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View from the street: We cannot truly soar without consensus

Photo of a crow (corvid)

Rochelle Blakeman

Associate

As a new week dawns, the tunes of the old one linger on, with the pressure on the National Grid in these long winter months dominating the headlines. Pressure is also being felt by Nadhim Zahawi, the Conservative party chairman, as more details of his tax affairs leak out, which may give the prime minister Rishi Sunak another delicate decision to make. A familiar face also makes a return from the plough to the front pages, with Boris Johnson facing conflict of interest allegations. Others praise the former PM’s solidarity with Ukraine following his talks with President Zelensky.

In today’s View from the Street, John Cumming is inspired by an unlikely feathered source to discuss the power of consensus and what it might mean for politics and democracy.


John Cumming

Associate

Last week, an episode of the BBC’s Winterwatch was broadcast live from the rooftop of Scotland’s national museum in Edinburgh and one segment, on corvids, caught my attention.

Studies of corvids – the group of birds which includes crows, ravens, and jackdaws – have provided an insight into how they communicate. While populating the branches of a tree, certain birds begin to croak and caw. Some of their neighbours join in, others do not. However, once the chorus reaches a crescendo, the birds all take flight together. Scientists have characterised this as a form of avian democracy, because it is only once a consensus is reached that the group moves together.

This made me stop and think about the current political circumstances in Scotland.

On the constitution, that most persistent issue in Scottish politics, there is a growing realisation – on both sides of the debate – that the only way forward is through the achievement of a broad consensus either in support of the union or for independence, much like the widespread support which was nurtured around devolution.

While 50.1% of the popular vote would have secured independence in the 2014 referendum, many nationalists recognise that if Scotland is to succeed as an independent country in the long term, a broad base of the population must rally round this objective.

In response to this, some would argue that the need to achieve ‘super-majorities’ (somewhere north of 60%) should be applied to future referenda. Personally, I disagree, as I believe denying the will of any majority is ill-advised if we want to build public trust in political processes and avoid wider and damaging societal consequences.

Consensus, in my view, is something which needs to be inspired. It can develop organically, but in most cases, it takes a serious amount of hard work.

For me, the ability to build consensus is one of the strongest indicators of a politician’s dexterity and pragmatism. The political leaders who really make an impact are those who are able to identify common ground and use this as the foundation for long-lasting transformational change. While there are clear disagreements around particular issues in Scotland, we have a broad sense of agreement around issues like tackling poverty, reducing inequality, improving public services and addressing major challenges like climate change. It is up to our leaders to harness this harmony, work together and deliver progress.

Some may argue that achieving consensus on some issues is for the birds, but I think we could learn a lot on this subject from corvids, whose intelligence is reckoned by some scientists to rival that of apes.

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