Praise for two Scottish journalists yesterday in a feature in The Scotsman by Peter Jones to mark the publication of 'a small volume' produced to celebrate 25 years of the David Hume Institute, which aims, in the words of present chair, Sir Ian Byatt, to “encourage the application of his empirical and suitably sceptical approach to the issues of public policy facing Scotland in the 21st century”.
In his article, headed ‘Seeking political enlightenment’, Jones points out: “Another Scottish election campaign looms and I am sure that I can hear the sound of the bones of David Hume, that greatest of Scottish philosophers, turning in his grave in the Old Calton Burying Ground.
“Perhaps the mournful groaning may even be heard within the chambers of the Holyrood building which, with a fair wind, is in spitting distance of Hume's Mausoleum.
“I hope so, for I suspect that if Hume was able to observe the forthcoming Scottish election debate, he would be thoroughly disgusted.
“In politics, we need to look at the facts and use that evidence to tell us what political policies will work and what will not. But in contemporary Scottish politics, facts and evidence are cheerfully ignored in favour of pre-conceived prejudices. All parties are guilty of this… the point simply is that political parties, in the main, prefer to cling to policy positions, even when evidence directly contradicts them.
“I'm not alone in thinking that. The Institute's volume contains two essays by highly reputable journalists. Both chose to illustrate their contributions with the same quotation from Hume: ‘A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence’. Both essays suggest that, in politics, there is little connection between belief and evidence.
“Andrew Bolger, the Scotland correspondent of the Financial Times, writes: ‘The Scots are a disputatious race, and their love of argument can easily degenerate into 'flyting', the competitive abuse of opponents. Perusal of the internet shows that technology has increased the quantity, but not the quality, of such vitriol.”
“Brian Taylor, BBC Scotland's political editor, sees this abusive use of free speech as mirroring what the politicians say: ‘Much of what passes for political debate ignores or sidelines subtlety. In summary: everything we do is right, everything they do is wrong. Our party has a unique insight into public policy; our opponents are the living embodiment of evil'.
“This admits Taylor, may have something to do with media coverage of political debate, in which any admission of uncertainty (usually the true condition of a political mind) ‘will be treated as weakness, by their opponents and by the media, and will be punished accordingly’. There is some truth in that, but only some. The media should be testing policies against evidence and declaring when the evidence contradicts a political policy.”
Incidentally, the volume is edited by Professor Nick Kuenssberg, the father of Laura Kuenssberg, chief political correspondent for the BBC News Channel.