Bridging the divide and facing the future – launch of Scotland’s Future Speaker Series

Thursday 30 May 2024
Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon MSP launched Scotland’s Future Speaker Series in St Andrews

Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has spoken of her “innate optimism” about the “power of politics to change lives for the better” despite also saying the “toxicity” of politics was a key factor in her decision to step down from the top job in Scotland.

Speaking at the launch of the University’s Scotland’s Future Speaker Series, the former SNP leader said that in a world of cancel culture and increasing intolerance, we must fight to protect the right to free speech and open political discourse – which she described as the “scaffolding of democracy” – by ensuring we all take responsibility for what we say and how we say it.

Describing the Covid pandemic as “without doubt the defining experience of my political career, possibly my life” she said one thing we should recapture from the “spirit of that time” is the “sense of being confronted by something bigger than all of us” and for us all, politicians included, to think about what we have in common, rather than what drives us apart, and “find some of that again”.

Social media, she said, posed one of the biggest challenges to how we behave, increasing the likelihood of knee-jerk reactions rather than considered responses and resulting in weaponised debate in just a few characters of “attention-seeking” text.

Taking us back to the 1980s she talked about the SNP’s first fax machine and how innovative it was in speeding up communications. It was nothing compared to the advent of social media, however, where she described “hours being reduced to minutes and even seconds” where “little or no thought is applied” and where “words can’t easily be taken back”.

Commenting on the lack of fact-checking and the reduced capacity for nuance, she said: “It is too easy for ‘facts’ to be whatever someone wants them to be”, while algorithms keep us “fixed in our own echo chambers”.

Ms Sturgeon also spoke about the challenges and changes affecting the Scottish Parliament, which marks its 25th anniversary next month.

She said: “I am proud to have been a member since its establishment. But it is – in many ways – a different institution today compared to 25 or even 15 years ago… There was back then a willingness – across the divide – to see each other’s point of view, assume good faith and try to find common ground. There was also a sense that – regardless of constitutional preferences – we all wanted the Parliament to succeed. To solve problems at home and project Scotland positively abroad.”

She stated that it is different today: “We assume bad faith. If we disagree on one issue, we refuse to contemplate that we might agree on others. In our debates, our instinct is to play the person, not the ball. And, unlike most of the last 25 years, there is a strand of opinion in the Scottish Parliament that would prefer the institution not to exist.”

Scotland’s longest-serving First Minister said all politicians, including herself, bear responsibility for broken discourse and should work together to find solutions. Making one of the strongest points in her speech, she said, “the toxicity that characterises politics today” was “possibly the key overarching factor” in her decision to stand down.

Stating that not everyone thrives on toxicity, she added: “People might look at someone like me and assume we do. I can’t speak for others, but I can tell you, I don’t. If I ever did, Covid changed that for me. It took me a while to realise it, but my appetite for politics as usual, let alone politics as it had become, had all but evaporated… The problem is that those who thrive on toxic, polarised debate are often people who, ideally, should be nowhere near politics. The Trumps of this world, for example. And those who don’t thrive in these conditions, who tend to bear the brunt of toxic politics, young women and minorities especially, end up exiting the stage or opting not to enter politics in the first place…”

Focusing on keeping her message upbeat, Ms Sturgeon said one of the most positive developments of the past 25 years has been greater diversity in Scottish politics, something she would like to see continue to increase.

We must also, she said, continue to find solutions to issues like climate change, the ongoing conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine, and the “naked self-interest” of ‘strong men’ leaders “offering false analysis and bogus solutions”.

Ms Sturgeon said she was also disappointed that progress on several policy areas made by the Scottish Government under her leadership, including climate change and the wellbeing economy, has been stifled by those who would rather act out of self-interest rather than trying to “lift the broader prosperity of our country”.

She said: “We have gone very quickly from being, as I know from my international travels, widely viewed as a global leader on climate change – albeit, like countries everywhere with significant implementation challenges – to not even being able to get a Deposit Return Scheme off the ground. Only a matter of weeks after the Scottish scheme was derailed, Ireland implemented a broadly similar one. It is already working well.”

Another example of this, she added, was when, in 2015, she was invited to speak to the Internationl Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank about the work Scotland was doing to build a wellbeing economy.

In her speech she said: “They saw us as a pioneer in trying to couple economic growth with fairer wealth distribution and a focus on the happiness and wellbeing of our population. Today the very idea of a wellbeing economy is derided, and economic growth is yet again being equated with a race to the bottom on tax and regulation.”

Referring to the 1325 Fellowship project she was asked to set up by the UN peace envoy to Syria in 2016 to help train women from war-torn countries to participate in peace processes, and the work Scottish embassies are doing to project soft power overseas, she said: “Almost everywhere we look it feels that progress made is under assault. There is no issue – however great and pressing – that is not vulnerable to co-option into the political culture wars.”

Turning to the impact this has on people, particularly young people, she said: “The generation coming up behind us is right to be angry. I am only surprised they are not more angry.”

Ms Sturgeon drew her speech to a close focusing on a call for more consensus and a rediscovery of Scotland’s pioneering spirit in shaping Scotland’s Future.

She said: “We can continue to debate the best constitutional arrangement in which to do that – of course we can. It is no secret I believe an independent nation, with maximum levers, will be better equipped to face the future than one without. But for me, independence is – and always has been – a means to an end.

“The end is the country that we want to build. I want that to be a fair, equal, outward-looking, planet-protecting nation. And I believe that is what most people want.”

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

Category Scotland's Future Series

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