Salmond’s insistence on participating in a leaders’ debate throws the nationalist cat amongst the British pigeons

A truly comical row has broken out over SNP leader Alex Salmond’s insistence that he should participate in any debate between the party leaders broadcast in Scotland ahead of the next general election. The three main parties are insisting that as Salmond isn’t even standing for parliament – and therefore, by definition, is not a candidate for PM – he has no business taking part in the debate. By contrast, the SNP argues that it is entitled by law to equal air time to the other parties and that, as the party leading the opinion polls and the government in Scotland, the SNP should be represented by its leader in the broadcasts. Otherwise, according to SNP Finance Minister John Swinney, “it deprives the voters in Scotland of hearing the breadth of political choice that quite clearly exists here in Scotland about the input of Scotland into the UK General Election”.

On the one hand, the national-UK parties are right – but not in the way intended – when they say, as did Shadow Scottish Secretary David Mundell quoted in the BBC article linked above, that it is “not appropriate for Mr Salmond to take part in a debate about who should be the prime minister of Britain”. But this is only true in the case of one of the three main meanings of the word ‘Britain’ in contemporary political discourse: when it means ‘England’. It would indeed be entirely inappropriate for Alex Salmond to debate matters such as education, health, justice, communities, housing, planning, the environment, etc. The other parties want to con English voters into thinking that their policies in such areas relate to an entity known as ‘Britain’, whereas in fact they relate almost exclusively to England alone. If Salmond took part, he would continually be pointing out that he had nothing to say on these matters, as they had nothing to do with Scotland. And the parties want to prevent the electorate from being aware of this fact as much as possible. So yes, ‘it is not appropriate for Mr Salmond to take part in a debate about who should be the prime minister of England‘.

With respect to the two other meanings of ‘Britain’, however, it is entirely appropriate for Salmond to take part. Indeed, John Swinney’s argument is quite compelling: Scottish people need to be informed about the specifics of their input into the election. In other words, they need to be aware that they should not base their votes on the parties’ spuriously ‘British’ policies on devolved matters but only on UK-wide matters that do genuinely affect them, such as defence, foreign policy, the EU, taxation and the amount of money that the Scottish government will have to spend on devolved services. This is ‘Britain’ in the sense of reserved UK-government matters, and ‘Britain’ in the sense of the devolved nations as affected by UK-government policies. In these senses, David Mundell’s statement, referred to above, is quite preposterous: of course, it is appropriate for Mr Salmond to take part in a debate about who should be prime minister of Britain. That is if the meaning of ‘Britain’ is correctly applied to mean both a state of which Scotland is a part, and the devolved-governmental parts of a territory named Britain of which Scotland is one.

What this argument neatly illustrates is the absurdities occasioned by the UK-national parties’ pretence that the UK government, the general election and their policies are a completely unitary affair: one set of policies applying in a homogeneous manner across the whole of Britain. What’s inappropriate isn’t so much Salmond participating in these debates as the very fact that the general election is two elections rolled into one: one for England and one for the UK. What’s inappropriate is the fact that voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can determine the composition of a parliament that makes laws for England only. And what’s inappropriate is the fact that the parties actually seek to make electoral gain from that fact by encouraging voters in the devolved nations to vote on English policies by calling them ‘British’. And that they seek to keep English voters in a state of ignorance about which policies apply to the whole of the UK and which policies are meant for England only.

Clearly, the only way to structure these debates fairly would be to have one or more debates devoted to UK-wide policies, in which – at the very least – the leaders of all parties with representation at Westminster would be invited to take part. And then you could have one or more additional debates devoted purely to English matters, in which only the three main party leaders would participate.

As the leader of a party in the UK parliament, it is of course right that Alex Salmond should contribute to a debate on who should be the next UK prime minister. But it is not right that he takes part in a debate on English matters.

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3 Responses

  1. and therefore, by definition, is not a candidate for PM…….

    What? And Clegg is????

  2. Scotland is Governed partly by laws made in Westminster and pays most of its taxes to Westminster, therefore it’s main party, indeed its Government should be represented by it’s First Minister in these debates or they should not be shown in Scotland.

  3. And no MP elected in Scotland should ever again have any say whatsoever in England’s affairs, when the one eyed Scotch communist os evicted by landslide next June,. that will be the start of it, the party is over.

    Scotland should go on to fulfil its destiny as an “Independent” (ruled from Brussels) country (EU Region) just like the Republic of EUIRE.

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