As this Tweet from Kate Forbes MSP explains, the Scottish Parliament recently held an event titled ‘Respectful Dialogue In Politics’.
And I think all those who attended deserve credit. The truth is, despite the easy jokes about what a shock it is that MSPs would even contemplate treating each other with respect – this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Our parliament at Holyrood is the envy of countries all over the world because of its openness and atmosphere. And we’re lucky – so many of our elected representatives believe passionately in equality, fairness, trust and, of course, respect.
What we see on television and read about in newspapers is only a fraction of what goes on in the building at the bottom of the Royal Mile, and an even smaller slice of what the people involved get up to across the rest of their working lives.
So why does politics sometimes get a reputation as being ‘nasty’? And why, sometimes, do good people who know better find themselves drawn into situations where they resort to…well, let’s just call it ‘less respectful dialogue’?
I believe it all comes down to stress. It’s easy to speak in a respectful manner when you’ve got all the time you need. It’s tougher when you have to be extremely succinct. Tougher still when before you’ve even explained yourself someone else is going to argue. And nigh impossible when you might get heckled and interrupted. And remember before MSPs get to stand in the chamber and have those exchanges with their political opponents, they’ve probably had years climbing the ranks and dealing with competitors within their own party. It’s easy to see how some bad habits and ‘siege tactics’ might develop.
Then we have the media. Much of what the Scottish Parliament does is deathly boring. It might be important, in the long run, but for a media which has put resources into covering the parliament that’s no use. It needs stories and action every single day. And the easiest way to get that? Rows.
And politicians fall into the trap of giving them that, even when there’s no need.
A classic example came in the summer when former SNP leader, former First Minister and former MP Alex Salmond announced the launch of his show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Newspapers and TV news outlets sought comment from Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives. And of course, they gave the newspapers the comment and the criticism they wanted.
Why? There’s no need. The guy is no longer involved in politics. I’m sure he’ll be back but right now, politically, he’s nowhere. There’s no reason to comment and no reason to say anything other than ‘we wish him well’. What difference does it make to those parties whether a guy that used to represent the other lot does a comedy show at the Fringe? Slagging him off, as they did, just smacks of bitterness.
I don’t blame the media for asking for a quote, of course. But they should have asked an arts critic for comment and left it at that.
But what we have of course is ‘politics as entertainment’ and characters and caricatures built up as versions of themselves to be taken apart.
Spend some time at the Scottish Parliament and you’ll be amazed at the unity within the place. The amount on which all parties agree. The work they do and matters discussed that never make the headlines. The gentle, quiet, chipping away at old laws and bureaucracy and new legislation that goes in its place.
Of course, they don’t always get it right and it’s right that passionate, fierce, angry debate is encouraged and reported on.
But you can do all that and still remain respectful. And the majority of our parliamentarians do.
Maybe it’s time the media recognised that and gave them some space to get on with it.