The public perception of politics as a bear pit, in which participants are constantly at each other’s throat, is perhaps explained by the antics each week at Prime Minister’s or First Minister’s Questions.
In reality, though, this provides only a very partial picture and one that unhelpfully glosses over the bulk of the work that is done in parliament, not to mention in communities the length and breadth of the country, which is far more collaborative and consensual. Most issues I deal with in my role as Orkney’s MSP do not break down along political lines. Of those that do, there is invariably still enough common ground for compromises to be reached.
Granted, during a period of perpetual elections and referendums, this is not an impression that is widely given by politicians or held by members of the public. Nevertheless, a working environment where you are constantly being criticised, condemned or personally insulted is not one that many individuals, however thick-skinned, would be willing or able to tolerate for long.
Of course, democracy demands that ideas are vigorously debated. The pursuit of false consensus is generally unhealthy. Yet we should be able to conduct our politics, express our disagreements, without the need to abuse or dehumanise those who take a different view.
A timely reminder of this was provided at the weekend with events marking the anniversary of the murder of the late Labour MP, Jo Cox. Ms Cox is remembered fondly for an approach to politics that was passionate without being tribal; cross-party where the opportunity arose and which recognised, as she often said, that there is more that unites us than divides us.
Given everything that is happening in our politics, and more widely within our society at present, this message seems more salient than ever. It was encouraging therefore to see such a wide variety of events being held across the country, inspired by the Jo Cox Foundation, providing an opportunity for those of different backgrounds, views, faiths etc to get together.
At a local level, I took part in a get together of my own on Monday afternoon. While the newly elected group of Orkney Islands councillors are not of all faiths and none, it was good nonetheless to have the chance to sit down and discuss with them issues of common interest. There are, as you would expect, different perspectives about how best we might serve the interests of those who elected us as well as the wider Orkney community. Nevertheless, a regular and ongoing exchange of views can only be helpful.
At a practical level, I have already had the chance to work closely with a number of councillor colleagues since the local elections in May. On addressing concerns in Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre about the provision of emergency ambulance cover; on pushing for improvements in local delivery of fire service training; and on highlighting to government the damaging effect business rate hikes are having on Orkney’s hospitality sector.
In these and other areas, constituents expect their elected representatives to work collaboratively. That is not to say they won’t also want me to raise concerns with the Council on their behalf from time to time. However, even then progress can often be easier where ongoing relationships exist and lines of communication well-established.
Needless to say, a good working relationship with the local MP also helps. I was therefore delighted to see my friend and colleague, Alistair Carmichael re-elected so emphatically on 8th June. I have seen first-hand the commitment Alistair has shown to serving as Orkney & Shetland’s MP since 2001 and look forward to continuing to work alongside him over the coming years.
Congratulations as well to Jamie Halcro-Johnston, who was sworn in this week as a list MSP for the Highlands & Islands. Having stood against Jamie in my last two Holyrood elections, I know he will take to this role effortlessly and that we will find common cause on issues over the remainder of this parliament. On a personal level, it was wonderful to see Jamie’s parents, Hugh and Erika from Orphir, bursting with pride as they watched proceedings from the VIP gallery: illustrating perfectly the human side of politics.