ONE of the advantages of wearing a mask in the supermarket, apart from helping a person stay alive during a pandemic, is that it makes it easier to mutter to yourself without attracting stares.

Actually, forget muttering. With a mask on a person can have a fairly full blown rant and people in the vicinity will be none the wiser, usually because they are having one, too.

So there I was, deep in contemplation over the fish fingers, when the tannoy came to life. Shoppers were reminded that staff were there to keep everyone safe, and should not be subjected to physical or verbal abuse. Did you ever think the day would come when people had to be told not to behave like prize jerks?

It has been a week for looking around and despairing at the state we are in. On Monday in the Commons tributes were paid to David Amess MP, killed at his constituency surgery last Friday. Also remembered were Jo Cox MP, murdered for doing her job, and other victims of violence. Though the House is no stranger to shocking incidents, there was a feeling that this time was different, a line had been crossed. Too much heat in politics, not enough civility, and just look where it had got us.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, some of the loudest complaints came from columnists. One, Dan Hodges, wrote: “Casual hatred of Conservative politicians and activists simply for committing the crime of being Conservatives is not acceptable.” While Hodges directed his attack at extremists on Labour’s Left, members of other parties and none in Scotland will recognise such loathing.

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Next was Sarah Vine, writer for the Mail and estranged wife of Michael Gove MP, who was chased and surrounded this week by anti-lockdown protesters and had to be rescued by police. “As a family, we have had so much abuse directed at us over the years because of politics,” wrote Vine. Not withstanding the howling irony of a columnist condemning others for judging people unfairly or being mean, she had a point.

As did Joanna Cherry. The SNP MP this week said she had come close to quitting politics due to the abuse and threats she had received for standing up for women’s rights.

No woman should be silenced for speaking up for other women. No child deserves to be attacked because of who their parents are or what they do. Violence and the threat of it have no place in a democracy. We know all this. This is the two plus two of civilised discourse. So what has changed? Why do so many people think politics has lost the plot? Why do politicians, women in particular, say they would be reluctant to recommend politics to others?

In part we are reaping the effects of at least a decade’s worth of binary politics. Yes or No, Leave or Remain, choose which side you are on. Binary politics does not do nuance or doubts. It does not listen to that angel on your shoulder who suggests maybe someone else is right, or it is worth changing your mind.

In the more heated days of the last independence referendum it was tempting to believe that Scotland was the subject of some vast, not so secret, experiment. To wit, could a hitherto reasonably balanced body politic be sent doolally by years of flag-waving and argument? How long would it stay that way? If the experiment was repeated, would people behave with more restraint?

The same questions could be applied to the EU referendum. As in the Scottish independence referendum, families, friends, whole communities, were split over whether to stay in the EU. Campaigns stirred passions on both sides, supporters were encouraged to think they were completely right and anyone else totally wrong.

The legacy of those times remains with us. It is a rare group of individuals who can talk about independence or Brexit and not have the night descend into a shouting match. Things were said at the time, names were called, and though we might force a strained smile when we look back at those heady days, we have not forgotten.

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If political discourse in Scotland and the UK as a whole were judged according to those two recent referendums then, yes, there would be reason to despair. Yet there are several reasons to think that politics has become more civilised today. Reason one: have you met the past?

Anyone who thinks politics got a bit lively in 2014 or 2016 can know little about times gone. There were no halcyon days. There was us and them, the haves and have nots, the ones who wanted power and the ones who would fight to hold on to it. As for behaving badly, if you thought Keir Starmer’s hecklers at the Labour conference were rude, check out the time a noose was dangled over the stage when a speaker dared to condemn violence on both sides of the miners’ strike. From riots and pickets to rent strikes and hunger strikes, politics in the UK, as elsewhere in the world, has had its ugly moments.

What makes things seem worse today is that the misogyny, racism, homophobia and hate in general, is out there on social media for all to see and take part in. Anyone can unleash the most horrendous abuse, believing, in most cases correctly, that their anonymity will protect them from consequences. That can never be right, and it is not beyond the wit or resources of the tech giants to sort it out. If they were being hit by a barrage of posts affecting their share price, or relating to their own senior management, you can be sure they would, and have, acted immediately to stop them.

Even social media can have its upsides. Without the power of numbers there would have been no #MeToo, for instance. Bullying takes place on the internet, but bullies are also exposed there.

Politics is not broken in Scotland or the UK as a whole. We may wish it worked better, for the benefit of more people, or was more representative of society, but the basics remain sound. Those who shout loudest about democracy’s shortcomings usually have their own reasons to do so. They would rather rule unquestioned than expose themselves to the light, rather blame others for their own failings. Perhaps you know the sort.

There is no such thing as conflict-free, happy ever after politics. We need to keep the faith and keep the heid, for the alternative, the absence of politics, does not bear thinking about.