Politicians should lead by example on civilised debate

Press/Media: Expert Comment


Article in The Times 01 October 2021

Negative, critical, angry, partisan, dismissive, evasive. These are just a few of the adjectives used to describe political discussions today, whether on social media, in the news or in parliament. Democratic politics revolves around disagreement and debate. However, politics is increasingly polarised and channels of communication are often undermined. Some politicians seem to be comfortable using derisory, divisive and inflammatory language — some appear to relish it.

Our politicians can and must do better. We’re urging party leaders and every MSP to sign up to a new Charter for Responsible Debate to lead and influence more constructive discussion. The charter has three themes — informed, respectful, inclusive — and nine principles. Debate should be informed. It should be accurate, based on facts and evidence, with recognition of the perspectives and experiences of others. Being respectful during debate means listening carefully with an open mind, avoiding inflammatory language and acknowledging good points that have changed your mind.

Addressing imbalances in power, knowledge and access will lead to more inclusive debate and increase the likelihood of reaching a common ground. Not many politicians in Scotland can claim to uphold these principles all the time. We challenge them to lead by example.

The charter is equally important for other leaders in public life, as well as discussions among family members, in schools, at work, in community organisations and online.

We are all familiar with rows on social media, where common sense and good manners seem to disappear at the hint of an opposing view. But the conflict in many social media conversations is creeping into in-person debate, lowering the quality of discussions. Too often, there is a “them versus us” scenario where binary framing distorts discussion. There are no winners because important issues that affect us all — racism, sexism, gender identities, climate emergency, Brexit, Covid-19, the economy — are starved of the attention and discourse they need to reach fair outcomes.

We believe it is possible to disagree constructively by committing to the key principles in our charter. Contentious issues can be discussed in ways that lead to common understanding and a sense of shared purpose. We must be open to differences of opinion, listening to alternative views and ensuring a range of voices are heard, not just the loudest and most controversial.
Period1 Oct 2021

Media contributions


Media contributions

  • TitlePoliticians should lead by example on civilised debate
    Degree of recognitionInternational
    Media name/outletThe Times
    Media typePrint
    Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
    DescriptionOpinion piece on Responsible Debate project
    PersonsMatthew Chrisman


  • responsible debate