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The Standards Commission is an independent body whose purpose is to encourage high ethical standards in public life through the promotion and enforcement of Codes of Conduct for councillors and those appointed to the boards of devolved public bodies.

Language Matters

24th May 2024

The Councillors’ Code of Conduct in Scotland requires elected members to behave in a respectful manner towards their colleagues, council officers and members of the public, and to treat them with courtesy at all times when they:

  • are acting as a councillor;
  • have identified as a councillor (for example, by stating they are a councillor on a social media account or in the sign-off to correspondence); or
  • could objectively be considered to be acting as a councillor. It should be noted that this can include anything that councillors post or say on social media or in the press. This is because, due to the public nature these forums, and the profile of councillors as local authority elected members, members of the public might automatically assume that councillors are commenting in their capacity as an elected politician in anything they post, publish or share in either forum.

But surely elected politicians, such as councillors, should be able to say what they want? Particularly as the law provides that they have a right to freedom of expression?

Well… no. The language councillors use matters.

We expect politicians, including councillors, and others in public life to lead. This is because they are responsible for making decisions that impact almost every aspect of our lives, from how we are protected, to the services we receive and the tax we pay. Councillors, in particular, are responsible for decisions that can have a huge impact on our health, well-being, education and communities. It is essential, therefore, that they maintain the public’s trust and confidence.

A failure by councillors to behave with courtesy and respect not only undermines the public’s confidence in them as an individual, but also in their council and in politicians in general. It can also have a significant detrimental impact on the culture and working relationships within a council which, in turn, can have an adverse effect on the running of a council and consequently on the provision of public services.

The increasing polarisation in politics, along with the immediate, constant and regularly adversarial nature of social media in particular, has contributed to a deterioration in the standards of public debate. As leaders, the way politicians and others in public life conduct themselves often sets the tone for such debates. A councillor’s use of disrespectful language, either in person or online, can therefore contribute to this decline.

Ian Bruce, the Ethical Standards Commissioner said, “My team has conducted some initial research in this area and it shows a worrying rising trend in complaints of this nature. Whilst I cannot find a breach of the Code of Conduct when one of the key principles in it has not been followed, I regularly see evidence of councillors not demonstrating or modelling the principles of leadership and respect:


I have a duty to promote and support these principles by leadership and example, and to maintain and strengthen the public's trust and confidence in the integrity of my council and its councillors in conducting public business.


I must respect all other councillors and all council employees and the role they play, treating them with courtesy at all times. Similarly, I must respect members of the public when performing my duties as a councillor.'

Most of these complaints come from members of the public – the electorate – and they are understandably unhappy with the conduct of councillors when this happens. It has the capacity to fundamentally undermine their trust in those elected to serve them. This cannot be good for the democracy of Scotland.”

But why does this matter?

It matters because if a debate becomes so polarised or toxic, any hope of meaningful engagement is lost, with individuals on opposing sides being unwilling to even listen to each other’s views and concerns. This can result in members of the public disengaging from politics altogether, which has a harmful impact on the democratic process, as a lack of meaningful representation can result in views and perspectives being ignored leading, in turn, to poor decision-making. Such polarisation also encourages poor conduct towards politicians, with personal attacks and threats to their physical well-being and safety becoming normalised. Indeed, the Local Government Association’s ‘Debate Not Hate’ survey suggested that 75% of respondents who took part in the 2023 local elections in England reported receiving intimidation or abuse during the election campaign[1].

A successful democracy relies, in no small part, on there being a sufficiently large and sufficiently diverse group of individuals being willing to stand for office. Those from minority or under-represented groups are increasingly likely to be the subject of disrespectful and bullying behaviour, which in turn then has an effect on whether they will choose to enter or remain in politics. Additionally, having to face personal attacks can have a hugely detrimental impact on an individual’s mental health and, in some instances, can lead to them resigning or deciding not to stand for re-election.

That is not to say that everyone should just agree with each other. Differences of opinion and policy are normal, welcome and vital. It is important for different views to be aired and heard in all decision-making, scrutiny and policy settings. There is, however, a clear distinction between, on the one hand, outlining the reasons for not agreeing with an opinion or view and, on the other, being abusive and engaging in personal attacks. The latter is also likely to be counter-productive, given it is unlikely that others will be persuaded about the merits of the views of someone who has used offensive language or resorted to personal attacks and abuse.

We expect that the forthcoming General Election will lead to even more robust political debate. While such debate is welcome, we strongly encourage councillors to be careful about the language they use, whether it be in person, in writing or on social media. We consider the public is entitled to expect councillors will meet high standards of conduct and lead by example.