Bertrand Russell once commented that “the only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation”. The recent climate change agreement in Paris reminds us how important it is to find ways to work together. It is a striking example of countries’ willingness to put aside partisan national positions in favour of our mutual interest in survival. It is now understood, at least in theory, that this global problem can only be addressed on a global scale.
The reality is that, in Scotland too, we have more in common than separates us. This surely applies to political parties as much as anyone else. As we begin the lead up to the May elections in Scotland, how about encouraging the Scottish political parties to set out, in a joint manifesto, the matters on which there is broad agreement in Scotland? This could include making sure the NHS functions really effectively at the point of interaction with patients, ensuring that primary education delivers relevant skills to all children, making the best use of Scotland’s renewable energy potential, maximising transport connectivity and successfully incorporating those who come from the outside into our communities.
Realistic? Possibly not, but the exercise of politicians endeavouring to find common ground would itself be a fascinating one. Focusing on shared goals rather than pointing out and magnifying differences could lead our politicians into unaccustomed and interesting territory. What might happen if, rather than a political leaders’ debate, we had a leaders’ dialogue, in which they explored the real hopes, fears, aspirations and needs of ordinary Scots and listened respectfully to each other as they wrestled with various options and possible solutions for making Scotland a better place? Rather than seeming to criticise each other, they might build constructively on each other’s ideas and look for even better ways forward. The real question is not “what?” but “how?”.
Such a process of distillation could also lead the parties to set out clearly where they differ and why. What about fossil fuels and fracking for example? We are told that we must, as a species, end our reliance on coal and gas. In the light of the Paris agreement, where does Scotland sit on further extraction of fossil fuels, including by fracking? At a UK level, might we wean ourselves off a simple “in”/”out” argument over Europe which, rather like “yes”/”no” on independence, doesn’t properly take account of the complexities, paradoxes and nuances of membership, whatever reforms take place. Could we escape the polarising binary arguments in this way? Is it worth a try?
Maybe this is rather naïve but the present situation is not serving us as well as many would like. That there is a regular diet of changes in policy in key areas suggests that no one reform is ever perfect and often is very much less than perfect. Recent studies of government in the UK, such as The Blunders of Government by King and Crewe, tell us about common patterns in repeated errors or, as the former Downing Street Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, puts it “cock ups in policy-making and implementation”.
This is where the now well-established Scottish Parliament can demonstrate that it is able to perform differently from Westminster, with consensus where that is sensible and constructive discussion where there are differences. The Committee system could operate more effectively with clear benchmarks and criteria for measuring success and holding government to account, learning from inevitable disappointments and building greater confidence. When the Consultative Steering Group on the Scottish Parliament reported in December 1998, the chairman, Henry McLeish, wrote in the foreward:
“In all our deliberations we have been struck by the degree of consensus that exists. In particular, that the establishment of the Scottish Parliament offers the opportunity to put in place a new sort of democracy in Scotland……” He mentions the constructive approaches taken by the representatives of the main political parties in Scotland, enabling the work of the Group to “set the tone for the future of Scottish politics”.
Seventeen years on, party leaders call regularly for greater cooperation. Collaboration is now expected from other public bodies and between the public and private sectors. The Parliament, and our senior politicians, can now lead by example. As a minimum benchmark, all we need is for such an approach to produce marginally better outcomes than at present. After all, it is at the margins that the real differences can be made.