Sunday, March 14, 2010

Demand your voice on the election issues that won't affect you

I gather that during the televised leaders' debates, selected email questions from the public will be asked of the three leaders lucky enough to have the novel and extra-constitutional status of 'Prime Ministerial Candidate' conferred upon them by the broadcasters, in addition to the questions posed by the live studio audience. In which case, could I strongly suggest that it might be a good idea in the debate covering 'domestic' matters for Scottish viewers to send in highly pertinent questions, such as "do you propose to abolish the Scottish Parliament, in order that you will have the chance to implement your health or education policies in Scotland, and if not, why are you talking as if your policies apply to the whole UK?".

You see, we've been constantly told that the reason why it is legitimate to ban one - just one - of Scotland's four principal parties from the three main debates to be shown here is that these are "UK" debates, and as such the programmes must reflect the political balance across the whole UK, not just in Scotland. Of course, this makes a mockery not only of the broadcasting regulations but also of clear-cut precedents spanning decades, but let's just for a moment take this bogus proposition at face value. As Scotland has 9% of the population, and as each debate will be ninety minutes long, it stands to reason that any accurate reflection of the make-up of the UK as a whole necessitates that approximately eight minutes of the domestic debate be taken up with a discussion of the entirely separate situation that exists in Scotland in respect of nearly all the issues to be covered over the course of the evening - namely that the outcome of this election is utterly irrelevant, since the issues concerned are the province of the Scottish Parliament. I must confess I haven't a clue how this could be done with a straight face - perhaps an air of benevolent colonialism could be affected as Scottish viewers ponder how they should exercise their onerous responsibilities for helping to decide the fate of another country's health and education system. Such a scenario would, I freely concede, be "pure Monty Python" (in the immortal words of Charles Wheeler), but it's nevertheless precisely what logic demands. The much more likely alternative - that the entire domestic debate will be conducted under the false premise that the policies being discussed are equally and uniformly relevant to every elector watching, regardless of where they live - means that the broadcasters will be making the basic error of confusing a debate that truly reflects the political reality of the whole UK with one that reflects the political reality of England alone. Simply showing it outside England does not somehow magically confer upon it the status of a "UK debate".

And one thing's for sure - if the Scottish public want to use their right to submit questions as a last-ditch opportunity to put things right and force the Scottish dimension onto the agenda, they'll absolutely have to do it by email, because they'll be banned - literally banned - from taking part in person on the night. Only people who live within thirty miles of the three English venues will be entitled to be part of the studio audience. Call me naive, but I was genuinely flabbergasted when I first heard of this a day or two ago. A few weeks back, it occurred to me to raise the issue of whether the make-up of the audience would be politically balanced (thus including SNP and Plaid supporters) even if the panel itself was not. But I didn't bother, because when I reflected on it for a moment, it seemed self-evident that the broadcasters would put together audiences that reflected the make-up of the UK as a whole, not just England. It would, it seemed clear to me, make a mockery of their whole "UK-wide" logic for excluding the nationalist parties if they followed any other course. But, astonishingly, they have.

So in absolutely every sense of the word, these are English rather than UK debates. The three leaders have been chosen because they are the leaders of the three main parties in England - certainly not the UK, because two of the three will not be standing candidates in any of the eighteen Northern Ireland constituencies. The audience will be selected to form a representative cross-section of the population of England - certainly not the UK, because residents of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be specifically banned from taking part. And the issues up for debate will reflect what is at stake in this election in England - certainly not the UK, because the only issues uniformly at stake throughout all four constituent parts of the country are non-devolved issues.

So, morally at least, it seems the SNP have got the broadcasters pretty much bang to rights over this. All that remains to be seen is whether the law views things in the same way, or indeed whether some compromise can still be reached at this late stage that would head off the unfortunate need for legal action. So far, though, there's precious little sign of progress. Having said that, the SNP did secure a minor, almost comic moral victory by persuading ITV to consider ensuring that their Scotland-specific side-debate is shown throughout the whole of Scotland, not just in the regions covered by STV - by the sounds of it this problem hadn't even occurred to them until the SNP pointed it out! It's difficult to know whether to laugh or cry...


  1. Ezio Auditore McFirenze, Scottish Labour Party PPC for Glasgow Corruption-WestMarch 14, 2010 at 6:38 PM

    James, as a Scot and in particular an SNP supporter, it's about time you learned your place tbh.

    Just sit doon, shut yer mouth and let London sort everything out.

  2. One of the best posts I've ever read James. I will certainly make strong objections to my exclusion and ask what policies Messers Cameron, Clegg and Brown have for education in Scotland.

    It is nothing short of a scandal that we are not to be represented in any way in teh Presidential Debates.

    I don't think we should take this lying down.

    That's the trouble with Britis, and Scots... any old crap does us.

    Congratulations again on a very informative and interesting piece of writing.....

  3. Thanks, Tris! Ezio, yes of course you're right, I'm afraid I've been getting this whole issue a bit out of proportion. Thankfully David Cairns has explained it all to me now, and I feel much calmer. Apparently everything has been agreed, by everybody, and if anyone says anything different they're just a big BULLY.

    I've been so badly led astray.