Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Excluding the SNP is unfair and undemocratic.

    The Scottish National Party has every right to feel aggrieved at being excluded from the proposed televised debates involving the three UK leaders during the forthcoming general election campaign.  The problem is what to do about it.  It is manifestly unfair for not one,  but three ninety minute debates to be shown in Scotland without the party of government in Scotland being represented.   Quite apart from the unfairness, the important Scottish dimension will be completely lost as the three UK leaders debate English health, English education, English policing and other issues like nuclear power and university tuition fees as they affect England.  Does anyone seriously believe that Brown, Cameron and Clegg are going to debate these issues as they apply to Scotland?  Of course not.

   I am not making a narrow nationalist point here.  It is, or should be, obvious to any fair minded person that this is a distortion of the democratic process in Scotland. Unfortunately, it is a very difficult problem to resolve.  Clearly, shoe-horning Alex Salmond into these debates will bemuse the vast majority of viewers who live in England.  Clearly, Alex Salmond has no chance of becoming UK leader.  His presence therefore, would be an unwarranted intrusion into the English political debate.

  But  if it is unacceptable to transmit these debates in England with Salmond, it is equally unacceptable to transmit them in Scotland without him.  There is no easy way round this, and I think it should be tested by law.  An important precedent will be established with profound implications for custom and practice of broadcasting during elections.   I suspect the SNP will not go to law far because they have little likelihood of overturning the UK networks who will fight fiercely against any attempt to block the transmissions.  But I still hope they try.

  Really, the only fair and representative solution would be for the debates not to be transmitted in Scotland or for there to be as four way debate north of the border including the UK and SNP leaders. Clearly, Brown, Cameron and Clegg are not going to want that, but they may just have to accept it.  They have agreed to have three separate debates to suit the demands of the three UK television    channels - well, the least they can do is suit the demands of the devolved United Kingdom.

   Unionists have been crowing at the thought of Alex Salmond being excluded from these debates, but they should have a care.  This kind of thing does not go down well in Scotland, where voters have an acute sense of fairness and democratic propriety.  I suspect many Scottish viewers will resent the way the SNP has been excluded, and more to the point, will resent the way Scottish issues are largely ignored, as they are on network television bulletins.  These broadcasts could do severe damage to the Unionist case in Scotland, and the SNP know it.

   The UK parties should think again.


Douglas McLellan said...

Sorry but I have to disagree. Alex Salmond should not be on the same platform as the other three leaders as he does not aspire to be what they want to be - Prime Minister of the UK. He is not even staning in the UK Parliament.

However, the BBC can offer additional debates in Scotland and Wales for Nationalist parties to go up against other party leaders (eg Tavish Scott is the Scottish Leader of the Lib Dems)/Scottish Parliament representatives (Iain Gray is not a party leader).

Whilst the debates will cover issues that are devolved to Scotland they will also cover issues such as International Policy and Defence which are not. I will be voting on those issues and will not be happy if the SNP seek to deny me access to the debates.


Gavin T.D. Greig said...

Douglas, the election isn't about making a Prime Minister. It's about electing MPs to represent our local constituencies. In their wisdom (ahem), they will choose a Prime Minister for us.

In the real world of course, many/most/all voters will personally be taking "Who will be Prime Minister?" into account, but for institutions to focus too much on that view distorts our electoral system.

Within Scotland, the SNP are a completely valid choice for your local MP, and currently it would seem they're even the most popular one in polling.

As such, they have as much right for their chosen representative to be in a TV debate during an election as any other party - perhaps more, if you are swayed by the argument that popularity levels should be taken into account before the real poll (e.g. "let's have the three 'main' leaders on."). You can reasonably criticise them for putting up someone who's not standing, but that's their choice.

BellgroveBelle said...

Very well put, particularly the point about devolved issues.

I'm very concerned by the potential for confusion, and there's not much way of getting around it - unless they intend to have a scrolling message across the bottom of the screen saying "does not apply in Scotland".

The Lib Dems, with their federal policies, could also get into a bit of bother!

Douglas McLellan said...

Gavin, I take your point about who elects a Prime Minister as opposed to who the electorate are voting for. Mind you, the ballot "Alex Salmond for First Minister" entry on the list seats ballot in 2007 means that the SNP cant use that partiulcar arguement as it is actually the Scottish Parliament that chooses the First Minister. If it is good enough for the SNP, its good enough for my line of thought.

I agree that they are doing well in the polls and will probably do ok (though not as well as they think) in the elections.

That said, I disagree that they have a 'right' to be part of a UK leaders debate. Who is the SNP candidate in Carlisle or Exeter? What will Alex Salmond or Tavish Scott offer the people of Faversham & Mid Kent (Alex and Tavish are party leaders, Iain is a leader in a Parliament so offers even less)?

They have a clear and obvious role to play in any Scottish televised debate but any attempt, including legal or standard SNP whinging, to foist themselves on the UK debate will just show them to be immature and churlish.

Richard Thomson said...

The general election elects MPs - the balance of MPs determine who becomes PM. Scottish voters are surely entitled to see, at least once, how Cameron, Brown and Clegg debate alongside the party which is in government in Scotland and which could well end up exercising a considerable influence in the event of a hung parliament.

If the broadcasters can't find a way of conducting these debates in a manner which reflects the political diversity which exists within the UK and without breaching their legal obligations to impartiality, it really doesn't say much for the prospects of the UK being able to hold together very much longer.

Ian Campbell said...

The proposal is a scandal. We do not elect Presidents in the UK. Why should the leaders of three parties will falling membership rolls get 3 x 90 mins airtime if that is what is proposed? It is not just the SNP and Plaid who are omitted - what about UKIP, the English Democrats, the Greens, even the BNP? It is already difficult for them to win seats in our outdated 'First Past the Post' system and this would further enhance the dominance of the two 'ruling parties' and the 'nearly-party'. Let them have ONE debate and share out the other two with the smaller parties.

Anonymous said...

Gordon Brown is walking straight into a trap. Blinded by his current UK poll deficit and his inbred obsession with gaining tactical advantage over the SNP, he can't see that he is about to put everything that is unsustainable about the devolved settlement into full public glare just at the time he needs to close down such talk.

If this goes ahead then he will have done the SNP's major strategic job in the build up to the election for them - effectively providing a specificallly Scottish dimension to a UK-wide election and a dimension which Labour are clearly on the wrong side of at that.

Iain is right - this will likely backfire badly on Labour in Scotland except in areas where they are reliant on the 'dunderheid' vote.

As for Cameron and Clegg, I'm sure they understand the implications but, the bottom line is, they simply don't care about the future of Scotland within the union because its continuance is, at best, neutral to their career prospects and, at worst, detrimental.

ratzo said...

Here's a good comment on this:


Anonymous said...

I think weneed to consider that the bulk of the points that will be raised in these debates will not pertain in Scotland.

Heath, education, law, crime, local authorities, fire, police, planning, environment, agriculture fisheries... all of these things will have no relevance whatsoever to us. I can’t see them being discussed, because the people concerned in the discussion have no remit, and in any case, after the election regardless of who gets in, the SNP will still form the government in Scotland. Labour may be able to influence the government in Wales, but it can’t do anything about Edinburgh.

The Westminster parliament is indeed the UK parliament, but it is also the English Parliament, and it deals with all the matters above... for England. The law is different there.

We are told that the leader of Plaid to SNP cannot be the Prime Minister of the UK and that is why they and others cannot be included. Of course that’s true, but it’s pretty much stretching the imagination to believe that Nick Clegg, nice lad though he is, is in the running for that job.

In a way, it’s a storm in a tea cup. Only political anoraks would consider watching these three for an hour and a half at a time, (especially with the dreary establishment figure Dimbleby. Why not some journalistic heavyweights like John Humphries, Sue McGregor or James Nauchty?).

wee folding bike said...

Brown may be hoping that legal challenges block the debates. Then he can claim that he was willing to do it and the Sec of State for Scotland can blame the SNP for wrecking the show.

gl said...

You are utterly correct about the only way to solve the problem being to not broadcast the debate in Scotland and to do a separate programme for Scottish viewers.

If they push ahead the concession to make is to allow SNP and Plaid to address issues raised following the broadcast (with a presenter i.e. so not direct access to audience)

SNP may be successful on the legal side of things, to deny impartiality that allows voters to understand their democratic environment and freedom of expression of the main parties in Scotland wouldn't stand up to article 10 tests in recent ECtHr cases

DougtheDug said...

There is no problem about what to do about the proposal to have three three-party election broadcasts in Scotland which exclude the SNP. You propose the solution yourself. Scotland has a four party debate, Wales has a four party debate, the Northern Irish parties have their own debate and England has a three-party debate.

In each case all of the OFCOM defined major parties for that nation get to be on the debate together.

It might be a difficult problem to resolve technically where each debate is geographically restricted but not in terms of its legality or fairness. If the networks can't ensure that each nation gets its own debate then they can't be held. It only becomes a problem in the minds of those who insist that the debates go ahead regardless of the fact that they flout the rules of political impartiality in Scotland, Wales and NI.

I don't understand the repeated assertion that Alex Salmond can't be on the debates because he has no chance of being PM. Nick Clegg has no chance of being PM and he's been invited onto the platform. He's there because that's the only way to ensure the debate follows the rules of political impartiality in England and that the three major parties defined there get on the platform. The fact that the SNP and PC and the NI parties are defined as major parties in Scotland, Wales and NI seems to have passed the organisers by. It's one rule for Clegg but another for Salmond.

I also don't understand why the SNP are bound to fail if it comes to court. Are you saying that the judge will not make a decision based purely on the rules for assigning broadcast time to political parties in Scotland and on the OFCOM and BBC guidelines and that the networks will hold sway over his decision? In a decision like this I suspect that any judge will look closely at the rules and any precedents to ensure his judgment is bomb-proof.

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.

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 it comes to court then the SNP will have an excellent case to present to the judge.

eric said...

A thoughtful piece by Ian McWhirter and quite a few useful comments too, if I may say.

It seems that televised debates amongst major party leaders are to become regular fare at election time - that's going to exclude minor parties (such as the Greens) as noted above, I guess. I suspect that'll stand up in court, too. It's likely that the Lib Dems won't be forming a government, but they won't concede that and they will be putting up candidates in all constituencies.

More important is what is best for Scotland (and, of course, the other constituent UK nations). I think there's a will amongst all parties to overcome the technical trickinesses presented here. Perhaps it's simply to allow major parties (including, obv, the SNP in Scotland) to put up whoever they like for the Scottish debate/s which will no doubt take place.
It's important to sort this out, as Ian Mc suggests, in a way that's fair. I'd certainly prefer Gordon Brown should take part in Scotland (although Jim Murphy is a very accomplished speaker indeed).

But what of the UK version of the debates? First off, many Scots will have access and it might not be a good idea to seek to discriminate on the basis of what TV viewing platform people use - this would affect the least well-off most.

And orth saying that (and as an MP perhaps I would say this) even in the devolved policy areas what happens at Westminster is profoundly important for Scotland, since the spending assumptions made at UK level have direct implications for Scotland and other issues, such as UK-wide public sector pay agreements, often have pretty much close to direct read-across. The US has no difficulty with these issues when it comes to electing folk to Congress and Senate (which doesn't control much in the way of state microeconomic policy), so perhaps it's time for us in Scotland to recognise this too.

In truth, most Scots get most of this stuff and it seems to me (for what that's worth) that TV debates won't be deal-makers or breakers in any case.

eric said...

re; my last, I seem to have accidentally anonymised. I'm eric joyce (http://ericjoycemp.wordpress.com).

voiceofourown said...

Eric, whilst I agree that policy for the Rest of UK has financial consequences for the devolved parliaments, it is merely the 'bottom line' which is important. The discussions of competing policies which will not be applied in Scotland (or NI or Wales) will be at best confusing and at worst misleading.
Also, the debates might not be deal breakers or makers, but they seem to me to be an attempt to cement the hegemony of the major UK parties. We are being offered the choice of '2 cheeks of the same arse' (with perhaps the LibDems playing the puckered porta in the middle?)

freescotlandnow said...

If the debate goes ahead as planned it will prove that both Scotland and Wales are irrelevant to a British election.

If major parties in Scotland and Wales can be arbitarily excluded from a pre-election debate then it shows that both countries simply do not count.

This is of course the simple truth as Scotland is outvoted by a factor of 10-1, and Wales is outvoted by 20-1 in the British parliament. We are therefore quite irrelevant to the process of choosing the next UK Prime Minister, but is it necessarily wise to rub this fact in our face?

While Brown and his acolytes (and even the fake 'federalist' Lib Dems) will be rubbing their hands with glee at pulling a fast one over the SNP (by getting a big advantage in TV network time) I suspect the public will be less impressed.

Few people in reality will witness these debates and fewer still will be impressed by the 'choice' on offer. There is not much to choose between any of the British parties, let's face it.

Most of all however it will show that, in the final analysis, Scotland's opinions simply do not matter in the British set up.

The answer to that problem is a very simple one.

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