Scottish Parliament elections 2021: Nationalists and unionists must both agree on their equal rights to disagree – Scotsman comment

After the 2016 Brexit referendum vote, Christian Holliday, a Conservative councillor in Surrey, launched a petition calling for the 1848 Treason Felony Act to be amended to make it an offence to “support the UK becoming a member of the European Union” or “to conspire with foreign powers to make the UK, or part of the UK, become a member of the EU”.

There is a place for passion in the independence debate, but Scotland's politicians must ensure it does not boil over (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)
There is a place for passion in the independence debate, but Scotland's politicians must ensure it does not boil over (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

Holliday was suspended by his party as a result of this undemocratic attempt to suppress freedom of speech, but it is an example of the strength of feeling that can be aroused by constitutional issues.

Accusations of “treason” – an offence almost abolished by liberal democracy, but which carried the most gruesome of penalties in the days of medieval kings, insecure in their illegitimate power – have also been flung about by the more hot-headed members of both camps in the independence debate.

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But it is a mistake for anyone to think that such lack of civility is a defining characteristic of the opposing camp. The vast majority of unionists and nationalists are perfectly reasonable, decent people. And – five months away from what might be the most important election ever held in Scotland, given it could virtually decide the fate of the Union – that is a fact which people on both sides would do well to remember.

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Our politicians have a key role to play in reminding their supporters of the need to maintain a basic level of respect for democratic opponents. They must endeavour to ensure the debate is a proper one, based on reasoned arguments, rather than cheap mudslinging. Passion, sentiment and different ideas about identity do play a role in the independence debate and there is nothing wrong with that, but there is a danger that some people get carried away and feelings boil over.

So candidates need to be respectful of one another and their right to disagree as they vie for support. After all, if voters are to make an informed choice, they will need to hear what all sides have to say and that will be difficult if their words are drowned out by metaphorical or real “sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

Both nationalist and unionists have good reason to beware extreme rhetoric.

If ‘Brexit Britain’ seems to be moving towards the sort of place that Christian Holliday envisaged in 2016, this may well encourage voters in Scotland to seek refuge in independence and the hope of a swift return to the liberal democracy of the EU. Indeed, this is clearly already an SNP argument and one helped by the unthinking ‘patriotism’ that sometimes emanates from Westminster, such as Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s childish assertion that the UK had approved the Pfizer Covid vaccine sooner than the US, France and Belgium because “we're a much better country than every single one of them”.

Similarly bombastic nationalists risk putting off potential independence supporters who might start to fear what could emerge on the blank slate upon which will be written the constitution and character of the new nation.

In a democracy, no one should be abused or intimidated for genuine beliefs about the best course for the country to plot in the future; no one is “scum” and no one is a “traitor”.

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