I suppose it is incumbent on Mike Russell as SNP President that he take on the role of peacemaker in the party’s present troubles. But it’ll take something a bit more substantial than a litany of pious platitudes to calm those turbulent waters. Far be it from me to offer advice to a man of Mr Russell’s experience. But when people are offering constructive criticism and voicing legitimate concerns and citing valid objections and asking perfectly sensible questions all in a calm and reasoned manner then the surest way to escalate this into a full-scale shouting war is to tell those people to ‘keep the heid’.
The dynamics of situations such as that in which the SNP now finds itself are dauntingly complex. They are indecipherable and indescribable. Not least because they are all but infinitely fluid. Things are changing all the time. In all directions. The idea that everybody can just stop and take a breath is nonsense. Nobody who is in any way or to any degree immersed in the roiling currents has that option. Nobody is in control. Any attempt to address the situation with a view to calming it cannot actually address the issue as a whole because it is too big and too mobile. What is being addressed is merely a snapshot of one moment in the constantly shifting currents of events and moods and attitudes and enmities and alliances and all the rest.
The alternative to an obviously futile effort to address the situation as a whole is to deal with it piecemeal. To attempt to bring one small part under a degree of control in the hope that if enough people do so with some success the overall effect will be more beneficial that the sum of its parts. The only part of a social dynamic any of us can control with some certainty is ourselves. Exercising similar control over others involves manipulation. It is likely to be seen as such and succeed only in aggravating the situation. Few people have the ability to manipulate large numbers of people with any precision over an extended period of time. A very much smaller number than suppose themselves to have such a skill.
Self-control and self-discipline will generally defuse a conflict. Demanding self-control and self-discipline of those already practising a large measure of both will only add fuel to the fire. Poor communication will only exacerbate the situation. As in when face-to-face exchanges are the very rare exception rather than the rule.
Rule number one in conflict resolution – don’t tell people to calm down. Especially when you have no possible way of knowing how calm or otherwise they are. If they are perfectly calm then telling them to calm down will be seen as an attempt to misrepresent their behaviour. If they are not calm then telling them to be calm will be seen as an attempt to minimise the reasons for their agitation.
One of the reasons the present situation in the SNP is so intractable is that – to over-generalise for the purpose of making a point – everybody is telling everybody else to calm down. Don’t! Calm yourself down, by all means. But leave others to do likewise as and when they choose or ar able. Adding your own calmness will help make the situation more amenable to others adding theirs.
If people are not calm, don’t dismiss their feelings. Don’t assume, as is the tendency, that their agitation is diminishing their rational faculties and their diminished rational faculties is the sole or primary reason for their agitation. You are angry therefore you are not thinking straight therefore your anger is irrational. The flawed reasoning should be obvious. It is when it’s written down. Not so much in the moment.
Simply describing the situation doesn’t help. Pointing out that there are disputes and disagreements and attempting to summarise what may be convoluted arguments only serves to aid and accelerate polarisation. Your summary may seem perfectly acceptable. But the summary of your summary is already well on its way to becoming a caricature of the situation. This is the process by which complex interweaving differences are reduced to a conflict between two personalities each representing a ludicrously simplified ‘side’ of the dispute. As I pointed out in a previous article, there’s a lot more to the Joanna Cherry versus Nicola Sturgeon tussle than just a clash of personalities. Each is carrying a lot of baggage thrust on them by people who want them to represent their side. Or who come to the situation assuming that they do. This baggage doesn’t belong to either of the individuals being made to carry it. It’s other people’s baggage. Each may end up carrying baggage belonging to both ‘sides’ of the dispute. It’s complicated.
The same might be said of the Alex Salmond versus Nicola Sturgeon enmity. It’s not their enmity. It’s others’ enmity that they are being made to carry.
But let’s stick with the Cherry/Sturgeon match for the moment. Because what makes a mockery of any purported effort to moderate this contest is misrepresentation of the facts. Mike Russell’s opening paragraph offers two examples relating to different facets of the strife. He portrays Joanna Cherry’s sacking as nothing more than part of a run-of-the-mill reshuffle. But the form of the announcement of her departure gives the lie to this. It is not normal that she wasn’t given notice. It isn’t normal that she wasn’t spoken to personally by the group leader, Ian Blackford. It isn’t normal that there was no acknowledgement of almost six years of distinguished service in the role from which she was being so unceremoniously removed. There was nothing of the normal reshuffle about this. To pretend otherwise is to be downright disingenuous.
Then there is the reference to the ‘leak’ from the NEC labelling it “malicious”. It may have been. Equally, it may have been done for very worthy reasons. Calling it “malicious’ – and calling it a “leak” – is just a way of undermining the credibility of the report. What we should note is that there is no serious attempt to dispute the facts set out in that report. We get a subjective assessment of the mood of the meeting which seems at odds with the mood suggested by the leak. But no attempt to deny or refute any part of the content of the leak.
Taking sides at the outset maybe isn’t such a good look for a peacemaker, Mr Russell.
I’ll mention one more fallacy that besets the set of interlinked disputes and disagreements presently afflicting the SNP. The fallacy of false equivalence. The lazy thinking which concludes that one side is as bad as the other. A variation on the ‘they’re all the same’ inanity. All this suggests is an abject failure to even attempt to analyse and understand the competing arguments. It may be comforting to think in terms of two sides each equally wrong so that being in the middle makes you right. But I would challenge anybody to find a real-life situation where this is the case.
The remainder of this fallacy usually holds that if both sides would just stop putting their case then everything would be fine. Not only is this an impossible demand, it does nothing to resolve the differences. It just buries them. Tries to pretend that they don’t exist.
Not that I’m suggesting Mike Russell is guilty of this fallacy. It’s not clear that he is. He may be guilty of another fallacy, however. He certainly is if he supposes himself detached from and/or rising above the fray from which he claims to have withdrawn with the plea “why don’t we all pause for a moment?”. By labelling the leak from the NEC meeting “malicious” he involves himself in the fray. By promulgating the official version of Cherry’s sacking rather than the more factual one he takes a ‘side’ in the fray. And look at the second paragraph!
Some people agreed and some didn’t. A few screeched in rage at my temerity and one went even further claiming that what I had posted was the same as Trump’s infamous “fine people” remark.
Isn’t this just a rehash of the kind of social media bickering held to be a large part of the problem – either causing or aggravating or prolonging disputes? Amplifying them, to use Mr Russell’s own term.
Look at the language he uses in condemning the leaked account of that NEC meeting.
…no member of it [NEC] should be attacked, still less have their character assassinated, by underhand leaks and smears.
Those are also wrong from whoever they come and to whoever they are directed.
Am I the only one who on reading this immediately thought of how in other contexts the Scottish Government has been at pains to emphasise the need to provide an environment amenable to whistle-blowers? Some hypocrisy here, I think. Am I alone in wondering why we have to rely on leaks to know what goes on at NEC meetings? We all, I’m sure, recognise the need for confidentiality in particular circumstances. But when discussions and decisions relate to policy or the basic rules by which the party is governed then members surely have a right to know. If we cannot rely on the party’s leadership and management to provide a full and forthright account of what’s going on then does this not create the circumstances in which leaks become justifiable?
Then there’s this,
…there is no plan or action underway, or anticipated, that seeks to remove the progress in rights and respect that so many determined women have fought so hard and long to achieve.
If that is the case then how the hell did the party leadership manage to create a situation in which so many people are so convinced to the contrary? Whatever one’s position on the gender/sex issue we can surely agree that allowing a false impression as gross as this would be to become established betokens some very serious deficiencies in the communication of government policy.
Mike Russell references Ireland’s abortion debate as an example of best practice. He does so in blithe disregard of the fact that the SNP has taken that best practice and trashed it. A large part of the current turmoil can be attributed to the frustration caused by members being cut out of debate altogether. The approach to the constitutional issue being perhaps the most egregious example of this.
In all of what Mike Russell writes I find no recognition of the SNP leadership’s role in creating – or failing to prevent – the present fractiousness. No acceptance of responsibility at all. And that rankles even more than the sanctimony and pretence of impartiality. There is no aspect of any of the disputes currently causing ructions among members that the party leadership isn’t ultimately responsible for. There is nothing in all of this that the leadership lacks the capacity to resolve. What is lacking is the will. The decisiveness. The boldness.
In essence, Mike Russell’s column is nothing more than an exercise in blame-throwing. The scattergun approach may strike some deserving targets. But a lot of (relative) innocents get hit. Only the shooter is left uninjured.
It is time for somebody at the top of the party to step up. Somebody needs to take a grip of the situation. On the inquiries looking at the behaviour of the Scottish Government and the First Minister, let the truth come out. We can deal with it. In the medium to long term the truth however bad will be far less damaging than the suppurating sores of suspicion.
Regarding the policy issues on which the membership is so starkly divided, either provide clarification such as will allay fears or explicitly drop those policies promising to go back to the beginning treating the dispute as a form of consultation. End it! Learn from it! Start again!
Allow a full and frank discussion of the party’s approach to the constitutional issue. Listen to the members. There is wisdom there. Tap into it. There is nothing to fear from such debate. The process will end the online wrangling (mostly) and the outcome cannot be worse than the present approach. Drop the Section 30 dogma. Or explain how it can be justified as a means to secure a free and fair referendum.
Deal with the factions! Don’t pander to them! Shut them down! There is nothing intrinsically wrong with centralised authority. It is only a problem when that authority is misused or when it is in the wrong hands or when it isn’t clear who has the real authority. Restore the role of conference. Bang some NEC heads together. This is an emergency. Drastic action is demanded and the people who actually care about the party and its aims will tolerate a bit of authoritarianism if it is going to get the party back on track. Issue some edicts! But FFS do something! Act!
Show some leadership!