Disagreement is a fine thing, isn’t it? Just as we learn by making mistakes (or as Dave Snowden puts it, “Tolerated failure imprints learning better than success”), so we advance a debate by exposing our thoughts to discussion and criticism and even ridicule at others’ hands. And now we have tools that enable disagreement to flourish. Yes – that real-time, multi-dimensional, all-singing, all-dancing blogospherical world where endless discourse and discussion and dissent and, yes, disrespecting go on 24/7.
And how does this apply to the political process? Well, there are certainly good signs, as government departments and public bodies embrace – well OK, sometimes flirt timorously with – social media. Ideas of creating “interesting, authentic conversations” with stakeholders or “A National Conversation” on Scotland’s constitutional future are fine brave ideas. But the concept of authenticity is intimately related to the concept of trust: and trust in political discourse is perhaps lower than ever.
No, the political process will only learn from debate when it becomes genuinely transparent: when the mass of people can be convinced that they have real influence over policy. And that means that the process of making (re-making, amending, tweaking…) policy must itself be exposed to the public gaze.
Getting to this point is not easy. The traditional media see debate and discussion as signs of weakness – a blog post by a civil servant that even hints at a different view from that of Ministers will be seen as “undermining”; a Tweet from a Minister that queries government policy will certainly be headlined as a “split”.
Everybody loves a good dramatic story: but sometimes the dramatic stories obfuscate the truth that public bodies have a right to be wrong, a duty to learn from mistakes, and an obligation to debate and discuss and disagree. Historically, this has happened behind closed doors, inevitably weakening the learning process. And if some chinks of light have been let in recently, for example by the Freedom of Information Acts in the UK, they are still only patchy and partial. The real fear is that letting in the light, when accompanied by the derisive hoots of a media that cannot comprehend a political process that works outside of the lobby system, actually withers the trust that we hoped to nurture.
Regrettably, then, D (as this post acrostically spells) is for Danger. It’s also for debate, discussion, devolution… and, most important, democracy.