A key skill in negotiation, in diplomacy, in conflict resolution and in conflict itself is getting inside the head of the other party or parties, whether they be individuals, groups, political parties, trades unions – or nations.
This applies whether your objective is to shift viewpoints and perceptions, reach agreements or defeat the other party. When I was a child, my adult cousin Peter used to take me to a boxing club in Dalmarnock. He didn’t box himself, but was an avid follower of the sport. (This was the era of Benny Lynch.) I remember sitting talking to one of the fighters who was taking a breather. My cousin Peter asked him what was the essential thing in preparing for a competition bout.
“Watching the guy yer gonnae fight in a bout wae somebody else.” he replied. “Ye’ve goat to get intae his style, an’ intae his heid as well – an’ ye’ve goat tae decide whit kind o’ man he is.” He looked down at me, wiping his face with a towel. “Never forget that, son – ye’ve goat tae ken whit kind o’ a man he is. If he’s the kind that’ll dae onything tae win, then he’s ultimately a loser – real men ken where tae draw the line …””
I can’t say I understood those words at the time, but they came to mean more to me as I got older. Later in industry, American bosses were fond of maxims. “Understand what made them the way they are, respect that, then find out what they want. If you can give them some of it and still get what you want, negotiate. If you can’t, sooner or later you’ve got a fight on your hands. But you may have to live with them after the fight …”
Having said that, I now feel like an unctuous little radio vicar pumping out platitudes on Thought for the Day – “Life is like an ashtray – full of wee doubts ..” (BILLY CONNOLLY).
So let me return to a more hard-edged analysis -
The maxim of Cassius -that in considering a position being advanced one must ask “Who gains, or benefits from this?” The American version, used by journalists and police investigators alike is “Follow the money”.
Political philosophies usually claim that the answer is the people, and politicians therefore claim to have the interests of society and the people at heart. Some do and some don’t, and it is a moot point which motivation is the more dangerous – the wholly altruistic motive or the narrowly self-interested. The former has often produced political and religious fanaticism and the latter endemic corruption. Both at the extremes can result in dictatorship, totalitarianism and repression.
Without sinking into a morass of PPE degree analysis, most political philosophies, most politicians and most voters are a mix of both – it’s a question of where the balance lies, and significantly, exactly where those supporting a particular view stand on the question of the ends justifying the means.
Let’s take a topical example – the current criticisms of the electoral system used to elect the Scottish Parliament – the d’Hondt system.
Yesterday’s Guardian carried the story - Scottish voting system is unfair – “Scotland's voting system is allowing two major parties to dominate politics and is putting smaller parties under unfair pressure, the Electoral Reform Society has warned.”
We’re straight into cui bono country here, because the Electoral Reform Society champions proportional representation and is against the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. So they would say that wouldn’t they?
But unionists and the unionist media have leapt on to this, displaying the hypocrisy and doublethink that characterises so much of what they say, because the outcome of the Scottish May 2011 election came as a profound shock to them, and they don’t like it.
Because the d’Hondt system was supposed to stop the nationalists ever gaining an overall majority, and thus being able to govern and call a referendum on independence. The system was expressly designed by the UK to prevent the nationalists gaining power.
Of course, it wasn’t presented in this way when the Parliament was set up and the Scotland Act defined the rules of the game. There was much talk of balance and democracy, and the two largest parties, Labour and the SNP, but it was clearly targeted at the SNP.
Now the unionists are bitterly regretting that they didn’t adopt STV – the single transferrable vote system. Under that, the SNP would have won in May but would have still been a minority government, and the three opposition parties could have happily continued their game of frustrating the SNP government from really coming to grips with the endemic problems of the nation, e.g. sectarianism and alcohol abuse, by cynically ganging up to oppose any legislation to address them.
Where does the hypocrisy lie?
The answer to that is as plain as a pikestaff – the Tory Party and a large block of the Labour Party, while piously urging proportional representation on Scotland, was engaged in a vicious, no holds barred – and successful - campaign to protect the first-part-the-post system for the UK and Westminster. Devolution was designed to neuter the Scottish National Party – and any other nationalists – by denying them real power, while the good old Empire got on with the unrepresentative, unelected conspiracy of wealth, power, privilege and the military/industrial complex masquerading as a modern democracy, i.e. the United Kingdom.
Needless to say, the Electoral Reform Society see themselves as loftily above this sort of thing, arguing that STV would have protected the Scottish people against both Labour and SNP dominance. Aye, right …
And so I come full circle, back to my Dalmarnock boxer, broken-nosed, sweaty, and wise. We must decode every message from the Unionists, and we must be alert to the fact that the messages often come obliquely, often cloaked in a heavily-spun regurgitation of objective comments from organisations and institutions that claim to be apolitical – the Electoral Reform Society, Citigroup, the CBI, the Inst. of Mech. Engineers and the Law – organisations and institutions that entirely coincidentally always seem to choose to speak at a time and on a topic that equally coincidentally suits a unionist/UK agenda and is hostile to a nationalist agenda.
Of course, these entities have the highest standards of ethics, probity and objectivity and would be outraged at a suggestion that they are politicised in any way. But to believe that they are not subject to influence, subtle and on occasion almost subliminal influence – influence that they may well be unaware of, and would indignantly reject if it were overt – is naive. Organisations and institutions are comprised of people – people with careers, people who are members of clubs, people who are members of political parties or who have a political viewpoint, people who have family traditions.
The most effective forms of influence are not overt, and over centuries, the British Establishment has developed an all-encompassing web of influence, patronage and preferment, with a backup of coercion in reserve. All those who live in the expectation of a gong, of a knighthood, of a baronetcy, of the ermine know that such baubles are not obtainable from nationalist parties such as the SNP – they come only from the British Establishment and its front-end democratic simulacrum, the Westminster Parliament.
So look at the men who speak and then - “ye’ve goat tae decide whit kind o’ men they ur. If they’re the kind that’ll dae onything tae win, then they’re ultimately losers – real men ken where tae draw the line …”
May I return to my Thought for the Day vicar persona and close by saying that in our present highly polarised political debate and grossly unequal and divided society, the professional men and women of the Electoral Reform Society, Citigroup, the CBI, the Inst. of Mech. Engineers and the Law would never be collectively swayed by political considerations, but should be aware of how their wholly professional and objective views and advice might be spun by politicians.
Aye, right …