Gerry Hassan: Empathy lacking in political debate

David Cameron and Alex Salmond shake hands after signing a referendum agreement. Picture: PA

David Cameron and Alex Salmond shake hands after signing a referendum agreement. Picture: PA

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Scotland’s loudest voices exist in a bubble that lives and breathes politics, unaware of the silent, disconnected majority, writes Gerry Hassan

These are baffling times – of big issues and challenges, but of politics and political conversations that are increasingly problematic, not just in Scotland but across much of the world.

How many times have we been told that the independence debate is a “once in a lifetime opportunity” or “a historic moment”?

Funny that, because it doesn’t feel like that to many people outside the “bubble Scotland” that lives and breathes politics. There have been comedy wars, twitter spats, stupid interventions, and a politics shaped by “fans with typewriters” and worse. There hasn’t been much insight and light so far.

Labour MP Douglas Alexander’s recent speech was something rare: an interesting, original rumination on many of the important issues. Whatever you think of Labour and Alexander, he is trying to raise the level of debate, and that is surely desperately needed.

He cited Canadian thinker Michael Ignatieff’s idea of “standing” as being increasingly crucial in public life. Alexander said that “when politics has less authority, legitimacy and respect than ever, modern political debate all too often descends into simply a battle for standing”. This is the Manichean world of “us” and “them”, enemies rather than opponents.

Alexander recalled the legacy of Thatcher: “the brokenness of relationships” and “disempowerment” of so many people as a result of that era, but also the intensity of support or opposition the time provoked.

In an important passage for our current debate, he championed the role of empathy, referencing the work of Scotland’s Anti-Violence Unit, which has reduced Glasgow gang violence by 50 per cent.

Karyn McCluskey, its head, was quoted approvingly by Alexander saying: “Empathy is what keeps us together. It’s all really about people getting on with other people.”

The cyberwars are as far removed from this as it is possible to be. This week, Labour activist Ian Smart made offensive comments on Twitter, stating that, “Better 100 years of the Tories” than a Scotland which turns ‘“on the Poles and the Pakis” after independence has failed. He didn’t apologise and nor was he condemned by Labour.

In the previous week, comedian Susan Calman faced an avalanche of hate email for some innocuous remarks; a couple of weeks before that academic Gavin Bowd faced all sorts of threats for having the audacity to write a book entitled Fascist Scotland, mostly about events in the 1930s and 1940s. So no side or strand of Scotland is immune.

What underlies all of this is who feels they are entitled to speak, who thinks they can claim Scotland, what kind of nation and culture does this gave validation to, and who is missing and silenced?

We have to be able to stop and reflect on the silence of many Scots; everywhere, across all aspects of public life and exchange, people have withdrawn or feel diminished and disempowered. And even in our august public spaces, too many Scots are scared to find voice and express themselves, having an inner inferiority complex which limits them, and allows fear and doubt to govern their actions.

Then look at the narrow part of Scotland engaging – the tiny group of the politically motivated. Too many of them lack empathy, respect for others and display a damaging hyper-partisanship.

This is partly about William Mackenzie’s concept of “the community of the communicators” – about who is speaking, has voice and legitimacy, but noticing who isn’t and the gaps in public life.

What terrain are we now defining as legitimate to undertake this historic debate? It is all centred, it seems, on who can most effectively speak for “anti-Tory Scotland”, for the stories of anti-Thatcherism, and for social democracy, as long as all three of these stay in our comfort zones. And we don’t get into too detailed discussions on values and philosophy, or assess the reality too closely.

We do have to ask if this is really us? Is this enough, adequate or who we want to be? Do we recognise ourselves in these modern stories of Scotland?

The land we live in has at least three very different political cultures. There is the world of fight and flight, of name-calling and labelling, which draws upon the hyper-committed. Then there are the polite and respectable conversations of parts of the public sector, government and business, with its belief in enlightenment, good authority and the power of reason.

The biggest part of our country is the part that we speak of least and which is most silent – disconnected Scotland. In many parts it has been missing from politics, public life and our national consciousness for decades, to the extent that people have stopped believing in themselves, or that they have inside themselves a voice and the capacity for bringing change. It is called “learned helplessness”, a concept developed by the psychologist Martin Seligman, and it operates on numerous levels: as a kind of inner psychic disempowering, diminishing and silencing.

The tragedy is that most of the other two Scotlands don’t even notice that this part of our nation is missing, or the hurt and loss it entails.

Our anti-Tory, anti-Thatcher, centre-left Scotland is the land where the difference in life expectancy between Calton and Lenzie North is 28 years at birth; where our universities are even less socially inclusive and representative than the rest of the UK; and where most of our public services are in the pocket of professional interest groups who talk a faux progressive agenda.

Is all of this good enough apart from the tiny band of the committed? It is time for Nationalist Scotland, Labour Scotland and “civic Scotland” to ask, are we as good as we think we are? Do we live up to the principles we regularly fight over and congratulate ourselves we champion?

We have to find voice as one Scotland to stand down the petty tyrants and despots and challenge the complacent self-congratulators. We should ask at this point: where are our history-makers, our history men and history women? But more importantly, we should dare to ask, where, when we most need them, are our empathy makers and champions?

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