As BBC Scotland’s Debate Night presenter, I can tell you Scotland is not sick of politics – Stephen Jardine
If Brexit took the political establishment by surprise, it was less of a shock for the team working on the BBC’s flagship political discussion programme, Question Time. There is no better way to test the mood of the nation than to sit a group of people in a cold school gymnasium far from Westminster and ask them about the big issues of the day. If you want home truths, that is where to find them.
I know that because in the teeth of the Brexit storm, I became the presenter of BBC Scotland’s Debate Night. With the same format, it gives the people of Scotland a say on what matters most to them. Although the majority of Scots did vote to remain, it’s easy to forget a million chose to leave and, in those early shows, they were not afraid to say why. In fact, most of that first year on screen was spent discussing the many ways Brexit could be good or bad for Scotland.
When the UK left the EU on January 30, 2020, I assumed the focus would shift to Scotland’s great constitutional question. But as Rab Butler once said, the biggest challenge in politics is “events dear boy, events”. One night in Ayr, I asked the audience if anyone had considered not coming because of a couple of cases of a new flu identified nearby. Everyone laughed. Two weeks later, the show transferred to a Covid secure studio on an industrial estate with the politicians socially distanced and dosed in hand sanitiser and the audience on Zoom. That’s how things stayed for a year.
Some weeks, it felt like being in a bunker collecting reports from the frontline. I can remember experienced politicians blinking and gulping as we heard story after story of bereavement, anxiety and fears for jobs and family members. Eventually we emerged back into the daylight and resumed our journey around the country. With more than 100 shows under our belt, this week we returned for a new run, starting in Rutherglen, scene of the upcoming by-election.
Will this be the series where the focus is predominantly on independence? That's down to the audience who provide the questions. With a general election looming, it will remain a prominent issue but health, education, drugs and poverty continue to crop up, week in, week out. Then there are local issues that burn bright in communities but barely touch Holyrood.
For me, Debate Night is a fascinating insight into our similarities, differences and what matters to people, away from social media or news headlines. In Hawick, we spent at least a quarter of the programme discussing the local Common Riding event and accusations of sexism. At the end, I walked out behind an elderly couple who’d been in the audience. “That was rubbish, they hardly talked about Hawick at all,” said the woman. You can’t please all the people, all the time, but at least they took part.
You often hear it said people are sick of politics these days. That’s not my experience. Debate Night is often the most watched show on the BBC Scotland channel and the last run had nearly a million interactions on social media. People may want politics to be different but they still know it matters to everything they do.
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