Issued: Tue, 23 Feb 2021 00:00:00 GMT

During a week it was reported that almost half of female MSPs have received death threats and that 90 per cent have feared for their personal safety since being elected, Director of the John Smith Cente Kezia Dugdale writes about how we need to learn to disagree better while turning our backs on those who thrive on hate. The article first appeared in the Sun on Sunday on 21 February 2021.

If you asked a panel on Family Fortunes to list what they thought the most dangerous occupations in the country are, I’m pretty sure you’d get a big X or fat zero for the answer “politician”.

I mean it’s hardly up there with being a stunt double in the latest Avengers movie.

It’s a well-paid, comfortable life without question. Sure, there are long days and lots of sacrifices made, such as spending time with your family, but the rewards are huge too.

You get to be part of making the laws and systems that run our country and keep us free.

You have the honour of being there on the back of a democratic process where the public placed faith in you to act in their best interests. It’s a privilege without doubt, and that’s why I can completely understand people’s reluctance to feel in anyway sorry for a politician’s lot.

With all that said, I was absolutely shocked to read in the Scottish Sun this week that nearly 50 per cent of female Members of the Scottish Parliament have received a death threat. An actual real threat to their life.

A further 90 per cent of female politicians feared for their safety. It’s one thing for a politician to feel the heat of accountability for the decisions they make at the ballot box, it’s quite another for them to be looking over their shoulder every five minutes because of the anger and threats they face for doing their job.

I had three death threats in my eight years of elected life; threats that were serious enough for me to take them to the police. I’ve lost count of the number times the words someone said on the internet caused me alarm or made me feel fearful.

But it’s not just about what happens on the internet. One of our own Members of Parliament was brutally murdered in her own community halfway through an advice surgery. I wish we didn’t need the story of Jo Cox as proof, but we have it.

I left the Scottish Parliament 18 months ago to run the John Smith Centre. Based at the University of Glasgow, we study the public’s attitude towards politicians and we try to advocate for the good that politicians do. We seek to be defenders of representative democracy because we fear what might replace it.

Global politics is increasingly populist in its outlook: we’re more interested in identities than ideologies. Our politics is becoming more driven by how we feel over what we need and want. I don’t know if social media started it or just made it worse, but I do know that things like Twitter both connect and divide us in equal measure. The pandemic is making it worse still.

We’re increasingly surrounded by people and opinions we agree with, making us more and more convinced we’re right, and more forceful in our opinions and language. We’re spending less time with those people we disagree with and over time that makes us less tolerant.

We need to learn to disagree better. Easy for me to say, sure – but it’s an absolute imperative as we head towards a potential second independence referendum and a long term economic recession where the decisions our politicians take will have huge consequences for jobs, livelihoods and our sense of togetherness.

So what can be done? Well for starters we’ve got to tone down the language of our politics. Both in the pub (remember them) and the Parliament. We’ve got to turn our backs on all those who thrive on inciting hate.

Thirty MSPs are standing down at the next election. Who replaces them matters. We should want the absolute brightest and best people standing for Parliament.

People from all sorts of diverse walks of life and experience, not people who thrive on starting a bin fire online.

But we the people must demand that. Ultimately, we get the politicians we vote for. We’re all responsible for the health of our politics. If a politician is getting a death threat, that’s actually a threat to all of us – and we should all feel a duty to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Kezia Dugdale, Director


Listen to Kezia discuss the issue on Times Radio: