The SNP is taking ITV to court over the broadcaster’s decision to hold a political debate which can only be described as rigged. The broadcaster is hosting a debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, claiming that these are the only two politicians with a realistic chance of becoming Prime Minister. Yet we do not live in a country with a presidential system, if we did then perhaps there would be some legal means of holding Boris Johnson to account for his repeated and continual lying. The UK is, in theory at least, a parliamentary democracy. Corbyn and Johnson are the party leaders of just two of the parties who are vying for seats, they’re not the only ones.
In Scotland, the debate gives the second party and a party which is either third or fourth in the opinion polls an unfair advantage. Their leaders will get airtime on a national broadcaster, allowing them to put across their message, but the leader of Scotland’s largest party by far will be denied such an opportunity. The reality of Scottish politics is such that in several recent opinion polls the SNP’s vote share is greater than that of the Conservatives and the Labour party combined. Yet it’s those minority parties alone which will be granted a platform giving them a reach into the home of every voter which is to be denied to Scotland’s largest party. There is no reasonable justification for such a move, except if you believe that England’s political priorities are the only important ones.
This is, as everyone acknowledges, a general election in which the question of another Scottish independence referendum is crucial to the debate. It is the first question put to all the party leaders whenever they venture into Scotland, and both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn have said that they are prepared to ignore the democratic will of the Scottish people. Johnson has even gone so far as to state that he will not permit another Scottish independence referendum under any circumstances, even if the Scottish electorate returns a landslide for the SNP in this General Election, and even if pro-independence parties secure another majority for independence at the next Scottish elections. Jeremy Corbyn is likewise disposed to ignore the Scottish result of this General Election, and both party leaders are united in their dismissal of the mandate for another independence referendum that the Scottish Government currrently possesses. Corbyn and Johnson disagree about many things, but they’re not going to hold one another to account on a topic on which both agree. In the process, an important part of Scottish public opinion is ignored and marginalised.
Irrespective of whether you agree with independence or another independence referendum or not, it is nakedly manipulative to give airtime solely to two parties who oppose another independence referendum and to deny it to the main party proposing such a referendum. That misrepresents the general election debate in Scotland and gives an unfair advantage to those who argue that it’s perfectly fine for a British Government to ignore the democratic will of the Scottish people.
In a separate court case, the Lib Dems are also taking ITV to court over their decision to exclude the Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson from the debate. The Lib Dems, like the SNP, have good reason to feel aggrieved. They argue that in a UK General Election in which the question of Brexit is vital, it is unreasonable and biased that the debate does not include any party advocating remaining in the EU. They have a point there. Both the Tories and Labour officially seek an exit from the EU. The Lib Dems are the only major party in England which is arguing for an unequivocal remain.
Unfortunately, and as is so often the case, the Lib Dems only go and ruin a good argument with their own hypocrisy. There is a significant distinction between the Lib Dem’s case and that which is being brought by the SNP. The Lib Dems are only arguing that Jo Swinson must be included, they’re perfectly happy to see all the other parties excluded, and they’re perfectly happy to have a leaders’ debate broadcast in Scotland which doesn’t include any party advocating another Scottish independence referendum. They would be content with the SNP being excluded, even though the SNP have many more MPs than the Lib Dems do. On the other hand the SNP is taking a more principled stance, and is arguing that all the smaller parties must be represented.
The Lib Dems want their leader – who represents a Scottish seat in Westminster – to be included in the debate, yet the effect of that is simply to make the lack of balance in Scottish politics even worse. There would be three party leaders arguing against another Scottish independence referendum instead of just two. The Lib Dems cannot legitimately argue that all shade of Brexit opinion must be represented in a debate during a General Election where Brexit is an issue but at the same time deny that all shades of Scottish independence opinion be represented in a debate during a General Election where an independence referendum is an issue.
Whether the court will decide that the debate is unfair is anyone’s guess. There was a leaders’ debate during the 2010 General Election which featured David Cameron, Ed Miliband, and Nick Clegg, but where the SNP and other parties were excluded. On the other hand the leaders’ debates in the 2015 General Election featured all the leaders of the main parties. In the 2017 General Election, Theresa May refused to participate.
There’s an important question of principle at stake here. Opponents of independence are constantly telling us that Scotland is a valued partner in a union. Well if that is the case, then ensure that Scotland’s distinctive politics are represented in UK General Elections. Because if you’re quite happy to see Scotland’s largest political party excluded, a party which is the third largest in the entire UK, then you don’t believe that Scotland is a partner in a union at all. You believe that Scotland is a region in a unitary state which can be overruled, sidelined, and marginalised because its votes can never constitute a majority at UK level. So what’s it to be unionists? Are you really unionists? But judging from the blatant hypocrisy of the Lib Dems, we already know the answer to that question. Scotland is the voice that must not be heard.
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