Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The entitled few

Jeff has picked up on a story on the Techwatch website suggesting that Alex Salmond may have a degree of involvement in one of the three proposed televised leaders' debates - the one produced by Sky. What's making me slightly cautious about this is that it's clear from the wording that the details of the story have been lifted directly from this Telegraph article from last week. It would be more encouraging if there was at least one other independent source, but if there is some truth to the story it would seem that sense may be starting - if only starting - to prevail.

Nevertheless, what is reportedly being proposed by Sky - that Salmond could come in at the end and ask one question on each debate topic and then give his own view - is a relatively modest compromise. Given that, it was quite astonishing to see the apoplexy which greeted the story when it broke last week on blogs such as Political Betting. One of the usual suspects (yes, her again) sniffily observed that she couldn't care a tuppence one way or the other about Scottish nationalism, but what she did object to is the SNP's "sense of entitlement" in thinking they have a right to be part of the 'national' debates. This appears to be a variation on the theme that if 'the children' really must be seen, they certainly shouldn't be heard by civilised folk south of the Tweed - whoever said the old imperial mindset was dead?

Let's ponder this for a moment - who exactly is displaying the 'sense of entitlement' here? Is it the SNP, who despite being faced with the outrageous prospect of receiving literally no coverage in three high-profile debates to be shown in a constituent part of the UK where they are unquestionably one of the major parties, have not precipitously jumped into legal action, and have instead engaged intensively and constructively in the search for an acceptable compromise? Or is it the London parties, who haven't given an inch, and who undoubtedly seem to feel an automatic 'entitlement' that their cosy, private, exclusive, three-way chat should be broadcast in primetime in Scotland, without even the slightest concession to the fact that they are not the only major parties who contest elections here?

The Labour MP Nick Palmer, who is typically one of the much saner voices on Political Betting, nevertheless also joined in the chorus of unionist indignation. In his view, "common sense" demanded that there be room for debate in which "Scottish" issues were covered, and in which the SNP should be included, but that there also be room for debate in which "UK" issues were dealt with, in which the SNP most definitely should not be included. In other words, the familiar holding-line that as long as there's a dedicated Scottish side-debate, it's somehow perfectly OK to pretend the SNP don't really exist and don't really have major-party status in Scotland when the main debates come round. This seems to be one of those classic occasions when 'common sense' is invoked despite (or perhaps because of) the proposition being put forward defying all sense of true logic. For what exactly, Dr Palmer might like to ponder, are the 'Scottish' issues supposedly at stake in this election? If he's talking about devolved matters, they're a complete irrelevance in a Westminster election. All four main parties in Scotland, including the SNP, are standing solely on their proposals for matters reserved to Westminster (at least that's the theory) and all should have an equal chance to put their case to the electorate in Scotland. But, of course, the debates will cover far more than just matters that are reserved in Scotland - much of them will focus on English domestic matters. In so doing, they will utterly confuse Scottish voters, many of whom will undoubtedly assume that what Labour or the Tories are proposing for the NHS or the criminal justice system would have full application in Scotland, whereas of course it would have no application here at all. So this is where the 'common sense' argument completely falls apart - if the format for these debates were being formulated rationally to reflect the way things actually are, there ought to be England-specific debates shown only in England in which the parties set out their policies in the many areas that are utterly irrelevant to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Then there could be equivalent debates shown only in Scotland which reflect the special circumstances that a) we have a four rather than three-party system, and b) only reserved matters are at play here.

But, of course, this being the Anglo-centric UK, such a rational arrangement is probably utterly impossible. In which case, natural fairness demands that some kind of compromise arrangement be agreed that allows the SNP to put their case in the main debates, however inconvenient that may be, and tiresome it may seem, to the 'entitled' few.


  1. It's odd how many simply don't understand the separation between England and Britain, the separation of Scottish politics from English politics and the fact that a lot of areas which will be fought over in England in the next GE are devolved to the Scottish Parliament and don't count in the GE campaign in Scotland.

    They have three leaders planned for the podium because it's legally impossible to keep the Lib-Dems off as they are one of the three parties defined as major parties in England by OFCOM. The preferred option was a head to head with Cameron and Brown as in the US debates.

    What the three broadcasters are doing are taking the impartiality requirements for England and applying them to the entire UK and also assuming that all policies decided in Westminster also apply to the entire UK.

    The broadcasters are doing the old England is Britain is England routine perfectly.

    Either the three broadcasters didn't have the legal resources available to read the OFCOM guidelines which define the SNP as a major party in Scotland and PC as a major party in Wales or they thought they could just ride roughshod over the Scots and the Welsh.

    A large number of what appear to be intelligent people also don't understand that the SNP don't want to be on a UK wide debate they only want to be on any debate broadcast, in Scotland. However the only way to avoid a legal challenge in Scotland is to put Salmond onto a UK wide debate if the Broadcaster can't or doesn't want to do regional broadcasting.

    I don't understand Nick Palmer's reasoning. The SNP candidates for Westminster will be there to decide on UK issues in Westminster not Scottish issues in Hoyrood so he seems to fall into the completely clueless about Scotland, Holyrood and Westminster camp.

    I think a lot of the failure to understand the issues about having three English debates broadcast to the UK is due to viewing England as Britain. Scotland and England are not viewed as pieces of a jigsaw which make up the UK but Scotland is viewed as a province of Britain (Greater England) and Cameron, Clegg, and Brown are going to talk about proper British issues broadcast across Britain with additional Scottish and Welsh provincial debates to iron out the provincial differences from the British baseline.

    To be honest despite all this talk of "deals" I suspect that the SNP are talking with Sky and the others in order to show how they are willing to try and thrash out a deal before they go to a Sherrif and go legal.

  2. Doug, on the 'viewing England as Britain' point, the effect of this will be even more ludicrous in Northern Ireland. Two of the three leaders on the platform will not be putting up candidates in Northern Ireland at all, whereas four of the five main parties that do put up candidates will be completely excluded, essentially giving the 'Conservative and Unionist New Force' a free run. How that can even begin to be justified is beyond me.

  3. I suspect that when the format of the debates was thought out Scotland and Wales may have got a passing thought but that NI was ignored entirely.

    Before the Conservative/UUP pact it would have been three leaders whose parties put up no candidates in NI debating on NI TV and no party in NI would have got an advantage. The debate would have been irrelevant to the NI voters.

    Now the UUP will get the boost of their mainland partner appearing on prime time NI TV while the DUP, SDLP and Sinn Féinn get nothing.

    As you pointed out the big two and a half in England have their sense of entitlement to broadcast across the UK but that sense of entitlement has blinded them to the legal problems of treating the UK and England as indivisible.

    It's not just the SNP the broadcasters will have to recognise in Scotland, it's PC in Wales and the DUP, SDLP and Sinn Féinn in Northern Ireland. All who have a right to impartial political broadcasting in their home countries.

    The debates may simply fall apart as legal challenges to their impartiality come from Scotland, Wales and NI and with the broadcasters inability to regionalise the debates will it make the broadcasts impossible. Even for the terrestial broadcasters who can do regionalisation any English debate which must not cross the border into Scotland, Wales or NI would effectively be restricted to a terrestial broadcast region round London and it would have to be taken off all satellite channels.

    In some ways it makes me angry that they even contemplated the, "three party leaders", format as suitable for broadcast across the whole UK but it might actually be quite amusing to watch a sense of entitlement hit reality.

    The debate about the debates has certainly sorted out those who claim to know about politics in the UK from those who actually do.

  4. His Honour, Ezio Auditore da FirenzeFebruary 17, 2010 at 7:12 PM

    CyberBrits = LOL
    Salmond = Full of debate!