Opinion: We have to conduct ourselves more respectfully in politics

Handshake man - women


You will have seen Caron’s story on the moving article by Gordon Aikman, Head of Research at Better Together, sharing his news that he has, at 29, Motor Neurone Disease and is likely to die soon. He is raising funds for MND Scotland and in just one day exceeded his £20,000 target. If you wish to donate, you can do so here.

I don’t know Gordon Aikman and probably now never will, although we have friends in common. But like many, I have been very moved by his decision to be so open about his illness and what lies ahead for him and those who love him. It is truly heartbreaking and the story has weighed heavy on my heart and given me much to think about. The eternal truth that life is precious, fragile and fleeting is so easily lost sight of – and has been by me.

It was also poignant that the story has broken at the end of a bitter week for Scottish politics. The referendum campaign has seen people being attacked (thankfully not physically) in the vilest terms by those who hold different opinions and we have glimpsed a view of Scotland that is ugly and shameful. The ability to comment anonymously online has only made matters worse. Whatever side of the debate we are on, this is not a Scotland anyone should want.

Gordon does not share my party politics although he does share my view on Scotland’s constitutional future. However, what is clear from his story is how he has embraced politics as a cause and a calling, as service to his community, rather than for personal power and gain. He wants to make the world a better place. A generation later than me, Gordon was involved in student politics. Through my involvement in student politics at Glasgow University in the late 80s/early 90s (in a different way from now, another challenging time to be a liberal) I got to know a variety of people from a variety of parties, who, even then, you could tell were gifted. Some of them have in the years since then been elected to Parliaments (Holyrood or Westminster), to senior ministerial roles or to run cities. Some other, equally talented, student politicians gave up politics and their talents have brought them to senior positions in business – no doubt earning much more and having an easier career path than those who took the political route.

I don’t criticise those who took either route, but we sometimes forget that those who decide to go into politics make very real sacrifices for their calling, often earning less than they could have, working long (unnoticed) hours  and putting enormous pressure on their loved ones. In my experience, most who go into politics (even those whose politics I disagree with) do so as part of a noble calling to change the world for the better. It is a crying shame then that we play politics by attacking those people as individuals rather than challenge their ideas. How much more would the public respect the political process if we could, in our discourse, reflect our aspiration that it be a noble calling where well-intentioned fellow citizens debate ideas and hold each other to account for the implementation of those ideas?  How many more people would volunteers for the hard work and under appreciation of political service if they didn’t feel they would be destroyed personally by the cut and thrust of political debate?

That means a change in how we do our own politics and in the tone of how we challenge our opponents.

For example, question time in both Westminster and Holyrood has to change from a cynical shouting match to reasoned and respectful debate.  We have to assume best intentions from our opponents (even those within our own parties!) while remaining firm in our critique of their ideas and actions.

We Liberal Democrats sometimes think we are always the good guys but we have to look at the splinter in our own eyes first before challenging others. We can all think of situations we were too have not behaved well.

Am I naive? Am I unrealistic? Am I too soft for politics? Probably, but I don’t think I have much more stomach for it any other way. I don’t want us to become like the US. I’m sure I am not alone. Disengagement is always an option, even for someone like me who has been a party member all of his adult life. Something has to change.

Image Credit  Flazingo.com

* Stephen Harte is a lawyer and a member in Edinburgh West.

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  • Eddie Sammon 16th Jun '14 - 9:48pm

    Stephen, thanks. However, I think anger is a natural defence against injustice and needs to be expressed sparingly, proportionately and within limits.


  • Stephen Harte 17th Jun '14 - 8:41am

    Thanks for the comment Eddie. Anger is (in the right place) not inappropriate. However, the challenge is how we channel that anger. Don’t attack the individual ( tempting though we all find it to do) but attack the issue instead.

  • Spencer Hagard 17th Jun '14 - 10:00am

    Stephen, thank you for speaking up for political ideals and politicians, and for the necessity of political debate and of conducting it with civility, and also for mentioning the personal, professional and financial sacrifices that so many people make to pursue their social ideals through political means.

    Few ‘unpolitical’ members of the public know this. Those I mention it to, from the advantageous standpoint of campaigner rather than politician, are usually astonished to hear anyone speaking up for politics and politicians, and often express bewilderment that so many people of good standing are prepared to be district councillors for a stipend of under £230 a month (before tithing), which is the going rate around here.

    Leaving aside any debate about the media’s possible role in our party’s current misfortunes, I have no doubt that for many decades past the great lumpen morass of the mass media have failed to discharge their own noble responsibility to inform, educate and provide forums for rational debate about politics. They have cynically pursued commercial and political agendas of their own. Mostly they agitate, rarely mediate. They have thus long since forfeited any right to be regarded as a responsible ‘estate of the realm’, together with the privileges that go with that right. But we continue to allow them to exploit their ‘freedom of speech’ to corrode and corrupt our public and political discourse, to the continuing detriment of society.

    To succeed in championing the nobility of politics, we still have to seek and find ways that are consistent with our liberalism to curb the ignobility of much of the erstwhile ‘fourth estate’. Unfortunately, the Leveson process and its aftermath haven’t been up to the job.

  • Stephen Harte 17th Jun '14 - 2:13pm

    All parties have political scoundrals but, in my experience, our politicians at all levels generally work harder than we pay them for.

    if you haven’t had a chnace yet, Gordon Aikman is still fundraising for MND Scotland and is not far off his 30K target. every little helps! 🙂


  • Stephen Harte 18th Jun '14 - 12:23pm

    every time the target is met, he just goes and increases it! if you haven’t made a donation (or even if you have) why not send a few pounds?

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