TO beat Brexit we’re going to need a coalition, and that will mean working with some people we wouldn’t usually work with. I’ll let you into a secret too: if we’re to build a coalition to take Scotland to independence we’re going to need to do the same.
First published in The National, 28 March 2019
The stramash in a Twitter cup over Nicola Sturgeon being pictured with Alastair Campbell over the weekend showed just how short-sighted and thin-skinned some folk actually are. We need to catch on to the fact that we’ll reap what we sow and there’s a bigger picture to remember.
A lot of folk bemoan tribalism and a lack of civility, especially online, as if it were somehow a new thing that has happened in isolation. It is easily explainable. We’re living in tough times, economically, but also largely because of that, politically.
On top of that, people are also taking their information from more and more sources and in markedly different ways. There has never been more information available, but the effect is actually converse – people have less trust in formerly authoritative sources and in lieu of that identify more with “tribes” than ever before. Add to that our media culture: in a world of complex and competing facts and impossible deadlines what cuts across the noise is drama, rammy and easy answers. Some people want factoids, not facts. Some people want to see their team fighting the others, not sitting down quietly to find common ground.
When I was first elected back in 2004, in what now feels like a parallel universe, the SNP were in every sense the opposition, and “oppositionist”. We were working out our teething troubles, constantly ready for a fight, and with that came opportunities for hostile anti-SNP stories about “fundies” or “gradualists”. We’ve come a long way, but the Yes movement still has to navigate our diversity and ensure it is a strength not a weakness.
I learned, and it was a long time learning, that you get a lot more done if you focus on what unites rather than what divides.
The EU referendum aftermath highlighted the “Team Scotland” mentality of Scotland’s MEPs as the majority of us banded together to work for the good of our country.David Martin and Catherine Stihler have been two exemplary MEPs for Scotland, and while we might not agree on everything the fact we have put on a united front in Europe (and indeed the UK) has been powerful and has been noted in Brussels.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should pretend difference does not exist and we should not be shy of actual arguments, but we can’t write people off as the opposition and pretend we can turn Brexit around, or build a nation, alone. Now is not the time to sweat the small stuff.
I spoke to the send-off rally in Edinburgh for the folks heading to Saturday’s second referendum rally in London and said “Now is not the time for the narcissism of small differences.” And it really isn’t, on Brexit and indeed on independence.
To win independence we’ll need to win over a good chunk of the folks who were not persuaded last time. That means being appealing. Not resorting to name-calling, not being obnoxious online and, yes, sometimes admitting we don’t have all the answers and inviting people to help us find them.
So the reaction to Nicola’s selfie with Alastair Campbell was all the more telling because there was so little to it. It was a selfie. I don’t know the background but here were two prominent figures on the same side of a campaign, admitting they were on the same side on this particular issue. I don’t see that as a sign of hypocrisy or weakness; it is a sign of strength, openness and accountability.
I have to have some pointed words for my own side too: folk don’t need to agree on everything in order to work together. Back in the days of the 2014 indyref, slating Labour for working with the Tories in Better Together simply by sharing a platform was counterproductive because it made us look shortsighted and shrill, and played right into the narrative of grievance-mongering isolationist Nats. That was despite the fact we were working with the Greens happily enough. Goodness knows, we don’t agree on everything, so if it’s OK for us, it’s OK for our opponents too.
Politicians being seen to work together is also, I think, what people, if not perhaps members or activists, want to see. Folk are feeling anxious, scared for their futures, I know that from my inbox as does every other politician in Scotland.
I think people find it reassuring that we can put the badges to one side and try to find solutions.
I think the Scottish Government has gained real credibility since the EU referendum by engaging in good faith and constructively to try to find a way out of this. That we have been rebuffed at every turn by an arrogant and tone-deaf UK Government has happened in plain sight with all the people of Scotland watching, and drawing their conclusions about who the grown-ups in the room are and where their best future might lie.
So if a few folk took exception to a selfie, so be it. I’ll bet plenty more were glad to see joint working. Even more, I’ll bet plenty folk in England were surprised to see the awful Nats being so consensual, and even on the same side as them. Tone matters now and will matter even more in the coming weeks and months.
We’ll win people not just by our deeds but by our words. We might not all agree with each other but there’s a big picture. Let’s all focus on that.