Leaders: TV debates must reflect political mood

David Cameron had no desire to take part in a TV debate with Alex Salmond ahead of last year's referendum. Picture: Neil Hanna
David Cameron had no desire to take part in a TV debate with Alex Salmond ahead of last year's referendum. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Whether we care for them or not, TV debates between party leaders in the approach to an election have become part of political engagement.

The criticism that they do not allow for detailed analysis of policy misses the point that character, persona and ability to deal with difficult questions form part of the judgment voters are asked to make about their choice of government, and critically, about the choice of prime minister.

For that reason, David Cameron’s insistence that he will not participate in such debates unless the Green Party is able to participate is, as Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg repeated yesterday, an “alibi” to scupper these debates altogether. And given the strength of support for the SNP and Ukip, it is an objection that lacks coherence. Mr Cameron also had no desire to take part in a TV debate with former First Minister Alex Salmond ahead of last year’s referendum. A theme is emerging here.

Mr Clegg, however, is also open to the charge of evasion. There has been a notable defection of voter support from the three main parties to other political groups, most notably in this context, the SNP. Much attention has been focused on Ukip and the Greens. But it is the SNP that could mount the biggest challenge to the present system and there is a reasonable expectation that it could be the deal-maker – or breaker – in the event of a gridlocked election result in May. Voters, not just in Scotland but across the UK, have a right to know what the terms and conditions of an SNP deal might be and to have these opened to scrutiny and debate.

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Nor can Ukip and the Greens be brushed aside as irrelevant to a greater Clash of the Titans. What is set to distinguish this election battle is the extent of voter disenchantment with conventional Westminster politics generally, the clear lack of trust in the big party system and a keen desire for a different form and content of political debate. This is a complex problem on any examination.

Indeed, finding a solution that involves the different participants while reflecting their relative status has become the Rubik’s Cube of this election. To present this fracturing of public support fairly in televised debates will truly task the broadcasters. Insistence on the 2010-style three-party debate would be to ignore this changed political mood. Equally, to have five or six contenders on the platform at once would risk an unmanageable cacophony.

The leaders of the main parties need to recognise the changed terrain we are in and consider a format that allows parties with smaller existing representation to participate. And the broadcasters need to recognise that formats that worked in the past are not fit for today’s purpose.

This will require flexibility and no small amount of ingenuity. But they have a duty to explore different formulations until arriving at one that meets with least resistance.

No magic pill to halt diabetes surge

AS if the sharp increase in type 2 diabetes in Scotland is not worrying enough, now comes shocking evidence of its growing incidence among children. We used to think of this condition, linked to obesity, as being a disease of the old. That is no longer so. Fifteen years ago there were no recorded cases of children or adolescents developing type 2 diabetes. But today almost one in seven children are classed as obese or overweight. And for young people the prognosis is much poorer than for adults. Experts warn that developing type 2 diabetes at a young age increases the chance of complications, including kidney disease, heart disease and premature death. Under the age of 30, such a diagnosis is a major concern.

This worrying development reflects the increase of the condition across the population as a whole. There are now some 236,000 living with type 2 diabetes in Scotland, with rates rising.

In the vast majority of cases this is a lifestyle disease, a direct result not only of poor dietary habits but also of lack of exercise. Children are particularly vulnerable as they follow the example of their parents – and in many cases the adults to whom they look for care are clinically obese.

There is no magic pill that doctors can prescribe to save us from ourselves. We need to make better lifestyle choices and live differently if we are to make serious inroads into this condition. Education from an early age must play a critical part, and the lessons repeated and reinforced. Greater care in diet and a modest amount of exercise every day can make a big difference. Adopting better habits – and making them part of our daily routine – would be a major positive step forward. We cannot start soon enough.

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