Consensus is one of the most powerful motivating forces in business and politics

Inspired by Kevin Pringle’s article today in the Sunday Times Scotland on the polarized debate in Scotland, I have revisited this note that I sent to every member of the Scottish Parliament in 2001 on the same subject.

It was the then MSP and leader of the Scottish Conservatives, David McLetchie’s view expressed in the Scottish Parliament that Consensus is a false God leading to false compromise. But his opinion is far from the whole story. The reality is consensus, accurately defined and properly used, is one of the most powerful motivating forces in business and politics.

The verbs reveal the difference: one cuts a compromise and builds a consensus. Above all one does not appeal for one as Henry McLeish (then First Minister) so often did. By appealing for consensus at every opportunity, he contributed to the confusion about the technique.

At its best, consensus is way of moving a radical idea from the fringes of opinion into the mainstream without losing its force. Compromise does exactly the opposite, cutting off all the bits that are radical. So Consensus and Compromise are polar opposites not, as many people think, versions of each other.

Building a consensus takes time because people have to be won over by good argument and points have to be conceded. And because it takes time, it sits ill at ease with a political culture that needs an initiative every day and insists on absolute party discipline over all policy.

But the rewards for patience and freer voting remain tremendous. Not only is the problem likely to be better defined but the solution having won so much commitment is likely to stick and work making the technique of value in complex problems or where no one party has a monopoly of knowledge.

There is a third way of settling policy and that is simply to impose it with the power of conviction. All three – consensus-compromise-conviction– ought to be at work in a parliament many times over. I urge Parliament to find a way of unlocking the power of consensus and putting it to work for change in Scotland.

Having to argue constructively with opponents requires a more tolerant political language in Scotland both for people and their ideas. While Parliament has already ceased to use the language of the snake oil merchant for individuals, the tendency still remains to sneer collectively at Tories for daring to be Tories, the SNP for holding to their founding idea of Independence or Labour for having a full complement of women MSPs. It is surely time to move the language on again.

Stop strangling ideas at birth simply because they come from the wrong stable. For too many decades in Scotland we have tolerated a highly polarised political culture which coalition government has unwittingly perpetuated. So SNP ideas on PFI are rubbished before the ink is dry and Executive policy on roads gets similar treatment.

The practice spreads beyond Parliament. A progressive newspaper, having dismissed outright the contribution on economic development from a right wing think-tank, has the nerve to call for a “debate” of its own on the subject. This sort of partisan culture does not encourage Scots to be self-confident and bring forward ideas. If Parliament wants a clash of ideas in order to find the best, it must first allow them onto the playing field.

Finally, I asked the new First Minister (Jack McConnell) to use the goodwill likely to be accorded to him in his first weeks in office to infuse the robust language of party debate with a new tone and encourage a more confident parliamentary treatment of new ideas from any source. It would be a clear sign to all that our Parliament is continuing to grow.

Let us hope Kevin Pringle has more success.

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