By Kezia Dugdale and Stephen Gethins

The past 12 months have led to isolation, hardship and sorrow for so many, and the scars and the pain will take time to heal.

But despite intense personal suffering, there has been a determination within our communities to ensure that we don’t struggle alone.

That has been evidenced in the new report published today by the Talk/together campaign, with responses from nearly 160,000 people across all four nations of the UK.

It found that Scotland has pulled together during the Covid crisis and is now a more united nation.

The same is true in communities all across the UK.

The report includes some heart-warming examples of everyday kindness that has helped bring people together.

“In our area people cook an extra cottage pie. And they say, does anyone need a meal?”

That was just one comment in one of the many conversations held as part of this study; the largest survey of public attitudes during the pandemic.

Another said: “I’ve been in my house for four years. Now I’ve spoken more to my neighbours during this last six to seven months than I did in the last four years.”

The report, based on both conversations and in-depth polling, shows that four times as many Scots think Covid-19 has made their community more united than more divided.

A majority of Scots say the public’s response to the coronavirus crisis has shown the ‘unity of our society more than its divides’, with 53 per cent agreeing their ‘local area is a place where people from different backgrounds get on well together’.

And the findings suggest nearly one million adults in Scotland volunteered during the pandemic and hundreds of thousands want to continue helping in their local community.

People like 18-year-old Freya Riley from Kelty in Fife who one year ago became a Kindness Volunteer with Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland.

Freya phones Chris, a 70-year-old stroke survivor from Springfield, twice a week to chat and help him feel less lonely.

“He calls me his ‘wee ray of sunshine’ because my call brightens up his day, and it’s lovely to hear that because it brightens my day too,” she said.

People like Freya epitomise the neighbourly acts of kindness and the relief effort that has brought communities together in Scotland.

But the unity we have built together must not be the high-water mark – this is a base from which to build.

Today’s report signals that we are at a crossroads.

Pre-pandemic divisions remain, and new divisions could open up if the lessons of the past year are ignored.

In Scotland, the same divisions in society can be found as in other parts of the UK.

Forty-two per cent of Scots are worried about divisions between rich and poor and 27 per cent are worried about divisions between people from different ethnic groups.

And here we have the added dimension of the ongoing debate about our country’s constitutional future.

We campaigned on different sides in the 2014 referendum and we represented different political parties in parliaments.

But we both want to live in a country where there is a diverse range of opinions and healthy debate – because our society is richer as a result.

We all, collectively, have a job to do to ensure that differences of opinion do not become such deeply entrenched divisions that we lose the opportunities before us.

Over the coming months and years, voters in Scotland will continue to make significant decisions over the country’s future. This study shows that people want to see a debate that is respectful and informed.

We need to disagree better, and politicians must lead from the front.

It is in the interest of all politicians and activists to change the tone and reset the language used in our politics.

The public is rightly demanding a more respectful conversation, and if politicians and activists fail to learn how to disagree better then not only will their own causes suffer, but distrust in our democracy will deepen.

We both believe that politics is a force for good, and we need to encourage a more civil debate – not least so that we encourage more people from diverse backgrounds to choose a career in public service.

The report rightly concludes: “There is a real need for more civil society initiatives that provide safe spaces for respectful political debate.”

As part of the Talk/together listening exercise, there were hundreds of suggestions for action to put in place the foundations and connections needed to build a society where we have greater respect for difference and higher levels of trust, empathy and kindness.

This includes the commitment to learn to disagree better, which applies not only to political leaders but to everyone engaging on social media.

Other suggestions include improving children’s understanding of democracy, our political institutions and what it means to be a citizen through the greater uptake of Modern Studies.

And government recovery plans should aim to increase participation in sports, cultural, environmental and community activities.

These findings will now be used to press for the policy change and practical action that is needed.

We all need to play our part so that we can build a kinder, closer and more connected society.

Kezia Dugdale is director of the John Smith Centre for Public Service and a member of the /Together steering group, and Stephen Gethins is professor of practice in international relations at the University of St Andrews and a former SNP MP.

This article first appeared in The Scotsman on 1 March 2021