Indyref 2: Can we learn to disagree well?

Indy ref debate flags‘Here we go, here we go, here we go’, is a refrain often heard on football terraces. But for many of us who lived through the tumultuous years of the 1984-5 miner’s strike it will be remembered as the chant on picket lines. It was a time of deep division and the scars are still etched in the landscape of mining communities which have never recovered.

‘Here we go again’, is a refrain from today’s social media channels in response to the First Minister’s announcement this morning that we are to have another independence referendum. The tone varies from defiant to despairing. And it has n’t taken long for dire warnings of division to emerge from those opposed to the holding of another referendum.

The big question is yet to be articulated precisely, the battle lines yet to be redrawn and the arguments yet to be thrashed out. All that will come soon enough. But for the moment a more urgent question looms. How do we survive this together? Because in families, communities, institutions and even parties, we have to.

It is self-evidently the case that there we are about to enter a period of sharp disagreement. It will be painful and it will involve one side of the argument losing. In any case, the aftermath of the previous referendum is still very muc h with us so what we’re about to go through is more about stoking the fire than lighting it.

It is, of course, perfectly legitimate for those opposed to the holding of another referendum to continue to oppose it in the hope that they can bring pressure to bear to prevent it happening. But in all likelihood, it will. So the question will have to move from process to substance soon enough. Even if one of the main complaints is that the issue of substance is mere process.

I’m a seasoned political anorak. I get a thrill out of spectating the theatre of politics. And there was no question that this morning’s announcement was right up there. A visceral moment when you know something momentous has happened. But even as a yes voter last time, I’ll confess to feeling slightly sick at the thought of going through the whole shebang again. And while I can see why they might think so, I imagine that committed no voters will not be alone in sharing that feeling with me.

My experience of the last referendum wasn’t a bad one but I’m perfectly prepared to accept that others fared less well. Partly because of my job as a third sector chief executive I couldn’t have adopted shrill tones even if I’d wanted to. For the most part, in fact, my tones were decidedly hushed, especially on that well-known meeting room, the Edinburgh to Glasgow train.

At home and with friends the conversation sometimes became more animated, even difficult, but none of us fell out irrevocably. And if we did, nobody’s told me yet.

My partner and I voted different ways and as we left the polling station on the day itself, we reflected quietly on how significant our participation felt and what others dear to us might have made of our choices. I had been on a long and searching journey from one side to the other. He had not changed sides after the starting gun had been fired but his quest had been no less searching.

Our relationship will survive whatever happens next. But my unease about this moment is that others in both the private and public spheres will feel the strain. And that unease threatens to give way to foreboding because Brexit, instrumental in creating this moment, has been such a calamitous dress rehearsal for what might happen next. If we let it.

Because the responsibility on all of us is to make sure it doesn’t. Going through tough times makes you stronger may be a cliché. But we had better make sure we give living up to it our best shot.

For sure the binary nature of the beast won’t help. I’ve always thought it was far more nuanced than that for most people. But that’s not about to change. The opportunity for that ran its course some time ago.

So let’s start from the premise that strong opinions on both sides are sincerely held. Let’s step away from keyboards when all we want to do is restate something we’ve said a thousand times before or worse still when all we want to do is shout and swear. Let’s moderate the tone and content of what we have to say as much as possible.

Even more importantly let’s remember that for all the emotional noise that it will create, the referendum debate won’t be the only show in town. And it mustn’t be. For those of us privileged enough to be in jobs that are capable of making a real difference to people’s lives that’s especially important.

Of course, it will be a distraction. Brexit has reminded us palpably of that. But it’s our responsibility to avert our gaze and get on with the day job too.

And most importantly, let’s be careful for what we wish for. If we decide opposing arguments are morally indefensible we are on a hiding to nothing. If we characterise our opponents as divisive we will divide. If we use the language of hate we will create bitterness.

I’m not suggesting that we should all hug each other. I’m no hugger anyway. I was once brought into rescue an organisation with a failing board, riven with conflict. After I had chaired my first board meeting to my horror, everyone wanted a group hug. I politely withdrew. The most important thing wasn’t that everyone suddenly loved each other or even agreed. But simply that they had started to learn to disagree.

In Scotland, it’s a lesson we are going to have to learn. And soon.

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  • About Chris

    Chris is a writer, influencer, activist and leader. Find out more about him here. image of Chris Creegan
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