Scottish independence 'debate' requires empathy and imagination if it is not to descend into verbal combat – John Sturrock

With Scotland’s constitutional issue set to take centre stage once again, many will be fearful that division and rancour may follow.

Back in 2014 and in subsequent years, the debate has often generated more heat than light. Arguably, the 2016 Brexit referendum was even more acrimonious.

With the cost-of-living crisis, the troubling scenes from Ukraine, the existential threat posed by climate change and the collective trauma of the pandemic still hanging over many of us, the context in which this latest development arises feels different from 2014. There may be only so much animosity and confrontation that we can take. We need a better way.

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This is all about how we handle things. Whatever the substance, namely whether or not Scotland should be an independent country, it surely falls to all of us, particularly those in political leadership arguing for one side or the other, to conduct ourselves with dignity and show respect towards those with whom we may differ.

Indeed, for those who argue for something different from the status quo, demonstrating what sort of country they wish Scotland to be will be enhanced by the manner in which they present arguments. For those who seek to uphold the present arrangements, their conduct will shine a light on why people might choose to support them.

Back in 2014, a diverse group of Scottish citizens, with different views on the constitution, formed a loose coalition called Collaborative Scotland and promoted the Commitment to Respectful Dialogue. Hundreds of people subscribed to it.

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Signatories acknowledged that how we engaged with each other may be just as important as any outcome. They affirmed that it was in the interests of a flourishing Scotland that discussions were conducted with civility and dignity. Against that background, they committed to do their best and they encouraged others to do their best to:

It is important to show respect and courtesy towards all when discussing the Scottish independence question (Picture: David Cheskin/PA)

Show respect and courtesy towards all those who are engaged in these discussions, whatever views they hold; Acknowledge that there are many differing, deeply held and valid points of view; Use language carefully and avoid personal or other remarks which might cause unnecessary offence; Listen carefully to all points of view and seek fully to understand what concerns and motivates those with differing views from our own; Ask questions for clarification when we may not understand what others are saying or proposing; Express our own views clearly and honestly with transparency about our motives and our interests; Respond to questions asked of us with clarity and openness and, whenever we can, with credible information; Look for common ground and shared interests at all times.

That commitment nicely sums up what we need now. The binary nature of the constitutional question proposed could mask the complexity of the issue. It’s not as easy as black and white, right or wrong, in or out, us and them.

There are layers to this, different sides to the stories, which need to be understood and addressed. Indeed, to call this a debate risks falling into the classic trap of views being expressed in an adversarial way, leading to polarisation and vilification. After all, the word “debate” is apparently derived from the French debatre, meaning to beat down. That cannot be the way to conduct discussions over the next 18 months or more.

We need dialogue, a flow of ideas, recognising the uncertainties, ambiguities and subtleties involved. We must find ways to move beyond the mere stating of positions so that people’s underlying concerns, hopes, fears and aspirations are acknowledged, discussed and explored fully.

Just as important is the recognition that whatever happens, we and our politicians need to be able to work together whatever the future holds. Indeed, given the enormity of the other issues which dominate our lives at the moment, we must be able to work together now.

And, if there is eventually a majority, however legally achieved, in favour of change, it seems essential to build and maintain the necessary relationships to enable constructive negotiations to take place in future. The time to be doing that is now, not after a decision is made. All of this should be common ground.

It's easy to say all of this of course. We know how difficult it is to achieve in practice. “It’s just politics” was once offered up when I challenged a senior politician on the use of denigrating language towards political opponents.

It may be a certain sort of politics but it creates animosity and undermines attempts to build better relationships. It’s a sort of politics that seems unfit for the purpose of discussing the difficult issues that voters are expected to decide on.

We need a more mature, constructive and thoughtful approach all round. Otherwise, for many in the electorate “a plague on all their houses” will continue to be the prevailing sentiment. That’s not good for the democratic process, especially when such a profound question is being proposed.

In demonstrations of good leadership, we expect to see self-discipline, humility and the taking of responsibility. Again, this is not easy: blaming others is a natural human reaction and, under the enormous pressure which many will feel, the fight or flight reflex can easily kick in, leading to aggression and defensiveness.

We’ll need a good dose of what the Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemann calls “system two” thinking: reasoned, thoughtful, explanatory, overriding the instinctive, protective, combative “system one”. We know that this takes conscious effort. It is by definition harder work than defaulting into old habits.

At least we now have much better understanding of these facets of human interaction. In short, doing this a better way will require empathy and imagination on all sides. Can we expect this in the often visceral world of constitutional politics? Many of us believe we are entitled to – and that we must do all we can to encourage and support it.

John Sturrock is a mediator and was co-founder of Collaborative Scotland

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