Sturgeon is right on the need for civility

Nicola Sturgeon is fast-approaching the end of her time as Scotland’s First Minister after more than 3,000 days in the role – the longest tenure of any FM so far. Her departure will elicit a range of emotions inside and outside politics: sadness; relief; indifference. How we react will depend on our level of political engagement, political allegiance, and view on particular policies.

On Thursday, in her final speech as FM at Holyrood, delivered after a boisterous FMQs, Sturgeon reflected on eight years as SNP leader and First Minister, and sixteen as a member of the government. She detailed what she perceives to be some of her administration’s successes and admitted that she has made her “fair share of mistakes”. Columns are already being filed on what those were.

Something that struck me in the outgoing First Minister’s swansong was her appeal for a kinder politics. The oft fiery premier said that “robust debate” is a “hallmark” of democracy but conceded, gazing around the chamber, that “maybe, just maybe, we might enhance our democracy if, occasionally, we all treated each other with kindness too – if we remembered that we are opponents, not enemies”.

Whatever one thinks of Sturgeon herself, it’s hard to disagree with this. Scotland’s political discourse has become increasingly Balkanised and febrile. The more convivial days of early 2000s Scottish politics feel like a different age. Various reasons are given for how we got here: bad actors; constitutional sparring; identity politics; wider cultural factors. The full truth is, undoubtedly, complex.

I think social media has had a large impact. It multiplies divisions and emboldens people to behave viciously to one another, behind disconnecting digital personas. We are corralled into warring tribes, and spurred into perpetual spats with one another by algorithms that reinforce difference. Debate is limited to short ‘gotcha’ statements. The Twitterisation of culture and politics is a major problem.

Sturgeon’s appeal for more civility is timely, then. I’d hope that members of every political party can get behind it. The left and the right of politics has, in its own way, contributed to a hostile atmosphere in our public square. Neither need continue in this vein. The media, and social media users, are guilty too. I’d also hope that these groups can see the benefits of a more civilised discourse.

The most jaded critics of politics and culture will think me hopelessly naiive to suggest that there’s any hope of improvement. ‘We are just too polarised, bitter and divided’, they might say. Perhaps they’d be right. However, stranger things have happened. In any case, what do we achieve by giving up? I think our best chance of positive change lies in returning to, and re-embracing, old tenets.

The values we’ve esteemed historically – kindness, civility, generosity to one’s opponents – are in need of revitalisation. These arose from an understanding, rooted in Scotland’s Judeo-Christian history, that we ought to ‘love our neighbours as ourselves’. And a more profound recognition that every human being is made Imago Dei – in the image of God – and therefore worthy of deep respect.

These values are abidingly useful. Underlining their importance and winning people over to them could enhance our discourse. We can all be ambassadors for this kind of change. Political action could help too. The next FM must set a better tone, and consider structural reforms. Perhaps, with good faith collaboration and hard work, the next chapter in Scottish politics can be a kinder one.

Image credit: Scottish Government Flickr page

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