26 April 2010

The Problem with the Scotland Debates

It's interesting how much time and energy has been spent by people lamenting why Alex Salmond wants to take part in the televised debates when there's perhaps another oddity staring them in the face, which was brought home to me yesterday.

Let's take the 'Prime Ministerial Debates' as a basis: the three platform speakers are the elected leaders of their respective parties (well, Gordon Brown was anointed rather than elected, but we'll park that issue for now) and their parties' Prime Ministerial candidates. If the party that was in the best position to form a government found itself without its leader in this election, we'd have one of those occasional 'Yeek!' moments that the UK system occasionally throws up and we'd find ourselves in a situation where the Prime Minister wasn't a member of Parliament. The last time this happened was when Sir Alec Douglas-Home renounced his Peerage on emerging as Leader of the Conservative Party. And the result would be that an MP for a safe seat would suddenly find themselves catapulted to the House of Lords to make way for the PM-designate to stand in a By-Election. Similarly, you have to go back to 1916 to find a time when an incoming PM wasn't actually leading his party. In short, one of those three not being in a position to lead his group of MPs on 7 May would be big news, and someone other than those three emerging to form a Government would be bigger news still.

Compare and contrast with Sunday's Scottish debate. Alex Salmond may not be a candidate, but he is the elected Leader of his Party - a party which is fielding candidates in every Scottish seat. He was the only elected Leader there. And Angus Robertson could have done it too (and did so on STV, remember): he was elected Leader of the Westminster Group by his colleagues and will doubtless be re-elected to that position after the election.

But think about the other three.

There is no Leader of Scottish Labour. Alastair Campbell used to rhetorically ask Tony Blair who the Leader of Scottish Labour was. Blair would reply that Donald Dewar was the Leader, to which Campbell would angrily point out that, no, Tony Blair was the Leader of Scottish Labour. There is a Leader of Labour in the Scottish Parliament, but that's clearly a reduced scope. Jim Murphy is the representative, as Secretary of State for Scotland - but that's a political appointment issued by Gordon Brown. Even if he's re-elected a week on Thursday, then whatever side of the House Labour finds itself on, Murphy could find himself with any portfolio, and for some reason, when I look at him, I see the words 'Work and Pensions'. Murphy could be speaking on anything for Labour come May 7, and by the same token, anyone could be speaking on Scottish matters for Labour then.

Then we come to the Tories: there is a Leader of the Scottish Tories, but it's not David Mundell: it's Annabel Goldie. David Mundell's appointment as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland is derived from his status as being the only Scottish Tory MP (though even that doesn't guarantee him the job - if representing a seat from the relevant nation is a qualification, then there were three candidates for Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, and David Cameron gave the post to none of them, opting instead for Cheryl Gillan). If he's joined by Peter Duncan, then his record as Mundell's predecessor and as a former Chairman of the Scottish Tories might give him the edge. And of course, there were those rumours bouncing around that David Cameron might prefer to ennoble an MSP who would take up the post from the Lords. Arise, Lord McLetchie?

Then there are the LibDems. Again, there is a Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats: Tavish Scott. And it's written into the rulebook that the Leader has to be an MSP. But there is also a President of the Scottish Liberal Democrats: Malcolm Bruce. Instead, we got the LibDems' Shadow Secretary of State - Alastair Carmichael. Now, he had a good performance on Sunday and demonstrated that in the event of a Tory-LibDem Coalition, Messrs Cameron and Clegg could do far worse than to appoint him to the Scotland Office, but the point is that he also derived his presence on that stage from political appointment and nothing more.

And that's the point: three of the four men on the stage on Sunday morning were there because of an appointment by someone else, rather than the full approval of their party members or parliamentary colleagues.

The Party Leaders who put them there could just as easily decide to have someone else in their place tomorrow.

There would be no constitutional 'Yeek!' moment if any or all of them were to lose their seat.

It would not be a major departure if someone who wasn't on the stage at all became Secretary of State for Scotland.

And, come to think of it, there's no guarantee that there will even be a Secretary of State for Scotland at all once a new Government is formed.

So those complaining at Alex Salmond's presence might wish to reflect that he was the only one there with any sort of concrete mandate, the only one there that couldn't be ditched by someone else's whim, which makes it hard to personify the contest for the office: even if the office still exists in a fortnight, there's no guarantee that we saw the next holder.

After all, we're not really electing a Prime Minister in this election: we are electing the people who in effect determine who the PM should be.

So we're certainly not electing a Secretary of State for Scotland: we are electing the people who in effect determine the person who has the right to appoint one.

And there's a reason for independence, in that last paragraph: an independent Scotland could have a constitutional process that didn't descend into an existential discussion of who and what we're actually voting for. More Nats, Fewer Headaches.


DougtheDug said...

There is a simple question:

Why are there Scottish debates?

It's not as if there are additional Scottish policies to argue over as due to devolution the role of the Westminster MP has been reduced not enhanced in Scotland.

They are essentially meaningless except as a bone thrown to the SNP and as a nod to impartiality while keeping the SNP away from the other party leaders on the "UK" debates and even then they don't make up the lost airtime as the other three parties get onto the broadcast as well.

One thing they've shown is that the three English based parties can't even be bothered to pay lip-service to the idea of a "Scottish Party Leader" any more.

If Alex had got onto the main debates there would have been no need for Scottish debates. The broadcasters' philosophy has been to treat the main debates as being relevant to a unitary UK with the Scottish debates as regional overlays on top of that.

The idea of Scotland and England as separate nations just passes them by.

Sophia Pangloss said...

Ye know Mr MacNumpty, ah've had a stunner o' a sair heid aw week, tryin' tae work oot whit wis wrang wi' thae Scottish debates. An' ye've pit yer finger right oan it, fer which ah thank ye.

It disnae make up fer whit they've done wi thae debates, demeanin' an' reducin' oor political currency. Ah couldnae tak me een aff Dave's fluffy hair, Nick's watery een, an' auld Mr Broon's new teeth.

Ah tried tae listen tae whit wis bein' said, but aw ah heard wis violins.

An then Big Alec turns up oan Sky Telly wi' Hen, Joe, an' Horace Broon an' ah thocht, "Here we go again, where's ma puffer?"

Ah thocht ah wis havin' a turn. So ah'm gled ye've helped me mak sense o' it aw.

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