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View from the Street: What chance we might restore humanity to our political discourse?

Malcolm Robertson

Malcolm Robertson

Founding partner

The American poet Maya Angelou reportedly said that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. 

If people do forget what those in the public eye say, the internet often ensures it lives forever, but Angelou’s point is that we should care more about the impact our words have on others. I had cause to reflect on that point again this week, in light of Lee Anderson’s comments relating to Sadiq Khan and some other poorly chosen utterances I could mention. 

In recent years, the political discourse in this country has deteriorated dramatically. The noble arts of speech writing and public speaking have been contaminated by the desire for attention and the need for content to be clipped, reported, broadcast and shared and for that to happen immediately. 

There are many great speeches in Scotland’s history and Jimmy Reid’s inaugural address as the rector of Glasgow University is among them. It became known as the ‘rat race speech’, the New York Times printed it in full and it is a masterpiece. 

On the spirit he described as “permeating” his speech, he affirmed a faith in humanity: “All that is good in man’s heritage involves recognition of our common humanity, an unashamed acknowledgement that man is good by nature.” 

Donald Dewar’s speech as first minister at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 was stirring, evocative and far too long for a social media post. He said: 

“This is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves. In the quiet moments today, we might hear some echoes from the past: the shout of the welder in the din of the great Clyde shipyards; the speak of the Mearns, with its soul in the land; the discourse of the enlightenment, when Edinburgh and Glasgow were a light held to the intellectual life of Europe; the wild cry of the Great Pipes; and back to the distant cries of the battles of Bruce and Wallace.  

“The past is part of us. But today there is a new voice in the land, the voice of a democratic Parliament. A voice to shape Scotland, a voice for the future.” 

Those great and much missed leaders didn’t write and then speak those words for the instant rush of gratification that comes with a ‘thumbs up’ or love heart emoji. The words they used, the phrases they chose carefully, will live longer in the history of our country than 99% of the banal nonsense we read every day from their successors. 

There used to be civility in politics. Parliamentarians would debate with great passion across a chamber, disagree respectfully, then share dinner and a drink afterwards. 

I’ve lost count of the number of politicians who say – when it suits them – that we need a kinder, gentler form of politics and less abuse. Too often, the very same politicians use inflammatory and incendiary language to describe their opponents, or their ideas and motives. It diminishes our politics, our discourse, and the incentive for talented people to enter public service. 

Why would you put yourself and your loved ones through the distress of being traduced and abused – or worse – simply for having a different view of the world or being a member of a certain political party or movement? 

The language of violence is deployed too liberally – ‘a punch up’ to describe a disagreement or a debate, or ‘getting a kicking’ when it was perhaps just a challenge to do better. For some, it is no longer enough to oppose and dispute, instead we’re encouraged to harangue and hate, with all that entails. 

In 2016, Jo Cox, a Labour MP, was murdered in what is widely accepted was a politically motivated attack. She was 41 years old with two young children. She was simply doing her job. 

In 2021, Conservative MP David Amess was knifed to death while engaging with constituents. Again, an elected politician with a long track record of public service murdered at his place of work. 

There were many contributing factors to those tragic events, I’m sure, but the words used by political leaders – the example they set to those who follow them – was surely one. 

A message sent to the family of Jo Cox by then US president Barack Obama, a leader whose words were always chosen carefully, read: 

“We must never doubt how much things can change. Jo knew that our politics at its best still works. If we recognise our humanity in each other, we can advance social justice, human dignity and the peace that we seek in the world.” 

Obama knew, as did Jimmy Reid and Donald Dewar, that a fundamental facet of good leadership is to recognise the humanity in each other.  

Few people, if any, commit to public service to undermine the society in which they and their loved ones live. They just have a different view of how to improve people’s lives and perhaps a different way of making the case. 

We should respect those differences and be kinder to one another. That starts with the words we choose.