IN TIMES when we have to think very hard, we can do worse than to turn to the sage advice of Professor Albus Dumbledore. School headmasters can be such comforting leaders, after all.
My favourite of his quotes, from Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, finds its power in the deep wisdom it teaches everyone from children to prime ministers, business leaders or sportsmen: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” How true is that, I ask you?
Last week, on the advice of the Electoral Commission, the Scottish Government agreed its proposal to Parliament on the choice we all face in the autumn of 2014. And in the answering of it we will indeed show far more than our abilities: “Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes/No”.
This should be a positive, exciting time that can enrich the content of our public discourse and the engagement of people with it. So much is changing in the world that there has probably never been a better time to pause, think and reset. To equip ourselves for creating the society we seek in the 21st century and beyond.
The detail of the question, of course, shouldn’t really matter by the time we all come to vote. We should know by the content of the prospectuses set out in advance for both Yes and No what will follow in how we govern ourselves.
Of course we cannot know the future, but at the very least an adult discussion and agreement must be reached which recognises the legitimacy and democracy of both possible outcomes and shows respect for the intelligence of the voters who might choose either.
This was for me the essence of the most important recommendation of the Electoral Commission. On page 36, paragraph 5.42 of its report, it says: “We recommend that both governments should clarify what process will follow the referendum in sufficient detail to inform people what will happen if most voters vote Yes and what will happen if most voters vote No.”
It goes on in paragraph 5.43: “We recommend that both governments should agree a joint position, if possible, so that voters have access to agreed information about what would follow the referendum. The alternative – two different explanations – could cause confusion for voters rather than make things clearer”.
This idea is a mature one, demonstrating the ongoing value the civic leaders and institutions of society can make in steering the often blinkered and warring political class back on track. It points as much towards the conduct and tone of the debate as it does towards the detail of the information to be offered, but both matter.
In the heat of the Commons chamber the Prime Minister seemed to reject the call by misdirection: “We will not pre-negotiate Scotland’s exit from the United Kingdom”. I don’t believe anyone is expecting or asking him to. But it would be plainly disrespectful if he chose not to seek some sensible agreement on the shape of the settlement and process to follow on either outcome.
How ironic it is that he looks to Europe for the sort of mature, respectful discourse in advance of choices being made that he now refuses us. In his now famous speech last month remember that he said this: “It is wrong to ask people whether to stay or go before we have had a chance to put the relationship right.”
If he is not going to change that view it underlines the urgency for Scottish Conservatives to follow the logic Ruth Davidson laid out in her own speech last month, and to practise the political self-reliance they stand for more generally.
Hopefully, wiser counsel than the advice the PM has apparently been taking on Scotland to date will prevail, and a tone that truly recognises the shared endeavours of three centuries and more will be practised. Speaking warmly to those you agree with is easy, finding the common ground of respect for your opponents takes real leadership. It’s time for all sides to show some.
What I think is crystal-clear is that there is now an imperative for Campaign No to have something sensible to say in advance about the new settlement on offer within the UK. That same imperative applies to their opponents in Team Yes who must present their vision of how things can work. Otherwise we risk a 1979 outcome which, for the avoidance of doubt, will not “settle” the constitutional question but will make it fester. We have a country to improve. We must get to work.
We all have our own thoughts, doubts and uncertainties on all sides of this choice and none. To help us determine our view we need those that aspire to shape the public view to raise their game. I, for one, have had my fill of politicians who run to rancour and thunder when what we need is reason and respect. This is a once in generation choice, let’s be proud of how we take it.
Jean Paul Sartre was clearly inspired by Albus Dumbledore when he put his same point to Harry a different way: “We are our choices.” Let us choose well, in the right way and for the right reasons. «