Euan McColm: Politics needs passion but leave out hateful attacks

'The much undervalued Holyrood Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick'. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA
'The much undervalued Holyrood Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick'. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA
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HATRED is a great leveller: it drags us all to the bottom of the swamp. If you’re thinking of hating another person, you’d better brace yourself for the self-loathing that comes with.

Even worse is the feeling of being hated. Who can bear the fear and insecurity that brings? Not me, chums.

African-American political leader ­Booker T Washington said hatred of ­another person narrows and degrades the soul. I wish I’d realised that far earlier in life but, since I did, I’ve done my best to remember, with varying degrees of success. Hatred is absolutely rubbish and we should do what we can to avoid it.

But hate, with all its destructive power, has started oozing across our country’s political landscape. And the dark, bubbling, oily source is the Scottish Parliament. Suddenly the lazy old golf-club-bar analysis that politicians are just vicious backstabbers seems fair enough.

Just look at the standard of debate in recent weeks. The accusation “liar” has become perfectly acceptable parliamentary language. Claims of government dishonesty are met by counter-claims of opposition deception. The Scottish Parliament debating chamber hisses with anger these days. Meander through the corridors and too many MSPs are speaking the language of “do him” and “get her”.

Press officers from every party – while publicly smarming their not-at-all-­actually-held desire for the level of ­political debate to rise – churn out ­release after release, making personal ­attacks, often on the most inconsequential ­individuals. There’s a thoughtlessness at large which sees the desperate need to score a point – either in the mainstream media or on social networks – steamroller any notions about decency, and often about newsworthiness. At some point, press ­officers will realise that scatter-­gunning attack stories is pointless. Typing ­furiously worded press releases that will never ­metamorphose into news items is ­masochism for nerds.

Hatred and passion being inextricably linked, its perhaps unsurprising this negativity is on the increase. Government and opposition alike are fully engaged in the 2014 referendum campaign. We’ve begun the legitimate process of asking Scots to take sides on a monumental argument which gets to the heart of how we see ourselves. Surely things will get increasingly passionate as the campaign moves on. And, while it might be jolly good fun to watch politicians knock seven bells out of each other, what happens when the rest of us are drawn deeper into a debate that’s characterised by rancour and distrust?

There’s been foolish talk recently of the power of “channelled anger” in helping decide the result of the referendum. Channelled anger, it seems to me, is to blame for millennia of atrocities. In fact, we need channelled humanity and respect.

The much undervalued Holyrood Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick (rarely does the stench of sexism and snobbery fill my nostrils so much as when she’s accused of being an SNP stooge) is concerned about the tone of debate, from all political ­parties. Wisely, she’s invited MSPs elected last year for one-to-one chats. Marwick has encouraged the next generation of leaders­ to think about how they carry themselves, to remember that their behaviour will shape the future success of Holyrood, ­however Scots vote in the referendum.

But the Presiding Officer can only do so much. Politicians are tribal and where their elders lead, they follow. A decade ago, MSPs of all parties would socialise together. Bars round the Scottish Parliament were filled with off-duty combatants, sharing ideas and experiences. If a punch was ever thrown, I’m pretty certain it was among my colleagues in the lobby. But that bonhomie is all but gone. Young Nationalist and Unionist MSPs are growing up politically with the assumption that their opponents are wrong ’uns. They stick with their own kind, gang-style. It’s boyz in the ’rood.

Both the wider Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns, despite the inevitability that they’re infected by attack politicians, have been careful to call for a positive debate round the referendum. Wise heads on either side see the long term dangers of a campaign where the language is not tempered. There is every chance the referendum result will be painfully close. The risk of a Scotland divided is present, even before we set the tone. How awful for us all, Unionist and Nationalist alike, to awake after referendum day to a country split down hateful, tribal lines.

We need a special effort from our ­political leaders, now. Those at the very top must set the example, even if that means censoring devastating lines of attack or suppressing genuine personal animosities. No side of the debate has the moral high ground here. And if you find yourself agreeing with me, with the qualification that the other lot are monsters, you’re just as bad as they are.

The Scottish Parliament is screaming for a calm-down moment, for the sake of Scotland. Come the new year, if we’re still moving along this fratricidal path, with the single issue of independence destroying perfectly natural co-operation on other matters, we’ll be stuck on a road I don’t much fancy travelling.

There will always be idiots who cannot contain their loathing for their political opponents. Let’s pay heed only to those people as we carefully make certain we reject their behaviour.

Nationalists and Unionists have to tell us compelling stories of how their positions are best for Scotland. They have to engage and inspire us. Just now, all that’s being inspired is anger and loathing.

On the day of referendum reckoning, we’ll still be here, trying to make things work as best we can. We’ll all have to live with the result. Let’s try to do that in a Scotland that’s not scarred by hatred. Let’s try to be the decent people we tell ourselves we are.

Twitter: @euanmccolm