Sunday, 6 April 2014

The principle of live debates: Chairman v. Chairman; Blairman v. Blairman

It goes without saying - counterparts should debate with one another in their rival visions. In the debate on Scottish independence this is no exception. The two Government leaders, each representing an opposite viewpoint, should debate with one another, Alex Salmond against David Cameron; the two chairs, Dennis Canavan and Alistair Darling as the two chairs should debate with each other; the two Blairs, Jenkins and McDougall who are both the managers of their respective campaigns should likewise share a stage; and then Nicola Sturgeon against Alistair Carmichael; Patrick Harvie against Johann Lamont; John Swinney against George Osborne; and so on. But we have a deadlock right now. Alistair Darling wants to debate with Alex Salmond but Alex Salmond doesn't, he wants instead to debate with David Cameron and David Cameron refuses to take part altogether. So someone has to give way or there will be no debates full stop.

Yet Salmond has offered a compromise: He is prepared to debate with Alistair Darling ONLY if he first gets the opportunity to debate with David Cameron. Well Alistair, there you have it. Your long desired chance to grill Alex Salmond in front of a live audience is within your reach. All YOU have to do now is write to David Cameron requesting that he debates with Alex Salmond and then you can get on with your debate. So what's stopping you?

Well, it's clear what's stopping Alistair Darling: a debate between Salmond and Cameron is a nightmare scenario for Better Together. It will look like Scotland versus posh Middle England, something that Ian Davidson admitted once in PMQs. There's actually no doubt about that and such a polarised perception would work to our advantage here in the Yes campaign. But behind it is a very simple principle: parity and accountability.

Well, that's two principles but anyway. If David Cameron is so keen to campaign for the Union, if the UK Government is busy investigating the effects of independence and if the Treasury wants to come up to Edinburgh to set up deliberate obstacles to indepdence then they are hardly behaving as impartial observers.  Indeed Cameron's excuse that it's a debate "between people living in Scotland" is blown straight out of the water by such interventions. Without wanting to go too much into the case of Abdel Basset Al-Megrahi in 2009, here at least was an example of the then Labour UK Government recognising this was a matter for the Scottish Government to get on with and therefore staying out of offering their own opinions on whether or not he should be released (that was left to the party in Holyrood). But on the subject of Scottish Independence, Downing Street clearly isn't an opinion-free zone.

David Cameron even managed a bit of instant hypocrisy in responding to the letter Alex Salmond sent requesting the debate. Cameron said:

"Alistair has been asked by all of the pro-UK parties in Scotland to lead the campaign for a No vote. It is entirely right for you to place yourself at the head of the Yes campaign, but not to decide who should lead for the No campaign, too."

Let's get this straight. In one breath he dictates that Salmond is leading the Yes campaign (when he isn't) but then he has the nerve to demand that Salmond doesn't dictate the leadership of the No campaign. In the first sentence he said that Alistair Darling is leading the campaign by the mutual agreement of 'all' the pro-Union parties. Presumably he meant all the Holyrood unionist parties. Well by that same logic let's get the SNP, Greens and three independent MSPs to agree the main champion for the Yes campaign: either Blair Jenkins or Dennis Canavan. I would recommend the latter as Dennis has a strong political background, is a fantastic speaker and would really make Alistair Darling feel uncomfortable. Also Canavan is Darling's direct opposite number as both are the chair's of their respective campaigns.

If Alistair Darling is adamant about debating with the person leading Yes Scotland he should at least have the decency and courtesy to write to campaign HQ in Hope Street to request they put forward their leader for a debate. But it isn't for Alistair Darling to decide who that leader is any more than it is for Willie Walsh of British Airways to decide who should be the CEO for Emirates or for Liverpool Manager Brendan Rogers to determine who should replace David Moyes over at rivals Man Utd. If Alistair Darling wants a leader-to-leader debate then it should be just that. But if it is about campaign leader challenging government leader in their constitutional viewpoint - Darling v. Salmond - then surely it is only right that that be balanced properly - Canavan v. Cameron. That thought would of course alarm Better Together a million times over but that's how it would have to work for the sake of parity.

If this referendum had been happening four years ago nobody would have objected to a debate between Alex Salmond and Gordon Brown. Yet everybody would have accepted that Brown was debating in his capacity as the head of the UK Government, the Prime Minister and not merely in his capacity as the highest profile unionist Scot. Cameron's presence in such a debate would be in the exact same capacity, as Prime Minister of the UK and the head of the government that, along with its parliament, is politically at the heart of the case for the Union. Just he doesn't live in Scotland (unless his retreat on Jura counts!).

David Cameron should be perfectly capable of speaking eloquently in defence of the Union he was after all educated at Eton. Not that I'm trying to claim private school education to be superior but Etonians are taught to be strong orators. David Cameron should also be suitably equipped to answer questions about the workings of Whitehall and about the current structures of the UK Government, it is him we expect to provide answers on such matters. If Alex Salmond is being expected to answer questions on independence as someone who will be heading one team of negotiators and upon whose shoulders the responsibilities of a nation lie then equally it is for the head of the opposite negotiating team to answer questions about how it would conduct proceedings following either outcome. We don't know who that would be post-May 2015 but we do know who it will be in October 2014: David Cameron. So as far as we know it's David Cameron.

If recent polls are anything to go by, the people of Scotland want such a debate to happen. So it is ironic that Alistair Darling should talk about it as Alex Salmond trying to create a distraction for the people of Scotland when it is exactly what they want. The people of Scotland want to ask both Salmond and Cameron the hard questions so they can make up their mind about which institution they should entrust their very sovereignty to. So by that very nature no back-bencher from the ruling benches let alone opposition party can comprehensively answer these questions.

Salmond has offered the prospect of being involved in two debates one with the Prime Minister and one with the leader of Better Together, therefore giving Alistair Darling, should he accept the offer, the possibility of having the last word. Yet he's refusing to accept that offer. Either he's not so desperate as he says he is for a debate or he can't stomach the thought of a debate between Salmond and Cameron in any circumstance. Yet how would he respond to a different offer, one where he was allowed to debate with Salmond on condition he first debates with Canavan? Surely he wouldn't refuse that arrangement, after all both debates are between two Scots both with a vote in the referendum, would he? Yet you can't help but feel that he would retort and say that Dennis Canavan isn't the true leader of the Yes campaigner and shouldn't debate with him. If that were to be Mr Darling's response it would only confirm his arrogance. In that instance he would be behaving like a spoilt child who wants to eat his cake and still have it! He therefore does not deserve the debate he wants.

My suspicion therefore is that no live debates will take place at all involving Alex Salmond, Alistair Darling or David Cameron. But the invitations will likely remain symbolic in the run-up to the referendum being for debates that didn't happen but should have. Maybe then the stage should be set up any way with Yes on one lectern and the logo for the Scottish Government and better together on the other lectern with the logo for the UK Government with the invitations sent out to the heads of the two governments. That way, with Alex Salmond likely to take to the stage, David Cameron has little choice but to either turn up in person or send a Scottish representative from his cabinet a move which would mark out his weakness as a leader. So I will leave you with two pictures with which to illustrate this idea.

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