SNP leadership debate needs more space for serious debate and fewer 'gotcha' questions – Stewart McDonald

The 1968 United States presidential election marked a turning point in modern political history.

With four-in-five Americans predicted to tune into the first Republican and Democratic conventions broadcast in colour, the three main networks were desperate to maximise their share of that historic audience. ABC, lacking their rivals’ star power and financial heft, had a bright idea to revolutionise the format: they would bring in two people – ideological opposites – and have them give their opinion on the conventions. William Buckley, a leading light of the American right, was their first recruit. The boulevardier, and personal hero of mine, Gore Vidal was their second.

Initially, both men attempted to defend the great moral and ideological questions of their respective intellectual traditions. However, it took only three episodes for the debates to devolve into two men shouting insults at each other. By the third convention, Vidal had accused Buckley of being a "crypto-Nazi", a particularly virulent insult just two decades after the Holocaust, and Buckley had responded by calling Vidal a "queer" on prime-time 1960s television and threatening to “sock [him] in [his] goddamn face!”

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ABC’s viewing figures went through the roof. Looking back with the gift of hindsight, these debates were the harbinger of a political culture to come: one that prizes noise, excitement and anger over slow conversation and informed discussion, a political culture that has “had enough of experts”.

And while it is not, and will never be, the role of politicians to tell the media how to do their job, I cannot help but notice the striking contrast in how interviews today approach potentially prickly issues – like the relationship between faith and public policy – compared with those of years gone by.

Reinhold Niebuhr was a brilliant scholar – one of the fathers of modern international relations theory – and a committed political activist in early 20th-century America. He was also a devout Christian who was often questioned about the impact his faith had on his policy positions.

Once asked for his personal view on atheism, Niebuhr replied with Matthew 7:21: “By his fruits shall ye know them.” He said, in a two-minute-long response, that he judged everyone in political life, atheist or religious, on three metrics: their sense of charity, their idea of justice and their sense of proportion. It was an open question which brought a beautiful answer and, more importantly, one which gave us a sense of who the man really was.

What would our debate in Scotland look like if candidates were asked questions that gave them a chance to show their character rather than their memory? Instead, as Humza Yousaf pointed out this week during one interview, candidates for First Minister found themselves asked the same questions over and over again last week – each time in the hope that their response will elicit the noise and light that drives online engagement.

Republican candidate Richard Nixon celebrates winning the 1968 US presidential election (Picture: AFP via Getty Images)Republican candidate Richard Nixon celebrates winning the 1968 US presidential election (Picture: AFP via Getty Images)
Republican candidate Richard Nixon celebrates winning the 1968 US presidential election (Picture: AFP via Getty Images)

What do you think about gay sex? What about abortion? What about same-sex marriage? What about conversion therapy? What about female priests and transgender prisoners and buffer zones and sex before marriage?

Every single one of those is an important question. But is our political culture really the better for hearing the candidates for First Minister asked them over and over again?

Questions like, "what will your government do to keep women safe from sexual violence in prison?", "what needs to change for gay people in Scotland to enjoy lives free from discrimination?" and "as First Minister, what would you change about the way sex education is taught in schools?" force candidates to discuss the same policy questions while revealing their worldview and personal perspective on issues that matter to Scots.

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But these kinds of questions don’t fluster politicians. They don’t make them trip or stumble. They only force them to reflect and think and show the Scottish public who they are. That, unfortunately, doesn’t get the clicks.

I know that we politicians are as guilty of this approach as anyone else in public life: there is nothing better than watching your opponent squirm, flounder or struggle for words. But politicians also need to wise up to the role that we have in fomenting the kind of political culture that our country deserves.

Much has been said about the confrontational architecture of the House of Commons and the role of the first-past-the-post voting system in empowering governments to side-line parliament, civil society, and opposition parties. But we in Scotland have a genuine chance to build something different.

I have spoken before about the political culture in the Nordic countries and, in particular, about the defence agreements in the Danish and Swedish parliaments. These multi-year, cross-party defence agreements, which seem like an impossible dream when viewed from Westminster, are used to find a common, long-term, and durable solution to national defence and security needs.

It is worth reflecting on the kind of political culture that makes this possible and how we – politicians and citizens alike – can build that in Scotland. We saw a glimpse of it in the reactions to John Swinney’s announcement that he would be stepping down from government, with opposition politicians, former civil servants and journalists noting his kindness, dedication, and good humour in elected office. He is a prince among men.

All of these people recognised the elusive truth of political life: that people overwhelmingly do not hold different views out of malice or spite, but simply because they have lived different lives to us. If everyone were to extend the same level of respect to others' sincere expressions of their personal beliefs as we expect for their own, our political culture would be forever improved.

The dominant political questions of our age will not be solved with “gotcha” questions. The candidates running to be First Minister should be given the space to speak beyond soundbites – and by their fruits shall we know them.

Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South



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