With the elections to the Scottish Parliament on the horizon, there will be considerable interest in how the campaign is conducted. Recently, much has been written in the United States about the need for a return to civility in public life or, to use Os Guinness’s description in his well-regarded book, The Case for Civility, the need to restore the metaphorical "civil public square". Perhaps the efforts of President Obama to inject a more thoughtful and reflective tone into political discourse, following Obama’s memorial service speech in Tucson, herald a change of mood.

Guinness and others worry that the propensity to resort to name-calling, insult, ridicule, caricature, accusation and denunciation has become such a feature of Western political debate that we scarcely notice or challenge it. But such behaviour – the art and trade of negation – comes with a cost: the trivialisation and distortion of important issues, a lack of real engagement about what matters most, and a self-fulfilling demonisation of the other side, whoever they may be. Polarisation of views, a tendency to antagonistic partisanship and the absence of constructive deliberation and debate are familiar – and deeply destructive – characteristics of twenty-first-century public and political discussion.

This is an extract from an article published in Holyrood magazine on 28 March 2011.

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