Amid Brexit, Scotland must follow ‘Margo MacDonald way’ – Tom Peterkin

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The way forward from today’s fractious politics and the bitter divisions over Brexit and Scottish independence is the ‘Margo MacDonald way’, writes Tom Peterkin as he reflects on a decade covering politics for The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday.

It is perhaps a little pretentious to describe the ramblings that follow as a valedictory column. But at the risk of taking myself far more seriously than anyone else appears to, it feels appropriate to point out that this is my last column for The Scotsman.

After a decade of covering Holyrood and politics more generally for this venerable newspaper and its sister paper Scotland on Sunday, it is time to move on to pastures new.

So, for me at least (if nobody else) it feels like a time for reflection.

These days 10 years at the same place of work is a reasonably long stretch. Indeed, another two years can be added to that total when a period as health correspondent – a very good fit for someone as clean living as me – for Scotland on Sunday around the millennium is added to the ledger of life.

All told, one quarter of my life – so far – has been spent working for Scotsman publications, a statistic that is of no interest to anyone except me.

Nevertheless it has been a great privilege to work for such august titles and with such talented colleagues, especially during a period that has included this newspaper’s 200th anniversary and some pivotal moments in the political history of Scotland and the UK.

When it comes to the latter, it is difficult to look past the way that two referenda – one on Scottish independence in 2014 and the 2016 vote on European withdrawal – have dominated politics to the exclusion of almost everything else.

This has provided plenty of drama, excitement even, to write about. But by their nature, those two votes have also thrown up constitutional discussions of interminable tedium.

And more worryingly, in my view, they have stoked the politics of division. The binary nature of debates on Scottish independence and Brexit has often created an unpleasant environment where abuse has flourished and where people of opposing political views have treated each other with a lack of respect.

READ MORE: Tributes as Margo Macdonald MSP dies aged 70

That has been the striking characteristic of how modern politics has often been conducted over the last few years.

Of course, the hurly burly of political life will always throw up disagreements. People are entitled to exchange firmly held views. And it is true that when conducted in a respectful manner, robust arguments are the best way to back up those views and cajole others.

But resorting to tribal factions of “them” and “us” at all costs can prove a destructive way to conduct public life. Therefore the nastier moments during the big votes on the future of Scotland and the UK still loom large in the memory of the last few years.

However, fortunately, there have been a great many other moments where more uplifting sentiments have been expressed by well-known figures in public life.

There is a poignant irony that one of the most memorable of these moments occurred on one of the saddest days at Holyrood.

The occasion was the memorial service for Margo MacDonald, a politician who held passionate views in favour of Scottish independence but was universally admired across the parties for the way she conducted herself and her politics. Those of us privileged enough to be present at the service at the Scottish Parliament’s old home on the Mound are unlikely to forget the powerful eulogy given by her husband Jim Sillars, a man with his own strong views in favour of Scottish independence and Brexit.

READ MORE: Obituary: Margo MacDonald, independent MSP

Delivered just a few months before the independence vote of September 18 2014, it was a very personal tribute to a wife, mother and grandmother. It also addressed the divisions which are the inevitable consequences of the sort of hard-fought political campaign that Scotland was engaged in at the time.

“Up until her last two days, we discussed the division within this nation, and what it will do with the sovereignty it holds in those 15 hours between 7am and 10pm, on the 18th September,” Mr Sillars said. “At one minute past 10pm, it must bring those divisions to an end and, whatever the result, seek a unity of purpose. So, in my final remarks I bring a message from Margo for all engaged in this campaign. There will be harsh statements on both sides. The debate will be fierce. There will be verbal wounds inflicted. But if we conduct ourselves in the run-up to 18th September the Margo MacDonald way, the divisions will be much easier to heal. The Margo MacDonald way is to recognise that you are dealing with opponents, not enemies, not with ogres but people, with whom you can disagree but must do so without malice – and where the exercise of mutual respect is a civilised corrective to uncivilised abuse, which can so easily mutate into an intense and irreversible corrosive dislike.

“Margo wasn’t a Saint. She was human. If she could refuse to sunder friendships with people who fundamentally opposed her on the issue upon which she spent her life, then so can we all. If she could debate without venom, so can we all. If she could respect the right of the other side to their opinions, so can we all. That’s what she wanted me to say.”

At a time when there is so much uncertainty and division over Brexit and a second Scottish independence referendum is the subject of intense discussion, it is instructive to hark back to Margo’s memorial service. In these fevered times, her widower’s words seem more relevant than ever and I hope it is not too pretentious to suggest we would all do well to observe the Margo MacDonald way.