so I truly wish him all the very best in his new role.

The Cabinet appointments last week was a moment when the toxic nature of politics came to the fore.

Opposition parties had – rightly – been calling for Health Secretary Shona Robison to be sacked for months. The health service is in crisis. But it was disappointing that so many revelled in her personal misfortune when the inevitable moment came.

Politicians are human beings, and so are their staff who face massive upheaval during reshuffles.

Let’s not pretend it would be any different if Boris Johnson or another UK minister who has failed in high office was unceremoniously sacked. SNP politicians wouldn’t hold back either.

The SNP must take its share of responsibility for the toxic nature of politics today.

The independence referendum was a peaceful and joyous campaign for many, but for others it was a divisive, upsetting experience. People were spat on and labelled traitors to their country.

The wounds have not healed: friendships have not recovered; professional relationships are still strained.

Until senior figures in the SNP understand that, the toxic cloud in our politics will not lift.

MEP Alyn Smith gets it, last week railing against those who thought it was acceptable to attend a Bannockburn rally with a ‘Tory scum out’ banner.

Alyn also argues that the announcement from former Daily Record editor Murray Foote that he has been converted to independence is of ‘huge significance’.

I disagree with Murray, but I will do so over a large glass of Malbec; what I won’t do is go on TV to launch a personal attack on him.

When this summer recess comes to an end, and the sheer horror of Brexit becomes apparent, the heat of constitutional politics will return with vengeance. We should prepare for yet another binary debate about independence.

The divisive nature of Scottish politics is just one reason why I hope there isn’t a second referendum any time soon.

But if there is, I sincerely hope we can all disagree well.