“Don’t raise your voice, raise the quality of your argument!” That’s a mantra which was drummed into me by the late Bill Johnston when, as a young, ambitious and very opinionated Nationalist I was losing a debate with him yet again.
Bill was then the Convenor of the Association of Scottish Nationalist Trade Unionists, a forerunner of the SNP Trade Union Group. He mentored our group, giving us the benefit of a life time of experience as a Union activist. We would often meet in his house under the shadow of the Erskine Bridge as it was constructed, and where he would hammer home the importance of knowing your opponents position at least as well as your own. “You cannot defeat them if you don’t understand them” was another of his common themes.
This trip down memory lane was sparked for me this week as I bemoaned the lack of quality in what passes for political debate currently.
Far too often we see a reasoned and thoughtful contribution met, not with reasoned and thoughtful responses but by near hysterical abuse simply because someone dares to raise a different voice. I was appalled at some of the comments thrown at Pete Wishart recently because he dared to question the timing of the next referendum. He was met not with reasoned arguments on alternative timings but with vitriol and scorn.
Another example was the reaction to Ian Blackford’s question on the “rape clause” at PMQs. Coming, as it did, after the disgraceful comments of Esther McVey it was a relevant and important topic. While others may well disagree, showing a level of mutual respect could well be a better tactic. I happily accept that everyone has an equal right to have their voice and opinion heard, but to be calling for Ian’s resignation was, I would suggest, more than a little over the top.
If we hope to persuade those who found the Project Fear campaign to be off putting in its tone and arrogance, we will not do it by showing the most appalling lack of respect and consideration to stalwarts of our own cause. Many will have disagreed with Pete, but, do so with an argument not an insult. If we cannot show openness, tolerance and respect to those in our campaign, many will feel justified in asking if that would be the mark of our new Scotland? How we campaign will be the measure of how we would govern!
When Pete tells us that many people were voting against not just him, but SNP candidates the length and breadth of Scotland, because they dreaded another referendum it certainly rings a bell with me. The only people I meet who are longing for another referendum campaign immediately are convinced YES voters. Most people want nothing more than a rest from non-stop vitriolic politics. The neutrals, those we have to persuade, are simply tired of politicians shouting at them through a megaphone of their own certainty. They want a break from being spoken at, rather than to, being hectored by opposing sides who lob “certainty bombs” and “fact missiles” like two opposing armies bent on mutual destruction rather than supposedly trying to explain, convince and persuade.
While Brexit may, or may not, be the key to unlocking a YES vote that simply will not be known until the terms of the deal are published around October. Even then much may depend on not only the length and terms of the “transition period” but more importantly where and what Brexit will “transition” to.
There is an ancient Chinese curse, which I am fond of quoting, “May you live in interesting times”. We are certainly doing that just now and the levels of tolerance are fraying. Be it in the nasty tone which characterised so much of the Brexit debate or the way the US is rapidly developing into two very different countries where “alternative facts” are taken seriously, there is a level of bitterness which does not bode well.
As anyone who knows me will testify, I like a good robust debate. I love the clash of ideas and testing my views and arguments. I even enjoy playing Devil’s Advocate on occasion just to see how it feels from the other side of any position. Indeed, when I was helping in the training of potential local SNP candidates, one of the first tasks I set would be to make the case against Independence. Just to let them try out the strength of the other side.
The first Sales Manager I had used to tell us that “God gave you two eyes, two ears and one mouth. You should use them in those proportions.”
Knowing your own case with evidence to back up the passion is great. Knowing your opponent’s case, its strengths and more importantly its weaknesses, with evidence to support is even better. The only way to gain that knowledge is to listen, test and develop counters – not to reach for the vitriol and the megaphone.