Some SNP members won't like it but, on one issue, I've made an unlikely alliance with a Tory – Stewart McDonald

We desperately need to return to a political culture that thrives on the exchange of ideas and treats political opponents with a degree of respect

Gallons of ink have been spilled since 2014 bewailing the loss of our collective ability to disagree with one another. From the rancorous and protracted national debate over Brexit to the constitutional wrangling that now defines Scottish political life, all of us have had front-row seats – and perhaps even participated – as our society has become angrier and more polarised with each passing year. The art of listening and learning from our political opponents has been slowly supplanted by a political culture where opposing sides shout past each other.

This is not news to anyone. Unfortunately, it is old news. A new pathology is now emerging in Scottish political life: having lost the ability to disagree with one another, we are in the process of losing the ability to debate with one another at all. There can be no clearer example of this than what happened last week to Mark Blyth, a Dundonian political scientist and supporter of Scottish independence who spoke at an event called the Festival of Economics.

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Blyth spoke to them about “Modern Monetary Theory”, a controversial and heterodox school of thought which argues that governments can and should print as much money as they want to spend. It’s not a school of thought I subscribe to myself, and neither does Mr Blyth. Soon after the pre-recorded conversation was published online, we learned from The Telegraph that Mr Blyth had “eviscerated” the case for Scottish independence, while The Express informed its readers that the academic had single-handedly “demolished” the case for independence.

Online Balkanisation

After these articles and others like them were published, Mr Blyth took to social media to say that his comments were “completely taken out of context” by partisan journalists. “This is why I'm done ever talking about Scotland,” he wrote. “It’s toxic. No one wants any actual discussion of options. You say X and they say you said Y and then spend time writing corrections. Life's too short. Done.”

That this description will be familiar to everyone on all sides of the constitutional question should worry us all. Until just a few years ago, our problem was that people with opposing views would meet and angrily argue with one another and leave without ceding an inch to their opponent. Today, an increasingly online population spending increasing amounts of time on an increasingly Balkanised internet does not need to come into contact with opposing views at all. Articles and social media posts like the ones above conjure up fictitious and one-dimensional political opponents to argue with and to confirm their pre-existing beliefs without ever having to have them challenged.

Instead of angry disagreement, or even speaking past each other, political camps now often seem to occupy different astral planes. What was so striking about the case with Mr Blyth was that he waded back into the debate and said that his words had been twisted and misrepresented – only to be told by commentators and social media warriors alike that, in fact, they knew exactly what he had said thankyouverymuch. It was surreal.

No overnight land of milk and honey

No democracy can thrive under these conditions. Our modern liberal democracy was developed in the coffeehouses of early modern England – temples of free exchange and debate in which the Enlightenment was born. (So threatened was King Charles II by the anti-monarchist ideas born in these coffeehouses that he issued a royal proclamation to have them closed down.) Can we say that such a space exists in Scotland today – on or offline?

Instead, as the case of Mr Blyth demonstrated, the speech that is rewarded today is one which cedes no ground to political opponents and simply restates the official line. I found it astonishing that anti-independence commentators leapt on their distorted interpretation of Mr Blyth’s comments as proof – at last! – that a vote for independence would not transform Scotland into the land of milk and honey overnight. Of course it won’t! Political life is about weighing up trade-offs, making imperfect decisions and, more than anything else, being honest with the public about that.

But how can we talk about trade-offs in a political culture which invented the word “cakeism” – the desire to have your cake and eat it – to describe the Prime Minister’s ideology? As exemplified during Brexit and Boris Johnson’s time in office, the UK has developed a national inability to talk about trade-offs. The Remain side could not bring themselves to admit that, while there are legitimate critiques to be made of the European Union, they on the whole thought that the UK’s interests were better served within the union than outside. Likewise, the Leave campaign refused to recognise any positive things that the EU did for the UK. The referendum – aping Westminster’s confrontational, winner-takes-all style of politics – was defined by two sides drawing their respective lines in the sand and refusing to cede an inch.

Working with a Tory

Today, the coffeehouses are long closed, and our public sphere is crumbling. No longer content with merely disagreeing, political factions – my own included – now increasingly inhabit separate realities and, as a result, the quality of political debate has never been worse.

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This is something we must fight against, by actively seeking out ways to work with our opponents on areas of mutual concern. To mention one experience of my own, I’ve worked closely with former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith on China policy – something that saw us both targeted by the Chinese state in a cyber attack. Iain and I disagree on many issues but on the China challenge we are of one mind and, at the risk of annoying some fellow SNP members, I’ve enjoyed working with him on this issue – both of us chuckle at this unlikely alliance.

Democracy thrives on dialogue, on the exchange of ideas, and on the willingness to engage with opponents. We desperately need to return to a political culture that values this. Treating our opponents like fools only makes fools of ourselves. Occasionally, they might just have a point.



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