Andrew Wilson: Politicians must focus on what unites rather than what divides us
THE best speech ever made in the Scottish Parliament was one of the first. At the royal opening on 1 July, 1999, Donald Dewar, the new First Minister, delivered a beautiful, generous and unifying speech to lead the new parliament at its rebirth.
“I look forward to the days ahead – and I know there will be many of them – when this chamber will sound with debate, argument and passion, when men and women from all over Scotland will meet to work together for a future built from the first principles of social justice.”
It is worthy of anyone who cares about public life finding the time to read. It’s rather short at only a few hundred words, anchored in the history of Scotland but forward-looking, hopeful and inspiring. It gave all the party traditions in an often febrile and rancorous political culture a stake in what lay ahead. It was the man and what he stood for at his best.
I told him so that day and he looked quizzically at me and my friend and then colleague Duncan Hamilton as we both sought him out to shake his hand and congratulate him. It was the rebirth of an old institution in a new context and he captured it brilliantly.
In our era of such change, anxiety and tumult across the world, all the major institutions we once relied on must face the same renewal and rebirth if we are to come through it all and find the contentment we deserve. Everywhere we look: banks, politics, parties, the media, big business, international institutions, the churches – each part of the fabric of society but each facing their own crises existential, reputational and otherwise.
Some of the themes are common and the solutions are, too. The age is of transparency where little can stay hidden and inconsistencies and let-down are ruthlessly exposed by a population able to communicate and converse at lightning speed.
All institutions must understand what they stand for and the culture of how they go about achieving their purpose. And they must embrace a transparency over their success or otherwise, stick to their knitting and when they fail, apologise, fix and move on.
By my observation the most obvious institution to have faced its crisis and succeeded in moving through it is the Monarchy, the achievement of which is utterly remarkable when you consider the aftermath of the tragic passing of the Princess of Wales.
But just as institutions and leaders must reform, so we must play our part in defining the culture and conduct of public debate. The echo of Dewar’s words remain with me: “It is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are and how we carry ourselves.”
And it is true. The leadership of the country, the people tasked with the duty and those who serve them or hold them to account matter hugely to us all. Their conduct helps shape who we are and how we see ourselves. The devotion to serving the public and the commonweal is a profoundly noble calling that can both fix the parish pump and change the course of history. Much more sacrifice is made than pockets lined in its pursuit.
In 1961 when a young President Kennedy made his famous call for Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”, he lit up the imagination of the world. One very senior Scot at Westminster warmly recounted the moment to me last week: “We loved it at the time it was a sea change and great leadership, now we have passed out of an age of deference but we have lost respect along the way.”
He recognised the modern reality but lamented the need for the pursuit of public service to earn respect once again. It must be remedied and to change the world we must start with ourselves.
I have met many politicians of all parties and the rule, not the exception, is that they are people who care about their country and want to better it. They disagree about the how and thank God for that, but too often they focus on what divides rather than unites. We need to create the space for ideas and reflection and reward the ability to solve and resolve in politics. Feuds and futility in dispute drive talent and energy out.
Dewar again: “We are fallible – we all know that. We will make mistakes. But I hope and I believe we will never lose sight of what brought us here: the striving to do right by the people of Scotland; to respect their priorities; to better their lot; and to contribute to the commonweal.”
Too often, alas, the sight of that has been lost. We must renew our focus on it collectively and the next two years of debate and choice provide a perfect opportunity. Scotland will always want argument and passion, but about the issues. Play the ball and not the men and women on the field because in the end such rancour diminishes all.
The age of deference is rightly gone forever, but we must regain the respect we lost along the way.
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