Andrew Wilson: Destructive personal abuse has no place in decent political debate

Douglas Alexander. Picture: PA
Douglas Alexander. Picture: PA
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DOUGLAS Alexander, in my estimation, is one of the most talented, thoughtful and capable politicians of his generation. He has a devotion to public service that is proper and deep.

His work rate is remarkable. He could be a very ­eff­ective leader of the Labour Party and very possibly a better one than the incumbent.

On many topics I think my own beliefs, values and outlook align with his. On many others they, well, don’t. I rarely recognise my own views in his criticism of them. But that’s OK, yes?

His latest lecture on the Scottish deb­ate took place in my home turf of Lanarkshire on Friday and is a case in point. It was trademark Douglas. Well-timed, well-considered, relevant and politically very clever. It firmly planted a flag on his chosen moral high ground.

Rarely will Douglas resist the temptation to take his opponent’s case on and down. But that’s fair, isn’t it? He is a loyal Labour party politician and it is a legitimate part of political debate to describe your opponent’s position to suit your own. He does it well.

I can’t do justice to a 7,000-word lecture here. He made many rich points but the one receiving media attention was around the low conduct and abuse that swirls in the Scottish debate: “We need a politics of opponents. Not enemies. We need a discourse of political difference, not a politics that descends into personal destruction.”

On this he is bang on the money. But I suggest that when politicians say it and then point the finger at their opponents as the guilty ones the true power of their case evaporates. Far better to look to one’s own conscience for improvement.

For many years it seemed it was fair game to demean, defame and insult the party I supported in all sorts of ways as if our legitimate and civic case was somehow darker. Just over a year ago on BBC Question Time a senior Liberal Peer all but suggested it was a short road from Scottish nationalism to what happened in the Balkan wars. His intent and tactics were crystal clear and utterly cynical and wrong. But he was on a well-travelled road.

Individual politicians on all sides have been subject to concerted campaigns of attempted personal destruction both all-out and whispered. In 2009 the Downing Street operation surrounding the last Labour prime minister imploded when his closest media adviser resigned over email plots to fabricate lies about the priv­ate lives of Conservative opponents. If that’s not electronic trolling of the worst sort I don’t know what is and it was traced all the way back to No 10 Downing Street.

So there will be few stones cast if we wait for the party without sin to cast first. The real power for change comes from self-improvement. As Mahatma Ghandi said: “be the change that you wish to see in the world”, start with self, not criticism of others. Each of the parties need to ­embrace this reality if the culture of our conduct is to improve.

Disgraceful trolling behaviour infects many sections of life in all countries. Politics is only one arena in which its poison is felt. It’s a tragic cost of the massive upside of the benefits of the information technology revolution. Legislation exists to prosecute the worst excesses and this must be used relentlessly until the problem is conquered.

But that is not enough. Each side of any debate must self-police and point out the self-destructive idiocy of the behaviour. And in the behaviour they can control, political leaders must show the way.

If you really want a reform of the whole country, today’s opponents must become tomorrow’s allies. Ukip can steal the headlines on a minority vote share but to deliver wholesale constitutional reform requires you to build legitimacy and support of a type party elections rarely, if ever, deliver.

Only the 1931 general election has produced a single party UK government with a majority of votes cast under universal suffrage. Even the famous SNP Holyrood majority of 2011 was delivered on a minority vote.

So to win in a binary choice like this one takes a rare combination of abilities, alliances, inspiration and persuasion. Any independence supporter who engages in destructive abuse of anyone is destroying votes for Yes. The job of reformers and progressives is to persuade and convince. We have to believe that no soul is lost and everyone is persuadable. I do. You don’t persuade by abuse. You lose by it.

I don’t want or expect a love-in when it comes to the argument about who should wield power and how. I want a meritocratic, disputatious and passionate fight of “Ideas and Ideals” for the hearts and the minds of the population.

I always think that Douglas Alexander sets a high quality standard for that. He’d make an excellent Labour first minister one day when the powers are at Holyrood to properly test his capabilities and the country’s potential. But he will also know in his heart if he has work to do to change his own side’s conduct. All must act on that.

Twitter: @AndrewWilsonAJW