Scottish Leaders Debate, GE 2017

Few thoughts.

1. Content nobbled by format

As debate…it really wisnae very good. Just about adequate in a Question Time sort of way. As usual, the format itself worked against any development of theme or rhythm, against exposition, exploration, explanation, lyricism. In other words, against anything which one would hope to hear in public speaking. A 45-second opener is barely enough time to read a tweet or a slogan. It certainly isn’t enough time to present a statement of principle or intent.

The halfway break did just that: broke the debate in half, killing any momentum which might have been generated. The contributions then, and in the post-match analysis, were entirely predictable and added nothing to our understanding. All they did was pad out the time slot.

Public debate is supposed to present arguments, test them, and see if the audience can be persuaded. What we saw was an absence of argument – argument in the sense of an overarching narrative to which individual elements could be related. Instead we got bad temper. I can’t imagine anyone, of any persuasion or party affiliation, coming away from this debate feeling anything but grubby and irritated. And I guarantee no-one will have been persuaded to reconsider their opinion.

There was also a near-total absence of wit – bar Nicola’s line about Ruth Davidson banging on about about independence so much she was barely able to get a word in about it herself.

That said, it wasn’t the horrifying car crash of the first Darling-Salmond debate during indyref#1, and Sarah Smith did work to keep them from talking over one another. This is very small praise.

2. The wrong people were on the platform

As a forum for testing the Scottish Government’s record, it showed potential. I’d quite like to see members of the Scottish Government – hell, every government – having to face unscripted questions from the public in open session like this from time to time. I don’t say it should be the basis of democracy, because that’s why Parliament exists. But it would be a useful adjunct, and help to keep both politicians and the public on their toes.

But this was supposed to be a General Election debate, and it was supposed to the be the Westminster government answering tough questions on its performance. That was exactly what we didn’t get. We got a Scottish Parliament hustings instead.

In a way it’s a tough gig. The unionist parties are always going to be schizophrenic: playing to one audience in Scotland, a different one on the UK stage. And of course, Scotland remains (for the present) part of that wider stage. It’s far easier to consider Scotland as one thing, and the UK as everything south of the border – in other words, to treat Scotland as if it were already independent.

The unionists’ dilemma is currently presented in stark form by Labour-Tory opposition in England and Wales, and Labour-Tory cooperation in Scotland. Some might decry this as hypocrisy, certainly if one holds any faith in the Labour values of Clause IV. But removed from political loyalties or bias – if we try thinking about them simply as party A and party B – it’s a case of different political climates, cultures, constituencies. The question is whether parties which behave like this have effectively declared their independence from London.

Given how far Scottish politics has diverged from Westminster’s, how difficult it has become to think of Scotland as a subset of the UK (which is a measure of the success of the Scottish Parliament and of the SNP governments), the debate was always going to have a tendency to pull towards purely Scottish concerns, as opposed to Scotland-in-Britain. With this lineup, it was inevitable.

None of the six are current MPs. Only Willie Rennie even has any experience of being an MP. We should have had Fluffy to defend the government of which he is the official mascot, Angus Robertson to lay out in clear detail the contempt with which Scotland has been treated, Ian Murray to point out which way the wind is blowing at any given moment, Alistair Carmichael to defend the existence of Alistair Carmichael, plus, presumably, Coburn and Patrick Harvie.

It’s a Westminster election. We should have had Scottish representatives who could speak of, from and about Westminster. We didn’t even have one.

3. The gardening programme

All of the above assumes bona fides on the part of the BBC. I said there was always going to be a pull towards Scottish issues. The BBC should have resisted that pull. Instead it steered the debate firmly towards them.

Some Yessers have commented darkly about the BBC planting unionists in the audience. In fact it was worse than that. Plants are supposed to give the impression of being random members of Joe Public, while having been placed in secret to further a particular agenda. The BBC was quite open about it.

As soon as a question about devolved issues came up, Sarah Smith should have said, ‘I’m sorry, I understand it’s a question of great interest and concern, but it’s a devolved matter and so it’s not appropriate to discuss it in this forum.’ Instead, the BBC deliberately selected those questions to be asked and claimed the defence of overwhelming public interest.

Presumably if there’d been an overwhelming public interest in discussing the fortunes of Patrick Thistle they’d have allowed that, too.

4. In summary

A bad debate with the wrong people about the wrong issues.

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