Alex Massie

Shock: the SNP are Right to Complain About the Debates

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No-one should be surprised that the SNP are going to court to try and change the terms and conditions of this week's final "Leaders' Debate". What may be more surprising is that the Nationalists have a point. A limited point perhaps but a palpable one nonetheless. The BBC would indeed seem to be abandoning its commitment (questionable at the best of times anyway, mind) to "balance" and "fairness" by broadcasting the debates in Scotland (and Wales) without any nationalist involvement.

It is not a satisfactory situation. Nor, however is the proposed SNP solution: include an SNP politician in the BBC debate. It is hard to see what value this would add for English viewers who do, after all, make up 85% of the electorate. I suspect, mind you, that the SNP's actual preference would be for the debate not to be screened by BBC Scotland but that they've pursued this other argument for fear of being "framed" as chippy wee buggers who want to deny you the right to see the leading (though not only!) candidates to be the next Prime Minister. Hence the argument that they should be included in this last talk-fest.

The problem with this is that including the SNP in these debates would be akin to including, in the American example, a candidate who was only on the ballot in five states. Even if he were able to command a plurality of the vote in those states, they'd still only be five states. Now you may object that we elect a parliament not a Prime Minister but that boat is already sailing - for better or for worse. (A bit of both, to be honest.)

Fortunately there is an obvious and easy solution to the Scottish Debate Problem: there should have been a fourth debate* in which the SNP (and Plaid Cymru) were also invited to participate alonside Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg. Debates between Jim Murphy, David Mundell and Angus Robertson are all very well but they're not quite the Champions League are they?

It's not as if there aren't plenty of issues worth discussing. Voters in Scotland and Wales could be forgiven for wondering what Cameron and Brown and Clegg think about post-devolution relationships, more powers for Wales, the future of the block grant and the West Lothian Question, plus the Calman Commission and a referendum on independence. Plus, you know, all the other issues that don't necessarily have anything to do with constitutional arrangements.

As I say, voters in Wales and Scotland have a good case for feeling ignored or overlooked by the BBC (and, for that matter, by much of the campaign too.)

The SNP have a valid complaint but their solution is equally flawed. An extra debate involving the party leaders and not their subalterns is probably the best of all possible answers. Something to remember if - as is not certain - these debates become a fixture of the British political scene. 

For more on all this see Kenneth Roy and Joan McAlpine.

UPDATE: I should also have said that we do things oddly in this country. Take Canada for instance. There they managed to include five leaders in their debates including the leader of the Bloc Quebecois and the Green Party. As best I can tell this caused little to no controversy. Then again, it's Canada...

Relatedly: has David Cameron even been to either Scotland or Wales yet? I know that he was unable to get a train to come to the launch of the Scottish manifesto but have not heard whether he's planning even a brief visit north of the border to "make up" for missing that glittering event and spectacle. Has Brown been here? Clegg? Not so one notices anyway...

UPDATE: Commnters assure me that Dave has been spotted in Caledonia. Which is good. 

*Shown on BBC1 in Scotland and Wales and on BBC2 in England.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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