Dear First Minister

 

A year ago, as you assumed office, I wrote to you, courtesy of these pages, offering suggestions from the field of conflict resolution which I hoped might assist you in navigating your daunting task. As you mark your first anniversary, I hope the following further thoughts and questions may be helpful.

 

There is no doubt that, over the past year, the world has become a more dangerous and frightening place. Human propensity to engage in damaging conflict seems to be growing. One of the most astute observers of the conflict “scene” is William Ury, co-author of the seminal book, ‘Getting to Yes’. Ury has been a good friend to Scotland, most recently addressing a full chamber of the Scottish Parliament one Saturday in May 2018, during an international mediators’ conference which I was privileged to host. Few of those present that day will forget the occasion.

 

Ury has just published a new book, entitled ‘Possible”. In it he observes that the problem is the destructive way we deal with conflict. He laments polarisation of communities, poisoning of relationships and paralysis in addressing our most critical issues. He calls for a transformation in how we deal with conflict.  He stresses the importance of building golden bridges with those with whom we disagree, helping them to make decisions that work for all, and engaging the support of the wider community, civil society – the third side, as he describes it. He emphasises showing respect to others. Could we transform the narrative in Scotland by employing Ury’s ideas?

 

Another global figure in conflict resolution is Ken Cloke, also a frequent visitor to Scotland in recent years. Cloke has also published a new book ‘The Magic in Mediation’, which he says will be his last. After 60 years in the field, he challenges us all to “mediate every conflict before it escalates and becomes needlessly damaging and costly to resolve; make conflict resolution skills and services available, affordable, abundant, and ubiquitous; employ informal problem-solving, conflict coaching, facilitated dialogue, consensus building, restorative justice and mediation, before getting violent or going to court; train people in these skills; and design preventative dispute resolution systems to assist couples, families, communities, and organisations to redress the chronic, systemic sources of conflict, including those in our social, economic, and political lives.” A tall order perhaps but could we change Scotland if we rose to Cloke’s challenge?

 

You might also be interested in the work of Baroness Cathy Ashton, formerly the EU’s top diplomat, who spoke in Edinburgh recently. Her fascinating book ‘And Then What’ emphasises the importance of long-term strategic thinking and reinforces the value of engaging with people we may neither like nor respect, keeping communications open, meeting with those we oppose – and always looking for a way through towards workable compromises that can be lived with. Might this be a prescription for Scotland?

 

Finally, you will have noted the recent death of the Nobel Prize-winning Daniel Kahneman. He transformed how we think about economics. His book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ is a must read for any politician who seeks to understand why humans behave as we do. You may well be aware of how loss aversion, reactive devaluation and priming affect decision-makers, not to mention confirmation bias, the endowment effect and attribution error. If not, I hope you have officials who can brief you on how these impact us all. And be wary of optimism bias too! Could this knowledge make us all a bit more humble about ourselves and compassionate towards others? And wouldn’t that be a good thing?

 

John Sturrock, The Scotsman, Tuesday 9 April 2024

 

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