Less heat and more light

Posted by in December's Magazine

Ben Macpherson MSP for Edinburgh North and Leith

There’s an old adage about not talking about religion or politics if you want a party to go well, whether that’s on a work Christmas night out or at a Hogmanay celebration. But these topics – religion and politics – are at the heart of how we feel about the human condition, who we are as individuals and where we want to get to as a society. Yes, it’s easy to fall out with friends, family or colleagues over such issues, when views are passionately advocated and defended. But, together, we need to be able to talk – and listen – respectfully about what we believe in. And that is particularly true when it comes to politics in the UK at the moment. 

Unfortunately, in our public sphere, vitriolic attacks feel like they are growing more common than sharing and learning from each other. Nastiness on social media can gather more attention than constructive online activism. And there is an increasing amount of heat when what we need is much more light! 


Kate Wimpress and David Martin, Co-Conveners Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland. Picture www.chriswatt.com

Women politicians, in particular, have been increasingly targeted, receiving despicable sexist abuse and threats. And worryingly, polarising and aggressive language has crept into mainstream political discourse. Whether its on Brexit or Independence, or any other political or social issues, we all have a responsibility to keep our debate and dialogue out of the gutter, otherwise we’ll be on a slippery slope together. Yes we should criticise what we disagree with, but let’s do so courteously and try to offer solutions and ideas. 

Some of the most refreshing and thought provoking discussions I have in the course of my work are with young people, when I visit schools in the constituency. The excellent Modern Studies departments in the high schools encourage young people to look at issues from a variety of angles, to get below the surface of the arguments and explore the complexity and nuances which inform all aspects of political decision making. Younger children can be equally as informed. They ask me questions about Brexit, Climate Change and Independence in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do at their age! And generally young people understand that the world is a messy, complex place where compromise, collaboration and tolerance are both necessary and beneficial.

Some of the most refreshing, thought provoking discussions I have are with young people when I visit schools in the constituency

In the next months the Scottish Government is setting up a new Citizens’ Assembly to help us all discuss the challenging issues of our time – like how can we overcome the challenges Scotland faces, including Brexit. These new initiatives will create an opportunity for adults to talk about important matters of the day with purpose and respect. I am very proud of our Scottish Parliament, where I represent all of the people of Leith. But democracy does not stand still, and we have to keep reinventing our structures in order to keep growing. 

The Citizens’ Assembly will provide a place to move beyond our political allegiances and to find new ways to bring politicians and people together – to resolve what can feel like intractable divisions, and to make the most of our shared futures together. Assembly members will be randomly selected and be broadly representative of Scotland’s adult population according to age, ethnic group, socio-economic background, geography and political attitudes. 

I am genuinely excited to see what results this new way of doing politics can achieve. Citizens’ Assemblies have been used in other countries, including Ireland, and are increasingly recognised as places where mature democracies can engage with contested issues from an inclusive, informed and respectful base. That is what we want for Scotland.

A Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change will also be created as part of the new Climate Change Act, to make recommendations to the Scottish Government on how Scotland’s net-zero transition should be achieved. 

As we head into 2020, we have to be honest that this has been a challenging year for public life in the UK. The Brexit debate and the General Election have shown some of the worst of politics. And while we cannot, and should not, pretend that we don’t have differences of opinions; we must agree together that respectful dialogue is key if we want to take our society forward. We can all disagree from-time-to-time but when we do so let’s try to disagree well. 

When I first spoke in the Scottish Parliament as Leith’s MSP I talked about the unifying hope that we share for a better Scotland and a better world – even when we disagree over important issues, I strongly believe that we share that hope together. So, whatever happens in the New Year, as we consider the direction of our country, let’s try to agree on that shared sense of hope and show respect to one another – for the sake of auld lang syne and whatever the future holds for us, together.

Twitter: @BenMacpherson

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