Martyn McLaughlin: Discussing politics with family

Kezia Dugdale's formative years can only have helped prepare her for FMQs. Picture: John Devlin

Kezia Dugdale's formative years can only have helped prepare her for FMQs. Picture: John Devlin

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A DIFFERENCE of opinion is the sign of a strong family not a weak one. Just ask the Dugdale clan, insists Martyn McLaughlin.

It will require the hindsight of future generations to fully appraise the legacy of Scotland’s vigorous and ever-shifting modern political journey, but even in the torrent of a general election played out in the backwash of the independence referendum, you can still glimpse the odd bequeathal bobbing above the froth.

Alex Salmond with his father Robert, nephew Mark and niece Cristina. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Alex Salmond with his father Robert, nephew Mark and niece Cristina. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Matters of state and party politics have become as routine a part of our public discourse as last night’s televised talent cavalcade. In pubs and pâtisseries, bus stops and train carriages, the same chatter skirts around the same topics, talk of fitba’ and shopping and who drank how much and who malkied who and quiet weekends and the state of Mary at No 9’s front garden and DIY and decking and two weeks half board and ach that’s a pure wee shame by the way so it is innit?

But tune in and listen intently, for the background noise plays a different tune. The spaces in between this talk are filled by a new punctuation: issues of policy, party leaders and potential governments, a new conversational currency traded in hope, anger, fear, and above all, disregard for the old prohibitions against discussing such matters in public. Scotland is not so much engaged with politics as betrothed to it. There are few exceptions to this wonderful, invigorating trend. Or at least, there ought not to be.

One unhelpful and persistent taboo yet to be broken dictates that this tide of political activity has no place in the home. A lingering dismay first voiced in the lead up to last September continues to caution against the broaching of such subjects over the dinner table for fear of leaving families irrevocably riven. This prophecy has not come to pass. Cats and dogs continue to eye each other suspiciously under one roof, curling up tail by tail when need be. That this warning is still hawked does a disservice to the maturity and civility of the political discussion taking place across the country.

At the weekend, a largely unknown Twitter user called @Jefforbited suddenly found himself deluged by hundreds of new followers, among them government ministers and members of the press. The account is that of Jeff Dugdale, a keen philatelist and retired depute rector of Elgin High. He is also an SNP supporter and the father of Kezia Dugdale.

Ms Dugdale is a perceptive player in Scottish political life who speaks with passion and purpose.

On Saturday, Mr Dugdale, a former Tory voter, sent a public reply to his daughter concerning the row over the story about the leaked Scotland Office memo. It stated: “Check facts before opening mouth, Kezia!” It is not the first time he has criticised this daughter’s party, having spoken out against Jim Murphy and the plan to lift the ban on alcohol in football grounds. It was, though, the personal element of his latest barb that saw it spread across social media like Japanese knotweed.

Before long, the message had been retweeted nearly a thousand times, its six words seized upon by those who perceived it as a politically expedient source of discomfort for Scottish Labour’s deputy leader. Many commentators, including MPs hoping to regain their seats, took glee in Ms Dugdale being “telt by her auld da”. Others pointed to an apparent friction at the heart of their family.

Ms Dugdale, who has spoken in good humour in the past about her political differences with her father, chose not to get involved. It mattered not. Within hours, it had turned into a fully fledged story, with the Independent providing a solemn dispatch on the “disagreement”. A parent bickering with a child had, absurdly, become news.

Even amidst a feverish election climate, it is hard to accept the legitimacy of this issue. Most families cannot agree what to have for dinner let alone how to vote. The presumption that a kin should be in ideological harmony is, at best, hopelessly naïve. At worst, it is injurious to our democratic conversation..

There is no better setting or company in which to mull over the issues of the day than the bosom of family. Home can be a place of ripostes as well as repose, a safe haven in which to push at boundaries, explore ideas and provoke opinion. With children in particular it encourages an independence of mind, a prize parents should covet regardless of the embarrassment.

This is an uncharted area of study, but a recent University of Nottingham paper threw up an engrossing curio: the more politicised the home, the likelier a child is to become a politically engaged adult, but crucially, they will reject the views of their parents in the process.

The early years of many prominent politicians reveal surprising points of departure. Alex Salmond’s father, Robert, was a Labour voter for much of the former first minister’s childhood, while his mother, Mary, voted Conservative. Ernest and Christine, the adoptive parents of Michael Gove, the chief whip, are long standing Labour supporters.

I have never taken dinner at the Dugdale family home in Elgin and it is improbable an invitation will be extended or accepted any time soon. It seems safe to assume, however, that it is a stimulating environment where views are exchanged freely and frankly over the dinner table to the benefit of all.

Ms Dugdale is a perceptive player in Scottish political life who speaks with passion and purpose at Holyrood. Those formative years of verbal jousting can only have helped prepare her for the rough and tumble of First Minister’s Questions. For her father, the reward is plain: a daughter flourishing as she carves her own path through life. There is no row, no skirmish, no enmity between them: only a polite dissent.

Far from being forbidden from family life, spirited political table talk allows us to challenge and disagree with those we hold dearest and shows respect and politics need not be mutually exclusive. At a time when the discourse of our elected representatives is characterised by an increasingly bitter and alienating adversarialism, a home truth is waiting to be acknowledged.

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