Wednesday, December 23, 2009

When is a compromise not a compromise?

I've already commented at length in previous months about the cynical attempts to stitch up the televised leaders' debates, the dispute over which now appears to be inexorably moving towards legal action, largely it seems due to the broadcasters' unwillingness to contemplate even the slightest compromise or negotiation over the issue. So I won't go round the houses again, but I can only shake my head in disbelief at the way this Scotsman article falls hook, line and sinker for the convenient spin from the other parties that the SNP are trying to 'censor' the debate in some way. If Nick Clegg was being denied fair access to the debate, and the Liberal Democrats sought to remedy that through the courts, would they be seeking to 'censor' the debate? No, they'd be seeking fair access. Same for the SNP. If the London-based parties lack the imaginative capacity to even conceive of a fair four-cornered debate, that's their own deficiency, and shouldn't lead to silly jibes about censorship. "A debate of four? What's "four"? Our counting system only goes up to three - anything else must mean the same as zero."

But, says Tavish, there is a sort of reason for shamelessly discriminating against one - just one - of Scotland's four main parties. The other three party leaders are all "candidates for Prime Minister". And, pray tell Tavish, what precisely is a candidate for Prime Minister in a parliamentary system? When does the ballot for electing the Prime Minister take place? I had naively thought that we elected members of Parliament and then the Queen appointed the parliamentarian best able to command a majority in the House. That parliamentarian could be the leader of a majority party, or of a minority party. He or she could be the leader of a party that stood in a majority of seats, or a minority. He or she could theoretically be the leader of a very small party at the head of a complex coalition, as happens in many other countries. Indeed, he or she need not even be the leader of a party at all (the most recent example being Winston Churchill when he was first appointed). That's the constitutional position. So on that basis Nick Clegg is no more or less a "candidate for Prime Minister" than, say, Angus Robertson.

But perhaps Tavish is not relying on constitutional theory (for his sake, let's hope not) and instead is more interested in a debate between the individuals who have a "realistic chance" of becoming PM. Just one rather large snag, though - that would also rule out Nick Clegg. Some might say it would rule out Gordon Brown as well.

At the end of the Scotsman article are a couple of peculiar observations from politics academic Thomas Lundberg. He suggests that the threat of legal action is a "bit silly" because there is a "reasonable compromise" already on offer - by which he means the additional debates for the Scottish leaders. Perhaps he is unaware that those debates have been taking place (from memory) at every election since at least 1992, and would undoubtedly have taken place again this time anyway? Offering that up as some kind of "compromise" is rather akin to offering someone a compensation payment - but then deducting it from his own wages. The only genuine compromise it seems to me is to allow the SNP and Plaid Cymru a right to reply to the main debates they've been excluded from in a special programme to which the other Scottish and Welsh leaders are not invited. The only credible way to correct the outrageous imbalance of one programme is with another programme that is unbalanced in the other direction.

Additionally, Thomas Lundberg suggests that the proposal for additional Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish debates is fully in line with what happens in Canada. I'd be very intrigued to know if that's actually true, because I can certainly recall hearing about nationwide leaders' debates in Canada in which Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois participated on an absolutely equal basis with all the other national political leaders (Conservative, Liberal, NDP). Simple question - if Gilles Duceppe is a national party leader in Canada, in precisely what sense is Alex Salmond (or Angus Robertson) not in the UK?


  1. clearly the crass attempt to call it PM debates when we do not vote for apm in aconstitiutional monarchy was a way to get labour to agree; marginalising ukip, the greens, PC and the SNP in the process.
    i think the bbc in scotland have agreed to this knowing these actions are against the charter, but additional bias from their london centric masters is not unusual.
    the ps[pouting in the media about the snp bei g irrelevant should be seen in this light. labour cannot have the snop at 34% winning seats, they need to hold them at 26% to keep the seat numbetrs down. and wall to wall saturated coverage, suggesting an snp vot eis a wasted vote will perhaps achieve that, with tavish demanding his spot at the big table for the squib dums.
    a PM debate between cameron and brown would be wrong; what has beenm suggested as atravesty of democracy and when it wa sgareed an dwho agreed this needs to be flushed out. i smell douglas alexander all over this, but who else?

  2. The whole idea of a presidential style debate is wrong in our country, mainly because, as has been said above, we don't have a president. We elect MPs based on what we think is best for our area and the country as a whole. (Of course in the majority of constituencies the result is a foregone conclusion, because of the voting system, but that's another argument.)

    It works in America, because there are two people up for the Presidency. The presidency has nothing to do with other parts of the government. The states are equal partners in the federation, in that they all have the same law making powers. Here the Prime Ministers is a part of the parliament, and the constituent parts of the UK are all entirely different and have varying degrees of independence from the ventral UK government. (England has the least, Scotland the most.)

    In a debate in America, every issue addressed at the debate will have equal importance in states as diverse as Alaska and Hawaii, Montana and Rhode Island, New York and Louisiana. Here most of the questions posed and answered in the debate will have no relevance in Scotland (for example). Questions on Health, Education, Legal System, Courts, Policing, Environment, Local Authorities, Power, Farming, Fisheries, Care of the Elderly... and so on, many of the issues that will be of interest to electors, will be English only, or English and Welsh issues. To take a topical issue, what do the party leaders say about University Funding? We know what Mr Mandleson feels, but as usual the BBC forgot to mention this morning when it was reporting the massive cut in finding, that this was an England only situation. This is but one example of hundreds.

    It’s another example of them trying to be Little America, bumping themselves up in importance. When will they learn that we are not America, and that they are not Presidents.

  3. The most interesting thing in the discussion about the debates is the metropolitan myopia of the broadcasters, journalists and the many bloggers and commenters who are against the SNP.

    For Scots like Tavish, it's not myopia, it's just the usual blind hatred of the SNP coming through but it's got the same effect. They haven't looked at the SNP's case to be on the broadcasts in Scotland.

    The number of party election broadcasts a party gets in Scotland are worked out in the context of a party's electoral performance in Scotland, not across the UK and this is also done for Wales, Northern Ireland and England.

    OFCOM recognises the disparate national nature of the party setups across the UK and gives the SNP and PC major party status in Scotland and Wales and the guidelines are not based on a unitary UK.

    The three-way leaders debate is a multi-party election broadcast and it's been based on the OFCOM defined three major parties in England. What the broadcasters have done is tried to apply the English rules on impartiality on a UK wide basis.

    Nobody out there in metropolitan land really seems to understand that the SNP is not demanding to be on the UK wide broadcasts but only on the debates broadcast in Scotland and that any rules on political impartiality which apply will be applied in a Scottish context where the SNP are defined as a major party.

    If a Judge rules that a three party broadcast is illegal in Scotland then Sky will have to switch it off because they can't do regional broadcasting, the BBC and ITV will have to Switch off Northern Ireland and Northern England in case any signal leaks across to Scotland and if it is ruled illegal in Wales then the only place it will be seen will be in South East England on terrestrial regional transmitters.

    The broadcasters should really have talked to the SNP and to PC before they started hyping the debates.

  4. Perhaps he is unaware that those debates have been taking place (from memory) at every election since at least 1992, and would undoubtedly have taken place again this time anyway? Offering that up as some kind of "compromise" is rather akin to offering someone a compensation payment - but then deducting it from his own wages.

    Is it not what Calman also offered?

  5. Doug the Dug - I absolutely agree. Another precedent is the Question Time leaders' specials in both 2001 and 2005, which it was felt essential to balance out with an equivalent programme broadcast in Scotland with the SNP leader alone. The idea that the Scottish Labour, Lib Dem and Tory leaders should also have taken part in that programme would have been absurd, and it's equally absurd in this case.

    There were similar hour-long leaders' debates on ITV in 2005, and in that case there were four broadcast across the whole UK - one of which was split 50/50 between Alex Salmond and Ieuan Wyn Jones of Plaid Cymru. So, however inconvenient it is for the broadcasters and the London parties, the precedents here are absolutely clear.