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Debates too often heat rather than light, when we forget to ask the key questions


Wow. What a week that was.

The Prime Minister had her Salzburg showdown.

Our children became a battle ground in the Scottish Parliament.

And the mystery of the Croydon cat killer was solved.

I write this Monday Muse at 30,000 feet on a Georgian Airlines flight to Tbilisi, heading there to speak at a conference on strategic communications.

Between pondering the right words for my regular reader and munching on my midnight light snack (and trying to ignore the snoring of those slumbering nearby) I am penning notes for my talk. It is billed, they claim, as a Keynote Speech.

“The experts on all sides should know better. They need to explain better and assert less”

I’m sure that is just a piece of puff to make me feel good and in truth, coming as it does near the end of a long day of real keynote contributions, there will be a strong desire by the delegates for mine to be like a kilt. Long enough to cover the main point, but short enough to be interesting. And brief enough to facilitate an early glass of their wonderful wine.

Sorry. I digress.

But I do so with a purpose.

My Tbilisi talk will centre around “The key to getting the right answer is asking the right questions”. (Snappy title I hear you say.)

Which takes me back to where I began: Wow. What a week that was.

Because in the three examples I started with, there were lots of assertions. A plethora of wrong answers. A few with a modicum of clarity, but many which were as clear as a glass of cloudy lemonade viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. In a fog. And there was an absence, in the first two cases, of the shortest and simplest but most powerful of all questions being asked: “Why? “

Take the Salzburg thing. It was always the case that, at some point, things would get bloody. It just came earlier than expected. This last minute brouhaha was meant to be next month.

I know it’s complicated. Indeed, tell the truth. Do you really understand where the detail of the disagreement lies? Do you know your EFTA from your Canada +++? Can you tell the difference between a Customs Union and Customs Arrangement? Where does the divorce deal end and the future deal start?

But the experts on all sides should know better. They need to explain better and assert less.

Now, to be fair to the PM, in her TV address the next day she gave a clearer explanation of why the Chequers Plan was a valid third option to those favoured by the EU than I had seen so far.

It was a kind of Love Actually moment. Except there hadn’t been much love beforehand. It was Mrs. May channelling her inner Bloody Difficult Woman. It came with an accusation that Barnier and Co. had been less than crystal clear in rejecting the Third Way proposed by the U.K.

“But we have been clear”, counter claimed the EU…..Just don’t expect us to give detailed answers or alternatives. Instead, stop trying to pick our cherries. Stop trying to speak to individual countries. How dare you compromise and expect us to do the same.

It was Gunfight at the Salzburg Corral.

But I expect it might end up doing good. It could be the storm before the calm. And from the heat, light can emerge. Enough of everybody blaming everyone else for having the wrong answer.

It is time to ask the right questions. Is it to be deal or no deal? Indeed, do you want to cut a deal? If so, start asking the right questions of each other. Ask each other “Why?” Or, equally potent, “Why not?”

You might just find common cause and the right answer. Both sides can still win.

Meanwhile, at Holyrood, the standardised testing of Primary One pupils took centre stage. And here too there were lots of assertions. And name calling. And heat.

And somehow, at risk of being lost in all the argy bargy, was the obvious common ground: our children. It is one thing to argue about their education. It is quite another to argue over them.

There was, in my humble opinion, little attempt to find any common ground. And thus, the Scottish Government was defeated in a vote. But vowed, at least initially, to carry on whilst they regrouped and reconsidered. Maybe.

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I reckon there is blame on both sides. But a solution could easily be found if the key questions are asked: do we want to discuss where we agree and find a way forward? Do we agree that teachers and parents need to know how each child is doing? Do we agree that, in early years, the need for nationwide comparisons is less important? Do we agree that all good teachers are always assessing each child’s progress? That they know their kids needs? So how best to support them?

And finally for this week, the Croydon Cat Killer. The feline mystery solved. Who, or what, was responsible for a spate of murdered moggies? It had been a pun writers dream. (There’s been a purrrrder….)

It had been quite a rumpus in Croydon. Cats had been mutilated. There was even one suggestion that a police officer was the feline felon. Or a cat killer was on the loose. But most blamed foxes.

The truth, when at last the right questions were asked of the best experts, was mundane. They were the subject of road kill. Victims of man and motor. And no, foxes were not to blame. They were only guilty of scavenging the remains. The right answer came when the right question was asked of the right people.

So. What a week.

Which only begs the question: What will this week bring?

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