Simon Bateson: We need a national amnesty on the posturing we call debate

First Minister's Questions at the Scottish Parliament. MSPS and others need to create a new culture in Holyrood, says Simon Bateson. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

First Minister's Questions at the Scottish Parliament. MSPS and others need to create a new culture in Holyrood, says Simon Bateson. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

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Einstein famously wrote that you can’t solve a problem with the thinking that created it. As Scotland debates its place in Europe and the UK, many of us are looking for a new kind of conversation.

In the wake of Brexit, Trump and the general breakdown of globalisation, it is clear myths of “us and them” are rising. Disenchantment with politics has sped people from apathy to anger to self-righteousness, without passing Go.

Society might welcome this, and whatever decisions about the future of the UK follow, if it were genuinely coupled with popular empowerment. But research supports a more likely conclusion: our bravado masks our insecurity.

Take last week’s pictures of Birmingham women Saffiyah Khan facing down the English Defence League. It was seized on as a victory for liberal democracy. I only saw the ongoing trauma of human beings posturing, feeding an ever greater sense of disconnection and violence. But better to swallow the story that our broken social contract is actually a culture war, between a young Muslim woman and a middle-aged member of the white working class, than face the facts.

Many commentators to their credit have identified the ideological bubbles we are suffocating in, and the splintering socio-economic realities that lie behind them. The same bubbles float around Westminster and Holyrood. Reared on perpetual narratives of catastrophe and conflict, it is no surprise that all of us deny the cracks in our own armour, and the true metal in our enemy’s. Winner-takes-all mentalities stamp out the authentic conversations that might actually lead to lasting change.

What do we need? Policy which reduces inequality and promotes sustainability, certainly. Honest disagreement to shape such policy, too. Above all, though, we need a national amnesty on the posturing we too-kindly call debate.So I welcome the statement by Lothians MSPs in today’s Scotsman, “committing to build on what they have in common, across party lines”. They have made it to draw attention to Amidst: a new civic space I and others are launching in Edinburgh tonight, to inquire into how we can overcome disconnection across the city and beyond.

My hope now is that these MSPs, and others, will work together to create a new culture in Holyrood. It should mandate professional development (normal in every other sector) focussed on better policy making. It should include a Parliamentary commitment to respectful dialogue. With real leadership, it could centre on a Cross-party Manifesto to steer the Parliamentary agenda, setting out common goals, honest differences and transparency of interests, for annual public review.

For its part, the Amidst series will explore how we can all can cultivate more courageous conversations - wherever we live, work or play. The series is founded on the belief that when demand for social change becomes unavoidable, it is more assured with far-reaching compassion and integrity. How could a Yes voter support the journey of a No voter?

How can teenagers help us understand what our ageing parents have to offer the world? How might an Edinburgh banker really know the people who clean his office? If you have the courage to ask such questions, and not all the answers, I hope you will join us.

Simon Bateson is a cultural activist and a volunteer with Amidst, a series of public events about how we must communicate better. Amidst starts tonight in Edinburgh, 5.45pm, runs fortnightly until 27 June, and is free.

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