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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.

Respect is Still Key

4th November 2021

The tragic death of Sir David Amess MP last month brought sharp focus on the security of our elected politicians and others in public life. It also provoked questions about the tone of public debate and highlighted the need for respect across the entire political spectrum.

Our July blog post, “Why Respect is Key”, sought to highlight the importance of respect in politics – respect is, after all, one of the key principles of public life in Scotland. The importance of adherence to the key principles, as part of a successful democracy, merits another close look at the topic.

As we noted in July, the general public are entitled to expect that public office holders will be held accountable if they fail to meet the high standards of conduct underpinned by the key principles.

The new Councillors’ Code of Conduct, which will be coming into effect in early December 2021, contains an expanded section on Respect and Courtesy. The intention of this greater focus is to help ensure a culture of respect within Scottish local authorities. Respect should be practised not only between councillors, but also between councillors and council employees, and also in interactions councillors have with members of the public. Paragraph 3.1 of the new Code makes this clear, stating:

“I will treat everyone with courtesy and respect. This includes in person, in writing, at meetings, when I am online and when I am using social media.”

A culture of disrespect in a council, or indeed in any public organisation can have a detrimental impact on working relationships within, and the effective running of, a council or public body. This in turn can have an adverse effect on the provision of public services.

It should be clear, though, that politicians and those in public life are, themselves, entitled to respect. Individuals in public life can expect that not everyone will agree with their views and decisions, and that members of the public have a right to make their own opinions known. However, politicians and other individuals in public life should not have to face violence, personal abuse or otherwise be made to feel unsafe. A successful democracy relies on there being individuals who are willing to stand for office.

Differences of opinion and policy are both normal and vital. There would be no progress without these differences and without challenges to the status quo. There is, however, a marked difference between, on the one hand, respectfully arguing a case and, on the other, attacking an individual who holds a different view. Being respectful doesn’t prevent someone from criticising a politician’s views, proposals and decisions. Rather, it allows space for differing opinions to be heard and enables an environment in which courteous, free and varied public debate can take place.

Increasing political polarisation, along with the immediate and often adversarial nature of social media, have contributed to a deterioration in the standards of public debate. We all have a part to play in promoting a culture of respect, in order to protect our democracy and allow it to succeed.