Just over a month ago, I got embroiled in a mild stooshie over at PoliticalBetting.com that trundled on for so long it almost rivalled my delightful encounter with the Kevin Baker Fan Club. (Well, perhaps not.) It began when I suggested that any political leaders’ debate that is televised in Scotland in a general election campaign must, as a simple matter of fairness, include the leaders of all four major parties in Scotland, not merely three of the four as the broadcasters seem to be proposing. This would, of course, be fully in line with the long-established principle that we see applied to Party Election Broadcasts in Scotland, where all four parties receive fair broadcasting time, not just the three London-based parties.
I was of course fully prepared for the fact that my suggestion was, to put it mildly, unlikely to attract broad support on PB.com, which is after all a heavily Conservative-dominated forum. What did startle me, however, was the utter incredulity that my comment provoked. Many posters seemed to struggle to understand (or perhaps they were determined not to) the rather simple proposition I was putting forward. “What, you think the SNP can ban the British public from watching a British debate?” was a frequent disbelieving response. No, I tried to explain patiently, I merely think that any debate shown in Scotland should feature the leaders of all four parties, and if the broadcasters fail to adhere to this obviously fair principle, the debate should not be screened in Scotland. If needs be, I added, the SNP would most certainly take legal action to ensure this was the case – a suggestion that provoked a degree of mirth. A self-styled ‘expert’ (I’m not quite sure on what) popped up to assure me I didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. I reminded him that the complacent ‘experts’ in London had been, to put it mildly, somewhat stunned by a Scottish court’s decision to ban the screening of an interview with John Major a week before local elections in 1995. They had been similarly stunned by the ruling in the run-up to the 2000 Falkirk West by-election that ITV’s programme ‘Ask the Prime Minister’ had breached the requirement for fair coverage of all parties.
Still the airy dismissals continued unabated. “I think you’ll find the broadcasters are planning debates for the Scottish party leaders” a number said, with a tone of ‘well that’s dealt with that, let’s move on’. Yes, I replied – additional debates, which can’t possibly balance out the SNP’s exclusion from the main debates. “What, are you actually saying that Alex Salmond should be debating Brown and Cameron?” I was asked incredulously. Er, yes, of course that’s what I’m saying. And at that point, naturally, we arrived at the last, faithful line of defence – “the main debates are only for the leaders who actually have a chance of becoming Prime Minister of the United Kingdom,” a number of posters sniffed. What, like Nick Clegg? “Yes, because the Liberal Democrats contest seats across the United Kingdom, so in theory he has the chance to become Prime Minister.” But the Liberal Democrats do no such thing, and nor do the Labour party – neither contest seats in Northern Ireland. If this is supposed to be a debate for the leaders of parties who contest seats across the United Kingdom, we’re all going to be watching a David Cameron monologue. “Well, they contest far more seats than the SNP anyway. Do you think an SNP leader is going to become Prime Minister by contesting 59 seats?” Well, in a parliamentary system, actually yes he could. Parties do not need to win (or contest) a majority of seats to either form a minority government or to form part of a governing coalition. Highly unlikely to happen in the SNP’s case – but if Nick Clegg only needs an ‘in theory’ chance to become PM to qualify for the debate, shouldn’t exactly the same principle apply to the SNP leader? No real response to that question, just increasing murmurs that the whole discussion was becoming rather tiresome.
Well, they’d better get used to it being such a bore, because exactly as I predicted, as soon as debates became a serious prospect last night the SNP indicated that they would take steps to ensure that any debate excluding their leader would not be screened in Scotland. Of course it remains to be seen whether I or the self-styled ‘expert’ will be proved right, but it looks like we might well have our ‘day in court’ to find out one way or the other.
And the UK-wide impact of the debates, should they take place? In 1992, John Major turned down a challenge issued by both Neil Kinnock and Paddy Ashdown to take part in a TV debate, on the grounds that “every leader who expects to lose demands a debate, every leader who expects to win declines the offer”. Given the 1992 result, it seems Major may have had a point. In which case, oddly enough, logic would suggest that the leader playing the riskier game here is David Cameron.