Wednesday, 8 August 2012

No More Double Negatives

The double negative: in some languages it strengthens the negation; in English it contradicts itself, becoming positive; in Scotland it just embarrasses all concerned.

Last night's spectacularly misjudged Newsnight performance by Ian Davidson MP brought several months of histrionic debate over Scottish independence into sharp relief. It was particularly embarrassing for the unionist side, whose sincere concerns were reduced to mudslinging nonsense, but of course there are those who take a similar approach in the pro-independence community. So we get the pseudo-ironic comments about how those on the other side would react negatively to particular things, which isn't supposed to be negative in itself because it's humour (a lame defence in any context); and when called on, the perpetrators usually resort to claiming their opponents started it. This wouldn't be acceptable in primary school classroom and it's not acceptable in public life. One thing I am confident the majority of Scots can agree on is that it has to stop. If Scotland is to move forward as a nation, either independently or within the union, our politicians must act like grown-ups.

England has long taken a positive attitude to negative politics - just look at Westminster. Prime Minister's Questions at noon on Wednesdays routinely sees hundreds of people we are meant to respect reduced to troop of shrieking gibbons - often the principals can hardly be heard and, when they can, their pronouncements have more to do with performance than coherent argument. Those who challenge this are usually told that it's traditional, but is a traditional embarrassment any less of an embarrassment? This kind of behaviour is an insult to every member of the public who turned out to vote because they thought their candidates had an interest in seeing the country well run.

This is not to say that remaining in the union is detrimental to good conduct. Right from its inauguration, Holyrood has shown itself to be a more civilised place. There's backstabbing and dubious political manoeuvring, of course, but overt bullying and shouting is not tolerated. This is something we should celebrate and aim to extend into other venues where political discussion takes place. It is something we should build upon, dispensing with the ideologically-focused bickering that gets in the way of honest discussion. Like Westminster, Holyrood is a small place with a big job to do. There is too much real work MSPs could be getting on with for time wasting posturing to be considered acceptable - in any party.

It seems no coincidence that the Newsnight drama was initiated by a Westminster MP - somebody who spends too much time among the rabble to appreciate that we do things differently here. It's not the first time Ian Davidson has been accused of bullying, with Eilidh Whiteford withdrawing from the Scottish Affairs Select Committee last year amid allegations that he threatened to give her 'a doing', and others have accused him of bullying women in particular. Would he have treated Newsnight presenter Isabel Fraser differently if she had been male? That's difficult to say, but the dismissive way he began responding to her before letting her finish her argument speaks volumes. He was not only aggressive, he was unwilling to countenance that anything she said could be of value. Still, from a political perspective, the most problematic aspect of his actions was the lack of control they implied.

Like David Cameron red-faced at the despatch box on a particularly rough Wednesday, Davidson gave the impression of a man so emotionally swept up by the moment that he could not articulate the political message he was there to put across. Passion can be valuable in a politician - it provides the drive to get things done - but ultimately we pay our politicians to think, to reason, to negotiate. If a politician feels that a programme is biased, they should assert that politely and take it up with the proper authorities (indeed, BBC Scotland is currently being investigated for alleged bias against the SNP). Getting in a flap about it and taking out anger on a presenter is not only inconsiderate behaviour, it makes one look like a buffoon.

Alongside the likes of Davidson's performance, we have the so-called Cybernats who attack anybody on the internet whom they perceive to be dissing the SNP or independence, and an equally rabid group of unionists who attack those seen to be doing the opposite, accusing them of being Cybernats. On occasion I've been attacked by both sides over the same remarks, which at least persuades me I am getting something right. Like street gangs, these groups are really most interested in attacking each other, and each presumably feels its actions are justified by the existence of the other, though each seems to have a significantly magnified idea of the size of its rival. In reality there don't seem to be very many of them but their voices are disproportionately loud and have a distorting effect on Scottish politics. Sometimes journalists and commentators who ought to know better get caught up in this phony war. We need to accept that those who snipe at each other like this have removed themselves from meaningful debate. They need to stand back and understand that such aggression is not going to influence anyone; and nor should it. If one wishes to influence people, one has to actually talk to them, and make a real case. Simply discouraging others from speaking is not only obnoxious, it's ineffective.

When people behave like this, or like Davidson, it is tempting to simply ignore them and find a way of routing discussion around them. That's one thing online; it's a little harder when it happens in parliamentary select committees or on national television programmes. But there is a simple solution, and that is for the rest of us to refuse to engage in the first place. A man who cannot conduct himself respectably on Newsnight should not be invited back. A committee whose spokesperson conducts himself in such a manner should not be heeded. Real authority comes not from institutions but from the people. Those who do not respect that cannot expect to play any meaningful role in our political culture.

It's time for an end to negative politics. I don't want to hear any whining about who started it. Each of us should be concerned first and foremost with our own conduct. We should aim to set an example, not partake in a race to the bottom. Scotland deserves better. The Scottish people should be able to say to their politicians - whatever side they sit on - yes, yes, yes!

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