THE human mind has a curious capacity to zero in on distraction and to miss the bigger point. Anyone charged with the privilege of managing people will know that the psychology of review time is a particular minefield.
Out of a thousand words of feedback if 980 are positive and encouraging and 20 are more critical, most colleagues will walk out concentrating on the 2 per cent.
The same phenomenon also applies when any public figure tries to make a big point in the debates that dominate our media. They might fashion a 2,000- word speech or essay with grand themes in mind, but editors will look into the detail for an angle that might fuel coverage.
Critics and opponents will do the same to find ways to help them prosecute their own case. The end result can be much sound and fury about a point the author wasn’t trying to make in the first place. They are then left to judge whether the attention and coverage is a price worth paying for the distraction that goes with it.
It’s a far cry from the days of Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign of 1879. He gave a series of speeches across the county focusing on the foreign policy issues of the day. At the end of it he estimated his audience had totalled 86,930.
Around 4,000 people showed up in Dalkeith to hear a 90-minute speech about – amongst other things – colonial wars. Not only that, but the newspapers reported each speech in detail and on occasion in full. I guess we should give thanks that we are spared the verbatim reporting of most political speeches today.
Gladstone’s talent can be in no doubt, but capturing the public attention in the modern era is an altogether tougher and riskier endeavour. So it was with Stephen Noon’s thoughtful essay in last Sunday’s edition of this paper. It merits reading if you haven’t already or re-reading with fresh eyes if you have.
The main purpose of his piece was to try to reach out beyond party divides to the many people in Scotland who disagree with Michael Kelly’s argument in The Scotsman last week that “most Scots are satisfied with the status quo” (of course he made many other points but I am picking out that one as it suits my purpose).
Stephen Noon is well aware there are a raft of politically interested and committed people who are very unhappy with the direction of travel in the UK public policy status quo. Their minds are very much fluid about what to do about it but are also very uncomfortable with making the leap to supporting either the SNP or independence.
Noon was trying to paint a picture of a world where the voting public could look forward to fresh offerings of substance from re-energised and reformed parties where all of the best talent was focused on creating a successful and fair country.
In doing so, Noon was attempting to engage those supporters of Labour and other parties who define their politics positively by what they believe in rather than negatively against what they oppose. Yes, such people still exist.
It’s worth pondering on this rather than having a faux stramash about whether the SNP will dissolve if the country votes “Yes”. It won’t and Noon didn’t suggest it would or should. What is near certain though is that over time people and support will migrate between the parties and into new places as the tectonic plates realign under our body-politic. That has to be a very good thing.
On the current trajectory we risk reaching a rather sorry place instead. Too many of the politically committed have become so entrenched in tribal battles that they cannot see the prize for the fog of contrived fights and personal enmities.
In my parliamentary youth I once joked that if the SNP had invented the light bulb Labour would have attacked it as “an unworkable anti-candle device”. A joke, yes, but there is a sad truth in it and it cuts both ways. I grew tired of it all long ago. The passion of competing ideas debated intensely but with respect and even friendship is long gone, replaced by rancour. The former takes people of depth, substance and self-belief. Any fool can do the latter.
When the shouting stops hopefully many of the combatants will realise they actually are united over 98 per cent and have been feuding about the 2.
I do wonder in their quieter moments whether the status quo of that is acceptable to any of them. It’s a sorry pass indeed when personal enmity and distrust has left home-rule supporting Labour, Lib-Dem and other progressives preferring the reality of a Cameron-Osborne government to the possibility of a fully empowered social democratic one in Holyrood.
I for one can’t figure out why getting the Government we vote for only now and again is more attractive to many than the picture of the possible Scotland Stephen Noon painted. Maybe there is a positive and engaging case but we have yet to hear it. I for one will endeavour to keep my ears and my mind wide open for it because there is too much at stake to keep slugging it out in a tired, old, shouted dialogue of the deaf. «