By Daniel Kershen, CEDR Foundation project Co-ordinator
Whilst political debate has its place in the decision making process, an issue this important to the British public, with this much historical relevance may need to be discussed more expansively than just through a written consultation. Having the solution to an issue that will affect such a large number of people should only come from open collaborative consultation with the stakeholders, where there is room for the breadth of expression necessary to be a true exposé about how the issue is understood, rather than through box ticking which acts to narrow perspectives.
A political debate
Alex Salmond, Scottish First Minister, has submitted his consultation document for the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Having taken the opportunity to talk to Mr Clegg at the start of a British Irish summit earlier this month, the Scottish premier reported that discussions had been “adult and mature”. These discussions and other rumblings from Holyrood have prompted number 10 to set a meeting between Mr Salmond and Mr Cameron to discuss the prospective referendum and it is clear that they both have different ideas of what the solution to this situation should look like. Both leaders try to represent their respective nations, however at a time when politicians need to keep close ties with the communities that support them, it could be suggested that they could do more to build consensus.
Ed Miliband on the other hand has pledged to fight Mr Salmond over what the Labour party sees as the best interests for Scotland in the current climate; “Labour is going to show in the campaign that we will go toe to toe with Alex Salmond on the issues of who can create a fairer Scotland, who can create a Scotland that is better for the working people of Scotland”
It appears that the leaders of the national political institutions of Great Britain may have become caught up in their own political agendas, raising concerns that this debate on what referendum to ask, needs to involve the people who will be affected by any change. In saying this CEDR recognises the value of the consultation that the Scottish Government has submitted, yet the question still needs to be asked; is this enough? Involving the public in such a process does garner their perspective in part but it also serves to limit the options and can pigeon-hole people into responding to one side or the other, building an “us or them” mentality.
In a situation like this, where there are multi-party disagreements arise on how to proceed and people present their positions as fixed, CEDR’s years of experience and learning from managing difficult situations would suggest that some form of facilitated collaborative process might help to open out the issues and restart at an exploration stage, rather than going straight into bargaining.
Rather than taking the adversarial approach so often played out by the political elite, working collaboratively to understand firstly all the issues that are active and secondly find a way through them by which everyone’s needs are considered could be more effective and leave everyone feeling heard and involved. Compared to a process that often leaves stakeholders feeling outside of the sphere of influence and limited in their ideas, options and responses, collaborating in such a way could allow for relationships to be improved rather than degraded, understanding gained and whatever the solutions may end up looking like, for those affected to walk away satisfied and dedicated to the decision that was made.
Reports last week on the BBC have indicated that such a process may be underway as interest groups from churches, business communities, trade unions and the voluntary sector have come together to explore the issues. They want to shift the focus of the debate away from the politicized dueling and back towards the needs of ordinary people. Having found that the “us or them” mentality of the political landscape has prevented significant development in the past, this group aims to look at the common interests without a “fixed view about the outcome of the referendum. We want to open up everyone’s minds to consider all options”, said Alison Elliot, convener of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.
She continues: “So far, we have only heard from those who have a fixed idea of the result they want in the referendum and who seek to narrow the debate. This coalition will build a wide-reaching, transparent discussion about the future of our country that considers people’s aspirations and the challenges they face.”
There are many questions still remaining to be answered: Do the Scottish people want devolution? What does the rest of the UK think and does that matter? How can changes be successfully made? etc. Therefore there will need to be more discussion, exploration and understanding built in the coming months.