24 December 2009

The Telly Box

It would remiss of me to enter the festive season without a few words on the Leaders' Debates. So here they are.

My personal view is that whoever is invited, they will generate far more heat than light, little of consequence will emerge from them, and unless David Cameron uses his allotted speaking time to disembowel a kitten, they won't serve to change anyone's opinion: rather, they will serve to bolster opinions already held, and everyone who has a stake in proceedings will claim that their guy has won.

However, the fact is that they are a reality. Or will be, at least.

So then, the questions are, should the SNP be there, and who should represent it?

To the first question, my answer is that in some form, yes it should. The idea of tacking some form of interview with a representative on at the end of the programme sounds pretty dreadful. One, everyone will have switched off by then (so what's the point?), and two, the whole point of having a debate rather than a set of interviews is that the participants can engage with each other. Chatting to Alex Salmond or anyone else about the issues raised after Brown, Cameron and Clegg have left the building is of no use to anyone.

And for me, the reasons are as follows:

Firstly, whatever the main UK parties may sniff about the SNP, it is relevant at the very least to Scottish voters, who will have an SNP option on the ballot paper. Indeed, more people exercised that option than the Tory one at the last General Election in Scotland, yet David Cameron's place is a given. They are no less viable as Parliamentary representatives than any other candidates. And, at the end of the day, that is who we're electing despite the Presidential nature of this debate. Accordingly, to dismiss a key political player in one part of the Union as irrelevant is complacent and insulting. If you take the few that this event is valuable to voters, then Scottish voters deserve to get the full value, and see the full choice available to them.

Secondly, it's useful even for non-Scottish voters, whatever the outcome of the election. Even if the SNP simply stood still at this Election, and even if David Cameron were returned to office with a healthy majority, it's still Parliament and MPs who call the shots. Therefore, SNP MPs could still have a stake in that. After all, Blair's 2001 majority was reduced to just 25 on Foundation Hospitals, and just five on Top-Up Fees. And the moderately-sized majority won in the 2005 Election was wiped out over terror detention, where in the end, Northern Ireland's DUP had a 'casting vote'. And there was Major's reliance on the UUP at the fag-end of his Premiership, to say nothing of Callaghan's government falling on the basis of an Independent Northern Irish MP opting to go home rather than vote to support the administration. What that means is that it surely isn't inconceivable that the SNP could find themselves in a position to tip the balance (particularly with the outcome of the next election becoming less certain rather than more) and as such, the people of the entire UK have a right to know how the SNP will affect them. If you believe that these debates will be informative, then the public of the entire Union has a right to be informed as to the SNP's intentions. What better place than the main showpiece?

Then there's the idea that to invite the SNP is to be forced to invite the Greens, UKIP and even the BNP. Not necessarily, because there's one key criterion which the SNP meets that the others do not: they are a Parliamentary reality, with MPs already in place. The others don't have that and the system is stacked against that happening. If Nick Clegg's place is a given, when the best he can probably hope for is to be Kingmaker, then the idea that they of all people can show contempt to other Parliamentary supporting acts and demand that they have no place in any debate is utterly hypocritical.

Finally, who should represent the SNP? Simple: Alex Salmond. And here's why: the other parties are complaining that Alex Salmond isn't a candidate in this election. That's true: his name will not be on any ballot paper in a General Election. But Gordon Brown's name will only appear on ballot papers in the Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath constituency; David Cameron's name will only be on papers in Witney; and people will only be able to vote for Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam. In the remaining constituencies, voters will have to make do with their chosen party's candidate.

So why, then, are Brown, Cameron and Clegg the players in this debate? It's simple: in the upcoming election, candidates will be nominated by the parties to stand on their manifesto, and Brown, Cameron and Clegg are the Leaders of their respective parties. SNP candidates will have been nominated by SNP members to stand on the SNP Manifesto, and Alex Salmond is the SNP Leader. That no one will be able to vote for him is irrelevant: hardly anyone will be able to vote for the other three, and where they do, they'll only be able to vote for one of them and that will be to decide whether they should be their local MP - not necessarily Prime Minister!

So if we're going to have a debate, then the SNP should have a part to play in it: they will, after all, have a part to play in the Election and a part to play in the Commons after it has taken place. And as the democratically-elected Leader of the SNP, it is Alex Salmond's right to play that part.


Clairwil said...

I agree entirely. Sadly this seems typical of the UK media who regard Scotland as a wee pretendy region, rather than a significant part of the United Kingdom.

Still the debates are going to be bloody tedious aren't they.

DougtheDug said...

The reason the SNP should be on the debate is more than simple relevancy to Scottish voters. It's a mistake to view these debates only from a UK frame reference. The Lib-Dems, Labour and the Conservatives are classed as major parties across the UK by OFCOM which gives them automatic rights to Party Election Broadcasts. However in Scotland OFCOM also class the SNP as a major party, Plaid Cymru in Wales and the various parties in Ireland.

The current qualification for a PEB on TV is based not on how a party does in the UK but how a party does in Scotland, Wales, NI or England. So the current rules for PEB's and OFCOM's guidelines recognise the internal national boundaries in the UK and allocate status and airtime accordingly. A three way debate rides roughshod right across all previous practice.

The Lib-Dems are on the debate because the broadcasters knew they had to be present as one of the major parties in England. What the broadcasters forgot is that the SNP are classed as a major party in Scotland and PC in Wales. Therefore for any debate broadcast in Scotland the SNP have to be on there as well. The mistake many commentators make is to assume that the SNP will be arguing their case for inclusion on a UK basis when in fact it will be argued on the guidelines and rules which inform current practice for election broadcasting in Scotland. It's nothing about being the Government in Scotland or Salmond being a party leader it's all about how PEB's are currently allocated in Scotland and the OFCOM and BBC guidelines on political impartiality as they apply to Scotland.

The debate has been set up to conform with the OFCOM defined major party status of the big three. In other words the broadcasters have taken the impartiality rules which apply to England and tried to apply them across the UK.

I think the SNP will have a very good case to block the broadcasts in Scotland unless the Scottish broadcasts of the debate include Alex Salmond.