Saturday, 1 May 2010

The SNP and the BBC

On Wednesday the SNP lost their application to the Court of Session in Scotland for an interim interdict (what the law of Wales, England and Northern Ireland would call an interim injunction) precluding the showing by the BBC in Scotland of the final election debate on Thursday, in the absence of the leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond, being given the same right to appear as the Conservative, Liberal and Labour party leaders.

This was probably bound to fail, if in part because of jurisdictional and pragmatic reasons, and I am sure they knew this. They were really just making a point. The debates were in Manchester, and the Court of Session has no jurisdiction in respect of Manchester. The holding of the debate there would have been a matter for the High Court of England and Wales. An interdict precluding the showing of the debate from transmitting stations in Scotland would probably have been within jurisdiction, but fairly pointless given that it was also broadcast by Sky and was available over the internet.

One can understand the SNP's point. The Liberal Democrats have benefited greatly, and somewhat unexpectedly, from the three televised debates and there is every reason to believe that the SNP would pick up more votes in constituencies which are marginal for them had they been allowed to appear. There have been a number of newspaper articles about it, such as Magnus Linklater's "the BBC doesn't understand devolution" in the Times which in my view was lightly reasoned to the point of trivialising the issues. There have been similar articles in the Guardian of better quality. The purpose of this blog article is to invite consideration of the wider range of questions to which Mr Salmond's request for an appearance gives rise.

Contrary to what Magnus Linklater says, the BBC almost certainly do understand devolution, and spend considerably more time and trouble spelling out, in their news reports, the territorial extent of the political matters which they report than do most other organisations. They have become pretty rigorous in not conflating England on the one hand with Britain and the United Kingdom on the other (and vice versa), which is something the newspapers and the three main parties are less good at. In the case of the newspapers this is mainly from genuine ignorance, and in the case of the three main parties is from a desire to obfuscate. For the interested, compare the BBC's coverage of the three party manifestos, which did explain territorial extent, with the manifestos themselves (including that of Mr Linklater's wife's party, the Liberal Democrats) which largely did not.

Devolution and the television debates

The fact of the matter is that devolution has thrown up real dilemmas. The first televised debate covered matters which were largely devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and during the debate the ITV presenter gamely made that point (frequently) and indicated that there would be separate leadership debates in those three countries on them, as indeed there were. However, discussion of devolved matters such as health, education and policing at the Scottish leader's debate which did take place subsequently would still have been irrelevant to this election, since Westminster and the UK Parliament do not govern those matters in Scotland. They will instead be for the Scottish elections which are to take place in 2011.

That did not stop the Scottish party leaders waffling on about those things in Scotland as if they were of relevance to the choice of their electors in the Westminster election. If the Scottish leaders had waffled on in their debate about their parties' policies for England on the NHS and education, that would have had more relevance, because pending a solution to the West Lothian Question Scottish MPs do exercise a decision making function on them, but for England and Wales only.

Most reasonable people would I think agree that it would have been absurd for Alex Salmond to have been present at the first televised debate which, as I have said, largely concerned policies affecting England or England and Wales only.

Should Alex Salmond have been allowed to participate in the second and third debates, which covered a number of matters not devolved, such as taxation, the deficit, defence, foreign affairs and immigration? The case for that is certainly stronger. But the fact of the matter is that these will be matters for the UK government, and the SNP are only fielding candidates in Scotland and therefore will be unable to form a government for the UK.

It must be acknowledged that in the event of a hung Parliament they may exercise some influence on these UK matters, but so will the DUP, the SDLP and Plaid Cymru, as will also the Greens and UKIP (should they obtain any seats) and Sinn Fein (in the unlikely event of them deciding to take up their seats). The remaining defining feature of the SNP is that they are in government in Scotland, albeit without a majority, but so are the DUP and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland (who are in a coalition government which does have a majority) and Plaid Cymru in Wales (who are in a coalition government with Labour). Should the SNP be allowed to appear while in government, but not if they cease to be after the 2011 elections? If so, the proposition is that the elections for the Scottish Parliament will determine the right to appear in debates on elections for the Westminster Parliament, which has its own logical dilemmas; and this appearance would clearly have to be accompanied by an appearance also by the leaders of the DUP, Sinn Fein and Plaid Cymru (should they want it). The DUP, Sinn Fein and Plaid Cymru did not seem to appear on Mr Linklater's radar however.

There is simply no easy answer to this. The BBC's holding of separate debates for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland was a defensible one. Plainly however it will not satisfy some Scots, but it seems few things do.

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